Tiny Iceland join Euro party thanks to Lagerback

When Lars Lagerback took over as Iceland coach in 2010, he set big targets for a tiny nation that had never qualified for a major football tournament. “Lars told me that the team was strong enough to qualify for the [2014] World Cup,” said Heimir Hallgrimsson, who shares coaching duties with Lagerback. “I thought he was crazy.”

Lars Lagerback. Picture: AllSport
Lars Lagerback. Picture: AllSport

That proved just beyond Iceland – they lost to Croatia in a tight play-off – but the European Championship will do just fine as a second prize.

With a population of approximately 320,000, Iceland became the smallest European country to reach a major tournament by qualifying for Euro 2016 on 
Sunday with two games to spare.

“When I started playing football,” Iceland coach Aron Gunnarsson said, “I never even dreamed this could happen.”

Iceland have qualified in style, losing just one of their eight group games so far and conceding only three goals. There have been home and away wins against the Netherlands, who were third in last year’s World Cup.

It didn’t really matter that qualification was achieved with a 0-0 draw at home to Kazakhstan on Sunday. It completed arguably the greatest achievement in Icelandic sport.

For the experienced Lagerback, it was just part of the job.

He took his native Sweden to five straight major tournaments as head coach, and was also in charge of Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup. Guiding Iceland to a Euros tops the lot, although he doesn’t want to be regarded as some sort of hero.

“People like [Nelson] Mandela and Martin Luther King are heroes – I’m just a football coach,” the laid-back Lagerback said.

However, Lagerback’s impact mustn’t be downplayed. When he became coach, Iceland were ranked 134th in the world. Now the team is 23rd and on the rise.

There are some interesting back stories from within the squad.

Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson once juggled his football career with film-making. He shot the video for Iceland’s entry to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and also a video for an airline in which he cast himself and his Iceland team-mates.

Then there’s Eidur Gudjohnsen, the 36-year-old striker who has been a beacon for Icelandic football during a career in which he has played for European giants Chelsea and Barcelona among other clubs. Swansea’s attacking midfielder, Gylfi Sigurdsson, is the heartbeat of the team and probably its most famous player, especially now that Gudjohnsen is often consigned to a place on the bench.

But this has been a team effort by Iceland.

Previously, the smallest nation to qualify was Slovenia, whose population was around two million at Euro 2000.