Already Iceland has created the standout story of Euro 2016 by knocking out England in the round of 16. Now the tiny Nordic nation has an even bigger scalp in its sights. A quarterfinal with tournament host France presents the opportunity to pull off the greatest shock in the competition’s history.
And its chances of doing just that should not be written off. While in England the reaction was one of incredulity at how its team could have been sent packing by an island of less than 330,000 people with whom its only previous association was dark winters and Cod Wars, it was no freak underdog upset.
On Monday in Nice, Iceland remarkably recovered from conceding an early penalty to strike back immediately and go onto win 2-1 without even too much discomfort. Far from striking lucky, Iceland had outplayed England’s highly paid Premier League stars and deserved its win.
And it was far from a one-off, either. In qualifying for Euro 2016, Iceland beat the Netherlands, which finished at the 2014 World Cup, both home and away, as well as claiming wins over fellow qualifiers the Czech Republic and Turkey. In the tournament itself, Iceland then saw off an Austria team that went through qualifying dropping only two points.
While Iceland may not have star players, it does have accomplished ones whose profiles might be higher if they were from a nation with a more soccer-rich history. There may be a goalkeeper who is also a film director and a co-head coach who also happens to be a part-time dentist, but there is also Gylfi Sigurdsson, a fine playmaker and all-round midfielder currently of Premier League side Swansea City and formerly of Tottenham. And in Ragnar Sigurdsson, immense in both penalty areas against England, the team also has an impressive center-back.
Iceland, too, need not be overawed by its opponent in the last eight. France may well have the strongest, deepest squad in the tournament, with world class players like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann. But it has only shown its quality in patches thus far in Euro 2016.
In fact, the tournament host has yet to take a lead into halftime. Questions remain about whether coach Didier Deschamps knows his best lineup or how to get the most out of the quality at his disposal.
In the round of 16 against another huge underdog, the Republic of Ireland, France was trailing until a halftime switch and tiring Irish legs allowed Griezmann to come to the fore and score twice. France surely cannot continue to get away with such stuttering performances.
Adding to its issues against Iceland, France will be without key defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante and center-back Adil Rami due to suspension.
France will, of course, remain a heavy favorite, but with such expectations comes huge pressure. Playing at the Stade de France against a massive outsider, every French player will know the consequences of failure.
History also provides encouragement for Iceland. The European Championship has long been the tournament of the outsider. There was the 1992 Euros when Denmark, which hadn’t even qualified for the event and was on its summer vacations before Yugoslavia was disqualified as the region was torn apart, went all the way to beat Germany in the final. More recently, Greece, a 150-1 outsider ahead of the tournament, went onto win Euro 2004, beating host and heavily favored Portugal in the final.
Iceland, by comparison, had odds of only 100-1 to win Euro 2016 before the competition got underway. In the year of the outsider, Iceland believes it can emulate 5,000-1 Premier League champion Leicester City and shake the sporting world on Monday.
“I think I would like it to end like it ended with Leicester City," Iceland joint coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, the aforementioned part-time dentist, said after the win over England. “They played on their strengths and we are trying to play on our strengths. There is the same team spirit in both teams. We are willing to work for each other.”