Football: Tiny Iceland aims for the big time
14 November 2013, 20:28
Reykjavik - Iceland's national football team are aiming to make history in their play-off against Croatia, as a win would make Iceland the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup.
If the team were to come through the play-offs, in Reykjavik on Friday and Zagreb on Tuesday, Iceland would become the first country with a population of less than a million to reach the finals.
For many years, Iceland were the perenniel underdogs, offering opponents little more than a safe journey to the land of geysers and volcanoes, but in the last 10 years, the team have made significant progress.
When they beat world-champions-to-be Italy in the summer of 2004, the lack of seriousness of the Squadra Azzura for a friendly match in August was blamed.
But nine years later, Iceland finished second in their qualifying group, ahead of Norway and Slovenia, and it is starting to look less like a mere fluke.
Swedish head coach, Lars Lagerbaeck, is optimistic, believing a win is well within the realm of the possible.
"I think we have a realistic chance, be it 30/70 or 40/60 or something like that," he told AFP.
"On paper, (the Croatians) are the favourites if you look at the CV the national team and the players have, but we are going upwards all the time now and I think this autumn the players have done really well," he said.
"The Croatians are going the other way and with a new coach you don't know. I think we have a good chance to surprise them."
Iceland's suprising endurance may also have unexpected climatic consequences, as low temperatures might freeze the pitch.
Their countrymen follow the team with enthusiasm and all available tickets in the 10,000-seater stadium sold out in roughly three hours, even though they went on sale at four o'clock in the morning.
Besides two amateur goalkeepers, who play in the Icelandic championship, the national team these days features only professionals playing for respected clubs, such as Tottenham, Cardiff City, Ajax and Sampdoria.
The star of the show, 35-year-old striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, boasts 76 caps and now plays for Belgian club Bruges, after stints at Chelsea and Barcelona.
But before it could export footballers, the country needed to produce good young players, something which it is becoming better at.
"The great revolution in Icelandic football was at the turn of the century when a few indoor football pitches were built and at the same time most of the clubs opened outdoor pitches with artificial grass," said Vidir Sigurdsson, veteran sports journalist and Icelandic football expert.
The climate on the island, which lies at 64 degrees North, is more appropriate for other sports like handball, in which the country has earned international respect.
The national championship only lasts from May to September and training on grass pitches was until recently only possible for five months a year, which had a negative effect on the level of Icelandic football, but the best young players can now train throughout the entire year.
"The result is that now Iceland has more talented players than ever before. One can say that the members of the Icelandic team today are the first generation to grow up under these conditions," Sigurdsson said.
The national team has raised great expectations in a country where football used to be almost forgotten by this time of year.
Two-thirds of Iceland's 330,000 residents watched the last match against Norway on October 15, which ended 1-1.
And the play-off against Croatia is expected to draw even more attention.