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Sport An Icelandic fan's journey to the World Cup

13:20  14 june  2018
13:20  14 june  2018 Source:

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The USMNT didn’t qualify for the World Cup , but that doesn’t mean fans Stateside shouldn’t get invested. SI Senior Writer Grant Wahl went to Iceland and documented this journey in the film Exploring Planet Futbol: Iceland . Part travel doc, part exploration of Icelandic football culture, Wahl

The fans , it appears, are as big a part of this journey as Iceland ’ s players. The Icelandic FA is set to benefit to the tune of at least million for getting to the World Cup . This comes after it earned 14 million euros from the team’ s run at Euro 2016

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off today and, for the first time ever, my country is taking part. Iceland’s recent and rapid rise from footballing minnows to earn a place at the highest level of football has been nothing short of incredible and, as such, has been covered extensively in the media. I am taking this opportunity to look back at my time following the Icelandic national team during this historic time.

Iceland had never qualified for a major tournament. During the EURO 2008 qualifiers, Iceland lost 5-0 to Sweden in a game that included an embarassing comedy goal. We also lost 3-0 to Liechtenstein in one of the lowest moment ever for the national team (interestingly, two players who played in that game are named in Iceland’s World Cup squad). Our manager, Eyjólfur Sverrisson, was duly sacked, having won just two matches during his two year stint. We finished 6th in our group, one point ahead of Liechtenstein.

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Ahead of the tournament, we asked contributors from Iceland , England, Germany, Brazil and the United States to tell us what Iceland ’ s journey to the World Cup means to them.

Iceland are the smallest country in terms of population (330,000) to ever qualify for the World Cup . After making a big impression at Euro 2016, the Icelandic fans will look to do the same in Russia next year. The success is not an end in itself but a long journey towards a final destination.'

In the 2010 World Cup and EURO 2012 qualifiers combined, we recorded two wins (against Macedonia and Cyprus), three draws and eleven defeats. We were very poor. Needless to say, qualification was not even a pipe dream at this point. Everybody knew that it was never going to happen, so why even bother contemplating it?

Football is undoubtedly the biggest sport in Iceland, but the Icelandic league is not very popular. It is played over the summer and the quality is simply too low to generate real enthusiasm among fans. Icelanders follow English football and most of us support a Premier League club.

The point is that, until recently, Icelanders had never collectively shared any meaningful footballing experiences to which we could claim any real connection. We had the occasional shock result, such as drawing with newly crowned World Champions France and beating Italy in a friendly in 2004. But there was never any momentum which could inspire anyone to believe we were heading towards any kind of success.

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There’ s this phrase we often use : ‘Success is not a destination, not the World Cup finals in Russia. Success is the continuous journey to the right I hope the Icelandic fans will show their best side because they were really something to be proud of in France. And I think, I know that when they come

The fans , it appears, are as big a part of this journey as Iceland ' s players. The Icelandic FA is set to benefit to the tune of at least million for getting to the World Cup . This comes after it earned 14 million euros from the team' s run at Euro 2016

a group of people standing around a plane: Handout/Getty Images Sport © Handout/Getty Images Sport Handout/Getty Images Sport

This led to people generally not caring about our national team. The international breaks were a chore to follow. It has even been suggested that the players saw them more as opportunities to come back home and see their friends and family than to play for their country.

When Lars Lagerbäck took over in 2011 (apparently narrowly beating Roy Keane to the job – small margins, eh?), things changed. His first four matches were ambitious friendlies against Japan, Montenegro, France and Sweden. We lost them all. But something was different. The players were moving differently. They were keeping possession and passing the ball around. They were making runs and making use of the spaces. They were attempting to play with a purpose. We were seeing a clear shift in style and the players were taking to it.

In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, we were drawn into quite an “unsexy” group, along with Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia, Albania and Cyprus. Switzerland were favourites but it was felt that the other teams could all take points off each other. And so it proved. Looking back at it, the campaign felt rather unglamorous. Yes, it was nice to start off with a win against neighbours Norway. And the comeback from 4-1 to 4-4 away in Switzerland stands out in the memory. But I mostly recall these qualifiers being the first time in my life I enjoyed watching my national side play. We were competing with these teams, we had some talented young players, playing decent football and coming away with results.

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The World Cup . Standing on the Madrid field last year with his arms outstretched, Iceland soccer Together, fans and Icelandic players alike, continued the chant, getting faster and louder with each repetition. “An advertisement that would remind everyone that we’re on this journey together.

The Icelandic fairytale is made more charming by its vociferous and passionate fans , who made the ”thunderclap” war chant the soundtrack of that summer in France in 2016. — More AP World Cup coverage: WorldCup .

a group of people playing football on a field: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Sport © Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Sport Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Sport

It was not really until the final game of the group that the thought of the possibility of qualifying started creeping in. As long as Slovenia did not beat Switzerland, we only needed to draw in Norway. Switzerland won and we drew. And all of a sudden, we were in the playoffs; two games away from a place in the World Cup in Brazil. Croatia stood in the way.

Obviously, we were the underdogs, and there was no expectation that we would qualify. But for the first time ever, there was hope. That little voice telling you that bigger upsets than this happen all the time in football. It could happen. But with that hope, also came the fear of not making it; and the thought that this was our only chance to ever play at a tournament.

In the first leg, at home, we dug in. We defended well and deep. The aim was clearly to not let them score an away goal. We had a man sent off after 50 minutes but we held on to a 0-0 draw. It was a great result. We were still in it. A scoring draw in Zagreb was all we needed. One positive result away from the World Cup.

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“It means the world ,” says Gudni Bergsson, a former national captain who is now president of the Icelandic Football Association. To the outside world , strakarnir okkar (“our boys”) must seem like the most improbable qualifiers in World Cup history.

After becoming the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup , Iceland celebrated with their famous Viking clap. Iceland is unlikely to ever have a better one, and it is not inconceivable that a journey many thought was over has, in fact, only just begun.

In the second leg, we lost 2-0. We were never really in the game. Our lack of experience was apparent. We went 1-0 down midway through the first half and even when Croatia went down to 10 men before half time, they managed the game perfectly. They got the second goal just after the break and that was it. We never threatened. The dream was over.

a group of football players on a field: Mike Stobe/Getty Images Sport © Mike Stobe/Getty Images Sport Mike Stobe/Getty Images Sport

I remember walking home from the pub that night. I was sad and disappointed. I had already checked ticket prices for flights to Brazil. But I was also incredibly proud of the team. They had achieved more than any other Icelandic team ever had. I felt grateful that my national team had, for once, made me feel the passion and excitement which football is all about. On that walk home though, it hit me: I had just witnessed the very peak of Icelandic football. This was as good as it got; as good as it would ever get. This was our chance, and we would never get this close again.

Of course, I could not have been more wrong. Thankfully, our players did not share my defeatist attitude. This was not the peak of Icelandic football. Far from it. It was only the beginning; the first building block in the famous success story. Iceland qualified for EURO 2016, beating the Czech Republic, Turkey and the Netherlands twice on the way. And, what is more, we became one of the biggest success stories of the tournament. We drew with eventual winners Portugal and Hungary, we beat Austria and England before bowing out to hosts France in the quarter-finals.

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Journey to the World Cup . Entering Asia qualifying in the second phase of a campaign that began in June 2015 for Saudi, they breezed through their group, finishing top and undefeated.

Iceland has become the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup sparking wild celebrations on the island of After making a big impression at Euro 2016, the Icelandic fans will look to do the same in Russia next year. The success is not an end in itself but a long journey towards a final destination.'

I could talk about the summer of 2016 for hours (and I have). The exhilaration of being a part of it. The unlikeliness of it all. The pride of performing so well. The celebration of unprecedented results. The great reception from other teams’ fans. The international media coverage, both on and off the pitch. Being able to share it with every single other Icelander, knowing they felt the same as me. Attending Iceland’s first ever match at a tournament with my grandfather. A dream that was never meant to even exist actually came true.

After our 5-2 defeat in the quarter finals against France, the team thanked the fans and vice-versa. The players led the now famous “Viking clap” for the last time in that tournament. It was emotional and the pride I felt in that moment stuck with me. Then, after a while, the Iceland fans starting chanting “Ísland á HM” – “Iceland to the World Cup”. I joined in of course, but I am honestly not sure how much I believed in it at the time. It seemed ludicrous to ever ask for more than this. Surely this was it. I could die happy now.

a man in a blue uniform holding a ball: Alex Grimm/Getty Images Sport © Alex Grimm/Getty Images Sport Alex Grimm/Getty Images Sport

But we were not done. We qualified to the 2018 World Cup topping our group. We even beat Croatia on our way there, for good measure, just in case some unpleasant memories from four years earlier lingered. I am well aware that we will be underdogs. The team and the players will have their targets and ambitions. But I, as a fan, am approaching the World Cup with all the excitement I can muster.

Since August 2011, Iceland has risen from 124th to as high as 18th on the FIFA World Ranking. We have played “the most important match in our history” and recorded “the biggest win in our history” more times than I can remember. We have risen to heights which were never even targetable, let alone reachable. But personally, I got to experience a side of football I had only ever seen others enjoy. I got to feel pride for my national team and cheer them on at a tournament. I got to see them do well at the highest level and do so while capturing the hearts and imagination of football fans all over the world. I get to have memories which will live with me for the rest of my life and share them with my countrymen. I got to witness a time in our footballing history which will be talked about for generations.

And having grown up and lived in the complete certainty that this would never happen makes it all the more special.

England v Iceland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016 © Alex Livesey/Getty Images Sport England v Iceland - Round of 16: UEFA Euro 2016

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