OPINION: On Iceland in Euro 2016

Rick Olivares

Posted at Jun 28 2016 09:51 PM

Iceland on the verge of another Cinderella European finish?

Iceland fans before the game. Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters

Iceland. Tiny tiny Iceland with its two coaches in the retiring Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, who is a part-time dentist, knocked Roy Hodgson’s England’s teeth with a shocking 2-1 win in the Round of 16 of the 2016 European Championships at the Stade De Nice, Nice, France. 

Strakarnir okkar, as Iceland’s national team is nicknamed (in English “our boys”), pulled off the upset of the tournament piping the Republic of Ireland’s 1-nil win over Italy that closed out the group stages.

Did we see Iceland’s stirring triumph coming?

Not at all, although they looked good really after a pair of 1-1 draws with Portugal and Hungary before ending group play with a 2-1 win over Austria. Now, they are in the quarterfinals. 

But that win over England? England twice played Iceland in friendlies. The Three Lions won one and drew the other. They scored seven goals and conceded two. It stood to reason that England would defeat Iceland. 

Except they didn’t.

If you look at Iceland’s masterpiece against England, it was their work rate and defense that made the difference. They swarmed all over the ball carriers and attacking threats.

England might have more possession, more attacks, and corners but this is what made the difference — work rate on defense.

Balls Recovered

England 40

Iceland 49

Tackles 

England 1

Iceland 4

Blocks

England 0

Iceland 3

Clearances

England 9

Iceland 20

Plus, Iceland gave up more fouls 15-6, meaning they were more physical and that they also took England out of its comfort zone.

Iceland played a more conventional 4-4-2 that somewhat bothered England’s 4-2-3-1. 

Consider this:

  • Iceland’s population of 330,000 would make it the 207th biggest city -- in China! Comparing it to an English town, they have slightly a bigger population than Coventry.
  • Iceland has 73 football clubs playing in five levels of football. Yet interestingly, none of their 23-man roster for Euro 2016 plays in Iceland. England has over 7,000 teams stemming from from nearly 5,300 clubs. 
  • Iceland began participating in European competition in 1976. *Forty-years later, they finally qualified (Euro 2016). In their first-ever tournament in main European competition, they are now in the quarterfinals with a 2-2 record. England, in contrast, has been to the semi-finals once, 1996, and they have a record of 10-11-10 since 1968.
  • In European competition, five Iceland club teams have played in UEFA competition, losing all five by an aggregate score of 17-2.

And next up in the quarterfinals is the host nation, France. 

Iceland can take hope that in the history of the European Championships, there have been two fairy-tale endings — Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004.

Denmark (1992)

The Danes weren’t even supposed to be in Sweden, site of the 1992 European Championships. Yugoslavia, one of the eight countries to qualify for the tournament, was disqualified as the Balkan nation disintegrated into a bloody civil war. 

Denmark, second to Yugoslavia in their group qualification, was instead given the nod. Incredibly, with only a week’s notice that they were in the competition, Denmark, with zero expectations and no pressure to win, placed second in their group and advanced after defeating France, 2-1. 

In the semi-finals, they squeaked past the reigning European champions, the Netherlands, when goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, father of current Leicester City FC keeper Kasper Schmeichel, stopped a Marco Van Basten penalty to send the Danes to a 5-4 shootout win and to the finals where they faced the first ever unified German team. They continued to shock the world when they stunned the powerful Germans, 2-nil, to win their first ever major trophy.

Greece (2004)

The stubborn and defensive-minded Greeks pulled a stunner of major proportions when they came out of nowhere to defeated host nation Portugal, 1-nil, in the finals! 

Greece opened the tournament with a shocking 2-1 win over Portugal in Group A action. And this despite the Portuguese team boasting of all-world players in Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, and Rui Costa. They drew, 1-1, with Spain in their next game then fell to a Russian squad that was already eliminated, 2-1, so people still didn’t give them much of a chance.

In the knockout stages, Greece continued its brand of choking defensive football and late goals to defeat France, 1-nil, and the Czech Republic, 1-nil, this time in extra time.

In the finals, Angelos Charisteas scored in the 57th minute Greece held back one Portuguese attack after another to win the trophy. And they did it with defense finishing with clean sheets from the quarterfinals all the way to the finals!

So what do Denmark, Greece, and Iceland all have in common? 

They went into the tournament with no pressure to win. The lack of pressure allowed them to play the game and execute their defensive brand of football to perfection.

And when the Icelanders face the French in the Stade de France in Saint Denis, it will be the homeside playing with pressure.

Pressure? 

If you ask an Icelander what pressure is, they will associate that with the 30 active volcanoes running through their island nation.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.