NORTHERN LIGHT: ICELAND AND OPTIMISM

The dark days don't last forever.....

When you think about Iceland, football is most certainly not what comes first to mind. Most people connect the country with bizarre female singer Björk or the unpronounceable volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which caused a great deal of frustration when it erupted in 2010 and disrupted air traffic all over Europe. Maybe you can relate to the vikings, or the fact that this small island in the north got its name mixed up with Greenland!

But regardless what you might or might not know, this country of approximately 320,000 people has had its fair share of successful footballers throughout the years, most notably former Chelsea and Barcelona forward Eiður Gudjohnsen. Gudjohnsen enjoyed great success at Stamford Bridge where he and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were every defender‘s nightmare for a couple of years. In fact, he did such a good job in London that Frank Rijkaard brought him to Barcelona, but Gudjohnsen never managed to make a real impact with the Catalan giants and his career has been declining rapidly ever since. He now plays for AEK Athens in Greece after uneventful spells at Monaco and Stoke.

Despite the fact that Iceland‘s biggest star ever is almost running out of fuel, the future has possibly never been brighter for this small country, football wise. A lot of young and exciting talents are entering the surface and players who used to have great potential are slowly becoming great players.

Iceland has by far the most English Premier League players per capita of all countries, four in total. In fact, Iceland has more EPL players than quite a few much more populated countries, such as Russia and Mexico to name but a couple.

One of them is QPR‘s Heiðar Helguson, who shouldn‘t need any introduction to football fans. The 34 year old striker has been enjoying a marvellous season with Rangers and is their top goalscorer by far with seven league goals and one in the FA cup. It will be interesting to see what impact Mark Hughes‘ arrival will have on his squad status, but it will be hard for the Welshman to ignore his impact at Loftus Road.

Right back Grétar Rafn Steinsson has been a Bolton player since his arrival from Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar in 2007. He hasn‘t been playing as much as he would want to this season but in the past years he has been a regular starter. His contract will expire this summer and it will be interesting to see where his future lies.

Then there are the two much younger players, Eggert Gunnþór Jónsson and Gylfi Sigurðsson. Jónsson signed a three-and-a-half year contract with Wolves this summer after spending six years in Scotland with Hearts. Jónsson joined Hearts from his hometown club Fjarðabyggð in 2005 and rose to become one of the club‘s key players. Icelanders are excited to see if the midfielder will be able to make an impact in England‘s top division, and they have no reason to believe he can‘t.

Sigurðsson‘s name is familiar to those who follow the Championship division, but he rose to stardom at Reading where he was deservedly named their best player of the 2009-10 season. After coming up through the team‘s youth rank and being loaned to Shrewsbury and Crewe Alexandra respectively, Sigurðsson blossomed when he got the chance at Reading and scored 21 goals in 44 matches in his first complete season at the club. His marvellous display provoked interest from German side TSG Hoffenheim, who opened their chequebook and paid eight million pounds for the midfielder in September 2010, making him the most expensive player ever sold by Reading.

After a great beginning in Germany, Sigurðsson hasn‘t been able to establish his place in the starting eleven at Hoffenheim under a new manager this season and therefore secured a loan deal to Swansea until this summer. Given the chance, odds are that the Icelander will prove to be a great success in the Premier League – nobody doubts his talents and his mentality is above excellence.

Players such as Jónsson and Sigurðsson, alongside Cardiff‘s midfielder Aron Einar Gunnarsson and Ajax‘s striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, are the key to Iceland‘s success in the future. These players all made a huge contribution in bringing Iceland‘s U21 side to the 2011 European Championships in Denmark for the first time in the country‘s history, beating a strong German side 4-1 (including Dortmund‘s star Kevin Grosskreutz) in the process.

Iceland did not live up to expectations in the tournament, losing the first group games against Belarus and Switzerland. However they finished the competition with style when they won a tremendous 3-1 victory against home team Denmark in a packed Aalborg Stadium. I had the honor to be there and that was a moment to cherish. Three points were not enough for Iceland, although Belarus did qualify with the same number of points.

Despite not qualafying for the semi finals in Denmark, the experience of playing in a big tournament may turn out to be a precious one for the players who took part. They now have now had a taste with the U21 side and will surely do everything in their power to experience the real thing with the senior national team, where they have already established themselves as important players.

But so what.. Iceland has a few good players – big what, which country doesn‘t? Why am I so convinced that they have any chance to succeed in the future? The national team is currently ranked number 104 on FIFA‘s World Ranking List! Isn‘t this an impossible task?

First off, we should take a look at the new national team manager Lars Lagerback, who was appointed by the FA last October. Lagerback is by far the highest profile manager ever to be put in charge of the Icelandic national team and probably one of the best national team coaches in the world, having guided his home country Sweden to five consecutive championship (Euro 2000, WC 2002, Euro 2004, WC 2006 and Euro 2008). He was also in charge of Nigeria’s national team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Pointing out that Sweden is indeed a bigger country than Iceland is stating the obvious. However, on a football scale, Sweden is not much of an empire. And if they are considered one now, it’s thanks to this man. Lagerback achieved magnificent things with the national team of his small home country – and if anyone can get Iceland to its first big tournament, it’s the experienced Swede.

It’s also worthwhile to point out that Iceland’s group in the World Cup 2014 qualifiers could barely have been more convenient. Iceland is ranked lowest in the group which includes Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania and Cyprus.

It would be quite optimistic (to put it mildly) to expect Iceland to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. After all, we are supposedly the weakest team in the group. However, all these opponents are teams that Iceland should be able to beat on a good day, at least at home. Top-ranked Norway has been in the same group as Iceland in the two previous qualifiers and all those matches have been very close. With a more talented manager than before and a new generation of players stepping up, everything is possible. The most important thing for Iceland is to get as many points as possible in these qualifiers and push themselves further up the World Ranking List. Third place of this group should be totally obtainable, and would be acceptable. Basically, there are no extremely strong teams in this group that Iceland shouldn’t be able to beat.

If Iceland manages to push itself higher in the World Ranking, the Euro 2016 should be a tournament worth aiming at. Players such as Sigurðsson, Jónsson and Sigþórsson will be in their prime years and it doesn’t spoil the chances that this Euro will for the first time include 24 teams instead of 16. Assuming Iceland did a decent job in the 2014 WC qualifiers, they will now be in a great position to reach their first big tournament. The best part is, this doesn’t even seem to far-fetched for this small island in the north. They just need to play their cards right, and the dream might very well come true.

A point worth mentioning as this article nears its end, is the Icelandic indoor football fields. During the last decade or so, the environment for training football has improved dramatically, thanks to the constructions of these indoor fields with artificial grass, which finally enable players to train during the whole year under good circumstances. Thanks to this, Iceland is already seeing youngsters becoming much more technically gifted and this will be of a great importance in the development of new world class players in the upcoming years and decades.

Getting a small island of 320,000 people to a big tournament will be a great achievement, something Icelanders should be proud of if they manage to do so. It seems that there’s no reason to be other than optimistic that the dream will finally come true for the Viking descendents.

Alexander Freyr Einarsson is a journalist for Iceland’s biggest football website, www.fotbolti.net. You can follow him on Twitter @alexander_freyr.

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