THE smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup will also be the tournament’s worst-kept secret as Iceland’s giant-killing performances in 2016 sent a loud and clear warning that they will not be in Russia just to make up the numbers.
Having come agonisingly close to reaching the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil only to lose in a two-legged playoff to Croatia, Iceland made it to Euro 2016 where they went on a deep, thrilling run.
They drew with Portugal and Hungary before beating Austria to get out of their group, and claimed the scalp of England en route to the quarterfinals where they were knocked out by hosts France.
After years of gradual but continuous improvement, the gritty 2-1 win over 1966 World Cup winners England blew away any doubts that the tiny island nation could hold its own on the world stage.
Much of the credit for their success was given to Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, but even though he departed after the tournament, the team have continued to play the same brand of quick, rugged football that brought them so much success.
Replaced by his assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland notched up seven wins, two draws and just a single defeat to top Group I ahead of Croatia, who booked their own berth by beating Greece in a playoff.
Their best performance in qualifying came in their first home game when they were 2-1 down to Finland, but two stoppage-time goals by Alfred Finnbogason and Ragnar Sigurdsson gave them all three points in a rip-roaring finish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that there is a population of only just over 300,000 to choose from, the squad lacks depth, but every player who takes the field is very clear about their role in the team.
Their recent success is built on unrelenting defensive discipline to win the ball in their own half before counter-attacking at pace.
They are also not averse to stopping counter-attacks by conceding a cynical free kick when they lose possession to allow time to regroup.
Led by playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Icelandic squad may not be household names but, pitted against Argentina, Nigeria and their old foes Croatia, they will have plenty of opportunities to write their names in the World Cup history books this year.
FIFA ranking: 22
This is the first time Iceland have qualified for the World Cup finals.
Coach: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Hallgrimsson cut his teeth in international management as assistant to Swede Lars Lagerback, who steered Iceland to the Euro 2016 finals, where they were knocked out at the quarterfinal stage by host nation France.
Since taking over, Hallgrimsson has changed very little, picking many of the same players and adopting the same tactics as under Lagerback, and this commitment to continuity has been rewarded with a first World Cup finals appearance.
Gylfi Sigurdsson: A knee injury has cast a shadow over the preparations of Iceland’s stand-out player and if the midfielder does not recover in time, they may well struggle without him. The 28-year-old boasts a powerful blend of skill, intelligence and athleticism that has made him a driving force in the Premier League, where he now plays for Everton after spells at Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea.
Birkir Bjarnason: With his long blonde hair and beard, midfielder Bjarnason looks every inch the Viking, and his tireless running and tough tackling often set the tone for the rest of his team. A nomadic career has seen the 29-year-old represent clubs in Norway, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and England, and he often pops up to score crucial goals for his country.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson: If the Reading attacker gets the nod to replace Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who has been struggling with a knee injury, he will need to find his scoring touch if he is to propel Iceland into the knockout stages. Sometimes deployed as a winger, Bodvarsson has just two goals in 36 games for Iceland, and he will likely be tasked with providing an outlet up front for Iceland’s high-octane, counter-attacking game.
After a successful winter tour to Qatar and Indonesia featuring many of their reserve players, Iceland suffered two defeats in spring friendlies against Mexico and Peru. They will round off their preparations by facing Norway and Ghana at home before heading to Russia.
How they qualified
Having suffered the agony of a playoff defeat to Croatia to miss out on the 2014 World Cup, Iceland went one better this time and won their group outright to qualify directly. They amassed seven victories, including home and away wins over Turkey, one draw and two defeats.
Though their style of play is not very dependent on personnel, Iceland’s chances do very much depend on the fitness of Sigurdsson - if he is fit they are capable of giving any team in Russia a run for their money. Their lack of strength in depth was exposed as the 2016 Euros in France wore on, but with the entire nation behind them, lightning could strike twice for a team famous for their “thunderclap” celebration. They face Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in a tough Group D in Russia.