Iceland stands on the precipice of an historic achievement in sports. With its women’s soccer team making news this past July, Iceland’s male equivalent can add an historic World Cup berth in Brazil in November. Only Croatia, whom Iceland had only played twice in 2005, are standing in their way.
No matter the outcome, Iceland’s campaign became the biggest story to come out of Europe in qualifying, an achievement noteworthy because Iceland had hung in for a chance to reach a major tournament only twice.
In previous campaigns, Iceland performed inconsistently and even at times enigmatically. Even its lack of playing outside qualifying saw Iceland drop out of the top 100 in the world, culminating in its all-time low of 131 for three months in 2012.
Iceland’s first opportunity to make a splash at a major tournament came during Euro 2000 qualifying. After playing its eighth qualifier (a 3-0 win over Andorra in Reykjavik), Iceland was tied with France and Russia for second and trailed Ukraine by one point. However, Iceland lost at home to Ukraine and at France to finish fourth in Group 4.
Iceland struggled in a group that featured Denmark, Czech Republic and Bulgaria in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. Although they won 3-1 against the Czech Republic on Sept. 1, 2001, Iceland crashed out in their final two qualifiers, which culminated in a demoralizing 6-0 loss at Denmark to finish fourth in the group.
Iceland had won three of its six qualifiers for Euro 2004. The only problem was that Iceland still had to face Germany. Despite drawing at home, Iceland lost 3-0 in Hamburg, and with Scotland winning against Lithuania, Iceland finished third and narrowly missed the playoffs.
Euro 2004 was the closest Iceland was to even attempt to qualify for a major tournament. What would follow would not be so pleasant.
Ahead of its qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup, Iceland would have to face four former FIFA World Cup semifinalists. In front of over 20000 people at its national stadium, Laugardalsvöllur in Reykjavik, Iceland upset Italy 2-0 on Aug. 18 2004.
Unfortunately, Iceland was unable to carry that momentum, and faltered throughout qualifiying, winning just one of its 10 qualifiers. Among its notable setbacks included a scoreless stalemate in Ta’Qali, Malta, as well as its two losses to Croatia, losing 4-0 in Zagreb before losing again 3-1 in Reykjavik. In the first match in Zagreb, Niko Kovac, the newly-appointed manager of Croatia, scored twice as Croatia broke away after only leading 1-0 after 70 minutes. In Reykjavik, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Iceland’s all-time scorer, put his country up 1-0, only for Croatia to pull away with Bosko Balaban scored twice in a five minute span.
Its poor performances had Iceland play only two friendlies before its first Euro 2008 qualifier at Windsor Park in Belfast, Norther Ireland, where Iceland’s last played on Oct. 5, 2001 and lost 3-0.
In its first Euro 2008 qualifier, Iceland cruised early to score an emphatic 3-0 victory. Despite also drawing at home to Spain, Iceland only managed one other victory, which came also against Northern Ireland (courtesy of a late own goal). Iceland’s Euro 2008 qualifying was simply dreadful, made worse on Oct. 17, 2007, when it lost 3-0 at Liechtenstein, a result that cost its manager Eyjolfur Sverrisson his job.
Iceland was in another difficult group in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, despite having to play only eight matches, as they faced Norway, Scotland, Netherlands and FYR Macedonia. In another difficult campaign, Iceland finished last, with its only victory coming against Macedonia, and by Sept. 5, 2009, Iceland was the first European nation to finish its World Cup qualifying campaign.
Euro 2012 qualifying saw more disappointment and heartbreak, as twice, at Denmark and at Norway, had Iceland lost on late goals in regulation. Scoring seemed to be an issue as well, as during their campaign, Iceland left Cyprus with a calamitous scoreless draw. In its eight qualifiers, Iceland only won once (1-0 against Cyprus in its penultimate qualifier) while only scoring six goals: three came in its group stage finale in Porto, Portugal.
Following that 5-3 loss at Portugal, Iceland lost four straight friendlies at four different nations (Japan, Montenegro, France and Sweden). By June 2012, Iceland would be at its worst position in the world, ranked 131st according to the FIFA World Rankings.
Iceland needed to win just to restore pride, and a 2-0 victory against Faeroe Islands was what Iceland needed going into its World Cup qualifiers, with a group that seemed possible to get at least a playoff berth, facing Switzerland, Albania, Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus.
Iceland got a great start by defeating Norway 2-0 in Reykjavik on Sept. 7, 2012. That marked Iceland’s first victory over Norway since September 1987 (at that month, Iceland defeated Norway twice in Euro 1998 qualifying).
But that momentum was short lived, as Norway’s trip to Cyprus was another horror show. Iceland faced Cyprus not in Nicosia, but rather in Larnaca. but lost 1-0 loss, and what ensued for Iceland was a series of alternating victories and losses.
In World Cup qualifying in October, Iceland won 2-1 in Albania, but stumbled at home to a 2-0 loss against Switzerland. In friendlies, Iceland won 2-0 in Andorra, but three months later lost 2-0 against Russia in Marbella, Spain. In a span of three months, Iceland played Slovenia twice, winning in Ljubljana 2-1 on March. But in June, Iceland succumbed to a 4-2 home loss, and dropped to third in its qualifying group. It seemed that another campaign would end in disappointment.
Iceland’s participation in what arguably was Europe’s most competitive group was not all the headlines being made throughout the year. Rather, Iceland’s women’s team defied the odds in Women’s Euro 2013 in Sweden to reach the quarterfinals, thanks to its 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in Vaxjo, Sweden to put Iceland into the quarterfinals. A country whose women’s team had already reached two European championships had a men’s teams that still was looking to reach its first major tournament, and a 1-0 victory against the Faeroe Islands would be a warm-up to a crucial qualifier in Switzerland.
In perhaps one of Iceland’s greatest results since the 2-0 victory against Italy, Iceland opened up its match against Switzerland with an early goal from Johann Berg Gudmundsson. But, Switzerland replied and after 30 minutes led 3-1. Switzerland added another goal in the 54th minute and the 4-1 lead looked to derail Iceland’s qualification hopes. Iceland showed great resolve, and two minutes after going down three goals, Iceland pulled to 4-2. Gudmundsson made it 4-3 12 minutes later, and with Iceland’s qualification hanging on by a thread, Gudmundsson completed the hat trick and Iceland escaped with a pivotal point as the game finished in a 4-4 draw.
Home victories over Albania and Cyprus followed, and Iceland was in control of its destiny, going into its final qualifier at Norway. As long as they matched or bettered Slovenia’s result against Switzerland, Iceland would qualifiy for the playoffs. After12 minutes, Iceland was on course with a 1-0 lead. Norway equalized, and the 1-1 draw had many nerves on Iceland and its fans. The match stayed that way throughout the match, and while Iceland never got the go-ahead goal, Switzerland defeated Slovenia 1-0, meant that Iceland’s 1-1 draw in Oslo sent Iceland to the playoffs, and a second chance to qualifying for its first major tournament .
Fifteen years can seem a long time to get any nation looking to make a splash in a major tournament like the World Cup or European Championships. Years of losing had seen Iceland demoralized at times, but in the past year, Icleand has shown the resolve it takes to overcome odds and adversity. For Iceland, Strákarnir Okkar (nicknamed “Our Boys”) is heading into the playoffs with nothing to lose, but everthing to gain. Win or loss, with its matches against Croatia on Nov. 15 (in Reykjavik) and Nov. 19 (in Zagreb), Iceland has finally found the blueprint to end years of frustration and disappointment in the hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.