With a 2-0 win over Kosovo in its final World Cup qualifying match, Iceland did what few people ever thought possible for the island nation that’s more famous for volcanoes and the Northern Lights than for soccer: it secured automatic qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It will be one of the 32 nations at the finals for the first time in its history, having qualified by virtue of finishing at the top of its group in Europe over Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo.
Here are five things that you need to know about the Iceland soccer team.
1. It’s the Smallest Country to Ever Qualify for the World Cup
Iceland is the first country in World Cup history to have less than a million people and successfully qualify to compete on soccer’s biggest stage. Iceland’s population is a mere 334,252, with approximately one-third of the island’s people living in the capital of Reykjavik. The United States has had enough trouble qualifying for the World Cup with a population of 323 million; Iceland has successfully qualified with approximately the population of Aurora, Colo.
But it goes beyond those raw numbers. Not only is Iceland one-fourth of the size of Trinidad and Tobago, the previous smallest qualifier, but it’s not as if everyone in the country is eligible to play for its men’s soccer team. To begin with, 45 percent of Iceland’s population is either too young or too old to be considered, and of the remaining 55 percent, approximately half are women. Iceland has managed to cobble together the 22nd-ranked team in the world with a talent pool the size of Nampa, Idaho. Just getting to this level is remarkable.
2. It’s Had Success on the World Stage
Prior to October 9, also known as Leif Erikson Day in the U.S. after the ancient Viking explorer who is an Icelandic hero, Iceland’s proudest moment previously came at the European championships in 2016, when it not only qualified for the event, but it defeated soccer powerhouse England in the round of 16. Two first-half goals proved to be the difference as the Iceland defense held the English at bay and shocked the soccer world by advancing to the quarterfinals of the Euros.
The loss was such an embarrassment for England that English coach Roy Hodgson resigned as the leader of the Three Lions immediately following the defeat to Iceland. But England was far from the only scalp for Iceland on the way to the quarterfinals. Iceland also defeated the Netherlands twice in qualifying, keeping the Dutch out of the tournament entirely.
3. It’s Built Success Slowly
Iceland wasn’t always a strong team in the European confederation. In fact, as recently as 2012, they were considered one of the whipping boys of UEFA, being ranked as low as 131st in the world in June of 2012 as the European championships were set to begin.
To fix the problem, the Iceland soccer federation chose to invest in its fields and its coaches. Until recently, Iceland offered little training for soccer coaches, requiring coaches who wanted to become certified to travel to the European mainland to learn about the game. The country now offers cheap courses for anyone interested in becoming a soccer coach at any level. Out of the 334,252 residents of Iceland, almost 700 own either an A or B license to coach soccer from UEFA, making it easy for the next generation of Icelandic soccer to get the training they need from a coach who knows how to teach the game.
The country also began building domed stadiums so its residents can play in the winter. It now boasts 11 domed fields, 22 heated outdoor fields and another 100 outdoor turf stadiums, making sure that young Icelandic players always have a place to play.
The project took them years to see through, but in 2014, Iceland began its rise into the top 25 nations in the soccer world. They haven’t been anywhere near the depths of triple digits since then.
4. Their Coach is a Dentist
In the second Mighty Ducks movie, the Iceland national hockey team is coached by Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson, who picked up the nickname because he knocked out so many opposing players’ teeth while playing hockey. In real life, the Iceland national soccer team is coached by Dr. Heimir Hallgrimsson — who is literally a practicing dentist.
The idea of an American coach holding a part-time job doing something else would be unthinkable. But Hallgrimsson, the first Icelandic coach to earn an A license coaching soccer, not only has done double duty ever since joining the Icelandic team in 2011, he also enjoys doing it. When the Icelandic team isn’t practicing or playing, Hallgrimsson tends to be found at his dental practice, which he says he runs mainly so he can keep up with his patients and the people he misses.
Even outside of his practice, Hallgrimsson is a personable guy. When he joined the Iceland national team in 2011, fan support for the squad was practically zero, given that the team had only won four competitive matches in the previous six years. So to connect with fans, he started a tradition where he’d meet with supporters at a pub in Reykjavik before home matches and discuss the team’s lineup and tactics.
That tradition continues to this day — and Iceland hasn’t lost a competitive match at home in four years, going 10-3-0 since its last home defeat in a qualifier.
5. They Don’t Play for Big Name Clubs
When you watch the European squads at the World Cup, they’re usually littered with talent from the top four leagues in Europe: the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the German Bundesliga. Not so for the Iceland squad. Of the 23 players who were in Hallgrimsson’s lineup for their final two qualifiers against Turkey and Kosovo, only three ply their trade in one of the top four leagues. Captain Aron Gunnarsson plays in the second division in England, while Birkir Sævarsson, who leads Iceland in caps, competes in the Swedish league.
The lack of stars outside of Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton, the team’s leading goal scorer, fits perfectly with Iceland’s reputation for getting the job done with their work rather than with their talent. More than that, it’s how they’ve made history.