England’s having a really bad week. Not even a week, they’re having a really bad four days. After shocking the world in voting, pretty overwhelmingly, to leave the European Union on Friday (a decision they already seem to regret), they shocked the world yet again on Monday by crashing out of Euro 2016 in a pathetic fashion. To Iceland.
Yes, a country of 53 million in England, the nation that invented the sport of soccer and follow as passionately as anyone on Earth, lost to a nation of 330,000 playing in their first ever international tournament. And it wasn’t just that they lost, it’s that they were played off the park. Iceland were the better team almost from the first whistle, something that should seemingly never be allowed to happen against one of soccer’s traditional powerhouses.
This is what everyone woke up reading this morning. How England bottled it, how their players were playing without fire and out of position, how their manager could never seem to find a settled system and he got all his selections and substitutions wrong. How said manager (Roy Hodgson, he of the SON surname that has the world cracking “Inside Job” jokes this morning) resigned with a pre-written statement in the postgame press conference, leading everyone to wonder when the hell he had time to write it. Did he think his team would lose? Was he writing it during the second half when he should have been substituting Marcus Rashford on? And seriously, why did it take 20 minutes to get him on the pitch?
These are all very good questions, some of which will surely be answered but many of which probably will never be. However, it seems that the multitude of fans and sports columnists are not giving enough credit to Iceland’s players or managers or fans, who have just pulled off one of the great soccer upsets of all time and are giving us a once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience. Coming off the back of Leicester City’s incredible, mind-bending performance in the EPL this past season, who could have imagined that they could be upstaged so quickly? And yet, as Iceland prepare to play the host France in the quarterfinals, that is exactly what we are looking at.
To put even more perspective on how unsung this team is, here is a list of Iceland’s starting 11, the clubs they play for, and the position those teams finished in their respective leagues.
GK Halldorsson- Bodø/Glimt (Norway, 14th)
RB Saevarsson- Hammarby (Sweden, 11th)
CB Arnason- Malmö (Sweden, 5th)
CB Sigurdsson- Krasnodar (Russia, 4th)
LB Skulason- OB (Denmark, 7th)
RW Gudmundsson- Charlton (England 2nd Tier, 22nd)
CM Gunnarsson- Cardiff (England 2nd Tier, 8th)
CM Sigurdsson- Swansea (England, 12th)
LW Bjarnason- Basel (Switzerland, 1st)
F Sigthorsson- Nantes (France, 14th)
F Bodvarsson- Kaiserslautern (German 2nd Tier, 10th)
No matter how overmatched they seem on paper, a side with the no big names and less star power than any side left in the tournament (and certainly less than that of England), they continue to punch above their weight because they all follow the same simple rule; the unit is more powerful than the individual. It is a cliché, to be sure, but that doesn’t negate the truth of it. The display against England, and in their three group games, have been so successful because of this rule. Everyone on the pitch knows exactly what to do all the time, when to attack as a unit (and how) and when to defend as a unit (and how). Their co-managers, the Swede Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson, the part-time dentist who will be taking the reins after Euro 2016, deserve much of the credit. Their solid 4-4-2 outfit allows them to put a premium on what they do best, defend, and allow them to steal goals on the counter or via set pieces or Gunnarsson’s incredible long throws.
Looking forward, one would presume that Iceland’s luck is about to finally run out. France are quite possibly the most talented attacking unit at these finals, they have one of the world’s top midfielders in Paul Pogba, and should be able to dispatch of Iceland with relative ease. However, Les Bleus have struggled so far, especially against teams that sit back and defend (Ireland, Albania, and Romania), and only Italy could have a claim on having a harder defense to break down than Iceland. France will be considered overwhelming favorites, not unlike England was, and will probably overlook Iceland regardless of their proven record in qualifying and the championship so far. It may not be pretty, but Iceland can certainly hold their own against any team that remains in Euro 2016. Which begs the question, could they really pull off the greatest upset of all time?