No nation as small as Iceland (population: 337,479) has ever qualified for the World Cup before, but simply getting to Russia won’t be satisfying enough for this team. After a couple of miraculous wins in Euro 2016 that put Icelandic soccer on the map, this Scandinavian group will be forced to experience outsized pressure and attention as they try to compete with their much larger, more seasoned opponents. The crazy thing is, they just might be able to handle all the expectations and win a couple of games in Russia before bowing out gracefully.
Aside from a small handful of individual stars who have played for prominent clubs—Ásgeir Sigurvinsson in Belgium and the Bundesliga in the ’70s and ’80s, Eiður Guðjohnsen for Chelsea in the ’00s—the history of Icelandic soccer essentially begins with qualification for the 2016 European Championship. Before making Euro 2016, with its expanded field of 24 teams instead of 16, Iceland had never before played in a major international tournament.
Their ticket to the Euros was no fluke, either. In previous qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, this Iceland team had shown signs of life, making it to the final stage of UEFA play before losing a two-leg playoff against Croatia. And in their first-ever big tournament games, Iceland captured the attention of the entire world, slipping out of the group stage with a win and two draws and then, most notably, beating an embarrassed England squad 2-1 in the Round of 16.
Iceland’s short-but-sweet run, ending with a blowout loss to France, might be most notable for bringing the Viking Clap to the world at large. But it’s also a strong foundation on which to build a potentially successful 2018 World Cup run. Argentina and Croatia are the favorites to advance out of Group D, but if Iceland manage a good result against Nigeria, they can’t be counted out. The Viking Boys won their World Cup qualifying group over runner-up Croatia, and split their two games against them with each home side winning, so they’ve already proven they can finish above their biggest Group D rivals. This is still an underdog story, but Icelandic success feels much more possible than it ever has before.
Goalkeepers: Hannes Þór Halldórsson (Randers), Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson (Nordsjælland), Frederik Schram (Roskilde)
Defenders: Kári Árnason (Víkingur), Ari Freyr Skúlason (Lokeren), Ragnar Sigurðsson (Rostov), Hörður Björgvin Magnússon (Bristol City), Birkir Már Sævarsson (Valur), Sverrir Ingi Ingason (Rostov), Hólmar Örn Eyjólfsson (Levski Sofia)
Midfielders: Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson (Burnley), Birkir Bjarnason (Aston Villa), Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Malmö), Emil Hallfreðsson (Udinese), Gylfi Sigurðsson (Everton), Ólafur Ingi Skúlason (Karabukspor), Rúrik Gíslason (Sandhausen), Samúel Kári Friðjónsson (Vålerenga), Aron Einar Gunnarsson (Cardiff City)
Forwards: Alfreð Finnbogason (Augsburg), Jón Daði Böðvarsson (Reading), Björn Bergmann Sigurðarson (Rostov), Albert Guðmundsson (PSV)
Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys)
If you remember just one fun fact from Iceland’s Euro 2016 run, it’s likely that their coach was a part-time dentist. But besides teeth, Hallgrímsson has also given his entire life to Icelandic soccer. Beginning as a player in the mid-’80s with Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja, Hallgrímsson’s soccer career has never taken him outside of Iceland, and he managed both men’s and women’s club teams before receiving a job as an assistant coach for the national side in 2011. Two years later, he and Lars Lagerbäck became co-managers, though his partner left for Norway after the success of Euro 2016, leaving Hallgrímsson the sole man in charge now.
Hallgrímsson doesn’t seem to be prepping for his own departure anytime soon. Despite interest from other, larger national teams, the 51-year-old seems happy to remain the country he’s given his life to. “I have the best job in the world at the moment,” he said in January when he was rumored for the Scotland position. And he’s not talking about cleaning teeth.
If one man is to thank for the rise of Icelandic soccer on the international stage, it’s Gylfi Sigurðsson. Though he falls outside the top tier of attacking midfielders—not quite an Eden Hazard or Alexis Sanchez—Sigurðsson’s talent and creativity might be unparalleled in the history of Iceland. And even on an international stage, he stands out for his gorgeous free kicks and flawless touch.
Sigurðsson’s most recent club season, his first with Everton, was a rough one. Routinely played out of position on a middling team that whiplashed from the complete disaster of manager Ronald Koeman to the dull pragmatism of his replacement, Sam Allardyce, Sigurðsson had his growth stunted by a club that spent most of its year just trying to survive. After a run of impressive seasons with Swansea City, and some decent stretches with Tottenham before that, Sigurðsson ended up with his worst Premier League goal total since 2013.
But he’s still the engine of this Iceland offense, and the best chance they have at creating beautiful goals. As a shooter, playmaker, and dribbler in space, Sigurðsson will have to do it all in the attacking half of the pitch if Iceland want to advance. He’ll be the most talented player on the pitch in their game against Nigeria, and when Iceland play Croatia, Sigurðsson will be tasked with equalling the abilities of Luka Modrić. Those are some high-pressure expectations.
Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson
Signed by Burnley after Euro 2016, Guðmundsson was tripped up by injury in his first Premier League campaign, but recovered nicely to become an indispensable player in the The Clarets’ shock seventh-place finish in the 2017-18 season. The 27-year-old winger doesn’t often put the ball in the net himself—only three goals in 55 Premier League games so far—but his eight assists last season were five better than the next Burnley player, making him an invaluable piece in the Burnley attack. His scoring abilities can occasionally surface, too—Guðmundsson got himself a pretty dang spectacular hat trick with some golazos against Switzerland back in 2013.
Don’t expect Guðmundsson to pull a repeat of his accomplishment five years later, or score any candidates for goal of the tournament. But he could still gain some notice setting up one of his teammates, like he did for Birkir Bjarnason against Portugal in 2016. As part of a starting XI that likely won’t be able to power or pass its way through any of its opponents, Guðmundsson’s long passing becomes a valuable weapon for Iceland, stretching the field and giving them a means over the defenders and into the box.
Iceland usually play like your stereotypical conception of a mostly untalented team—cautious and defensive, waiting for opportunities to come their way. They set up in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1 formation, depending on how much attacking their midfielders are doing, and their goals tend to come either from set pieces (Iceland’s throw-ins are uniquely dangerous) or short bursts of luck or creativity.
Against the stiff competition of Group D, Iceland are likely to sit back, play smart, and let Gylfi Sigurðsson go for it all on free kicks. There’s not enough skill on this roster to dictate the pace of the game, or even make the opposing defense all that uncomfortable with the Icelandic attack. It’s likely that Iceland won’t win the possession battle in any of their matches, but tight defensive organization and a few fortuitous bounces could still turn games in the Vikings’ favor.
Group D Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 16, 10 a.m.: Argentina vs. Iceland in Moscow
June 22, 11 a.m.: Nigeria vs. Iceland in Volgograd
June 26, 2 p.m.: Iceland vs. Croatia in Rostov