LONDON (Reuters) - Iceland could qualify for their first major finals and be joined in next year’s Euro 2016 championship by Wales, England, Italy, Sweden and Austria, among others, if results go to form in qualifiers over the next week.
Iceland have never made it to either the World Cup or the European championship, but if they beat the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Thursday and Kazakhstan in Reykjavik on Sunday, their long wait will be over.
The expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams has opened the door to many of Europe’s middle-ranking teams who have responded to the opportunity to qualify for the tournament in France with improved performances and some unexpected results.
In 2013 Iceland came close to reaching the World Cup for the first time before losing to Croatia in the playoffs, but they overcame that disappointment and have continued to improve, rising from 49th to 24th in FIFA’s world rankings in less than two years. At the end of 2010, they were 112th.
Wales are also on the verge of making a major breakthrough by reaching their first finals since their one -- and only --World Cup appearance in 1958.
If Iceland are the unfamiliar pace-setters in Group A, Wales are the equally unexpected unbeaten leaders in Group B.
Wales has produced some of the game’s great players down the years but since John Charles led the team in Sweden nearly 60 years ago, outstanding performers such as Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs have all missed out on a major championship.
Now it seems Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive player, can lead the current side over the qualifying finish line in either first or second place to secure an automatic berth in the finals.
Wales travel to Cyprus on Thursday and play Israel at home on Sunday and if Wales are seeking omens Israel were the team they beat in a playoff to secure their World Cup place in 1958.
Wales coach Chris Coleman spoke of the wave of excitement sweeping the country when he named his squad last week.
”This is the biggest period of my career,“ he said. ”But I know what the dangers are.
“You can feel it around the country. The belief is there, the excitement is there but so is the anxiety. The pressure is massive but this is what we have always wanted.”
There is no comparable excitement about the Euros across the border in England, although Roy Hodgson’s team are all but assured of a place among the 24 after winning their opening six Group E matches.
When the qualifying-round draw was made early last year, it was considered a foregone conclusion that England would qualify after being grouped with Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino and results have borne out that optimism.
The main talking point about England’s visit to San Marino on Thursday is that it gives skipper Wayne Rooney the ideal opportunity to overtake Bobby Charlton’s all-time scoring record of 49 goals for England.
Rooney is level with Gary Lineker on 48 and could well become the first England player to hit 50 international goals when he plays against San Marino this week and Switzerland at Wembley next week.
For once, world champions Germany are not leading the way into the finals and sit second in Group D, a point behind unbeaten Poland, Euro 2012 co-hosts with Ukraine.
Poland (14 points), Germany (13), Scotland (11) and Ireland (nine) are all in contention in a tightly bunched group which is likely to be stretched after Germany meet Poland in Frankfurt on Friday before travelling to Scotland on Monday.
Germany coach Juergen Loew told a media conference on Tuesday: ”We are a bit under pressure after a not-so World-Cup quality year.
“We know full well that we have to win both games and that we need to invest a lot in them. But we have the quality to beat both teams. We want to end up as group winners.”
Like England, Slovakia have a 100 percent record after six straight wins and would clinch their place in the finals with victories over reigning champions Spain and Ukraine.
Austria, top of Group G, are also on the verge of qualifying for the first time, having secured a place automatically in 2008 when they were co-hosts with Switzerland.
Depending on how results go in Group G both Austria and Sweden could be through by next Tuesday.
Croatia and Italy, runners-up to Spain in 2012, could also both qualify from Group H, with Italy facing home matches against Malta and Bulgaria and Croatia travelling to Azerbaijan and Norway.
Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann,; Editing by Neville Dalton