STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Iceland will become the smallest country ever to take part in the World Cup finals when they travel to Russia next year as the saga of outsized footballing success continues for the nation of just over 300,000 people.
Having grabbed the attention of the soccer world at Euro 2016, knocking out England in the last 16 before succumbing to hosts France in the quarter-finals, the islanders will be aiming for a similar performance at the World Cup.
Led by coach Heimir Hallgrimson, who took over from Swede Lars Lagerback after last year’s Euro adventure, Iceland topped their group, two points ahead of Croatia, five ahead of Ukraine and seven ahead of Turkey.
The group win provided some measure of revenge over Croatia, who beat Iceland 2-0 on aggregate to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at their expense in the bitterest defeat in Icelandic football history.
However, that loss proved to be only a bump in the road and in continuing their recent success Hallgrimson, a part-time dentist, has stuck rigidly to Lagerback’s principles of a well-organised squad in top physical condition playing compact defence and launching quick counter-attacks.
Despite ending the qualifying campaign as top scorers in Group I with 16 goals, Iceland lack a single potent scorer up front, with Everton attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson topping the internal scoring chart for the stage with just four goals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also lack the strength in depth of the bigger nations, as was evidenced by their lung-busting performances in four games at Euro 2016 before fatigue took over against France.
None of this will matter next June and July as the tiny island nation comes to a standstill, with normal life postponed as fans travel to Russia to perform their famous “thunderclap” celebration for the first time on the global stage.
Editing by Clare Fallon