Although Iceland’s national stadium seats just 15,000, it was less than half full for the start of the country’s European Championship qualifying campaign against Turkey on September 9, 2014.
But the 7,000 spectators that did turn up at the Laugardalsvöllur — a one-tiered relic built in 1958 with nothing but cold Icelandic air swirling behind the goals — were treated to the result of their lives, literally.
As striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson scored a breakaway goal in the 78th minute to give the Nordics a 3-0 lead, belief became infectious, and the impossible suddenly became reality.
Iceland, a country of less than 330,000, stunned 75 million Turks, but that was just the beginning. The team would go on to shock the rest of the footballing world by becoming the smallest populated country to ever qualify for a major tournament — beating footballing giants Holland twice along the way without conceding a goal.
Even the Icelandic players weren’t quite sure of what to make of it at first.
“When we saw the draw of the group we were in, we knew it was going to be tough,” center back Kari Arnason, a team leader with 47 caps under his belt, tells CNN. “We didn’t qualify from a lot easier group for the World Cup, so it wasn’t really positive for us — although you always believe.”
“But after the first game when we beat Turkey at home 3-0 — comfortably as well — we started to think ‘Wow, anything can happen now.’ It was the wake-up call that we are actually a very strong team and we can beat anyone.”
Thirty-three-year-old Arnason, who plays for Malmo in Sweden, notes that Iceland had never even won two matches in a row in any competition. “It just grew from there, and we beat Holland at home (2-0) unexpectedly.”
That result in October, 2014, was followed by an even bigger win a year later: A 1-0 victory over Holland to nearly seal the deal on their Euro 2016 campaign. Three thousand Icelandic faithfuls — nearly one percent of the population — made it to the match in Amsterdam.
“It was unbelievable,” says left back Ari Skulason, who credits the co-managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson for instilling belief in a team not accustomed to it. “Nobody could see that coming, of course.”
After all, Iceland, No. 34 in FIFA’s world rankings, does not even have a fully professional league, relying entirely on part-timers (although all the starters on the national squad play porfessionally overseas.) Hallgrimsson himself moonlights by fulfilling his original vocation, dentistry.
Lagerback was hired in 2011, when the Icelandic FA took the initiative to make a serious charge for major tournament qualification. But the Swedish manager, who successfully guided his country to five tournaments in a row before taking Nigeria to the 2010 World Cup, arrived with demands.
He wanted full professionalism, from the treatment room to the canteen, where a private chef was hired, to the airports, where the team chartered flights for big matches for the first time in history. More importantly, he taught his players to have faith in his system, and that despite the odds, they could beat anyone if they stuck to it.
In short, he imported a winning culture to a squad not accustomed to one.
“Everything about the team has changed,” says 29-year-old Skulason, who has 37 caps and plays in the Danish league. “Since Lars and Heimir started with the team, we’ve always had that attitude that we go in to every game to come away with three points. We never say ‘Hey, let’s go for this one point because it’s a difficult game.’
“We always go in with a victory in mind, and that sets the idea and the mindset for all the teammates: You always go for the three points.”
Iceland also benefits from having a de facto coach on the pitch. Eidur Gudjohnsen is the country’s most famous player, having won titles with Chelsea and Barcelona. The 37-year-old came out of international retirement to give it one more go at the Euros in France this month.
Although he’ll be limited to a reserve role, Gudjohnsen’s experience is invaluable. Iceland has beaten teams with stars from some of the biggest clubs in the world, but its most notable starter is midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea, hardly a household name.
Skulason says playing alongside Gudjohnsen, a role model who was a teammate of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, was surreal at first but “quite awesome.”
“Of course when he talks, you listen,” Skulason says, listing Gudjohnsen’s achievements, including winning the Premier League, La Liga and the Champions League. “So when he says something you listen; even if you don’t agree, you listen.”
Another development to change the face of Icelandic soccer was the construction of dozens of full-size indoor facilities that allowed youths — known as the “indoor kids” — to train year-round, shielded from the brutal elements of the country.
The buildup neatly coincided with a domestic coaching boom. Iceland boasts over 600 holders of a UEFA B licence, according to the BBC, an unusually high number for its size.
The two factors blended together to yield technically gifted players like Swansea’s Sigurdsson, who had the luxury of honing his skills on artificial turf.
“Most of the guys on the national team were playing on stones outside in the snow in the winter,” laughs Skulason, amused at the pace of change in his homeland.
“When I was playing we used to run outside in snow and gravel so it’s not really compatible,” Aranson concurs. “It definitely helps in the technical ability in the younger generation. It’s very helpful in teaching people skills, because there are never any variables; you always know how the ball is going to come to you.”
But Iceland’s biggest advantage is derived because of the country’s miniscule population, not in spite of it: Team chemistry.
“I’ve played with most of them in the youth national team so we know each other pretty well,” says Skulason. “That’s one of the positive things about our national team, how we are good friends and how easy it is to be with each other.
“I think it helps a lot, because we’re not afraid to criticize each other or talk about things with each other.”
That revelry should come in handy when Iceland faces its first opponent in Euro 2016. Portugal, featuring a certain superstar named Cristiano Ronaldo, will surely be thinking about padding its goal difference early against the great underdogs come June 14 in Saint-Étienne.
But if the Icelandic defenders are nervous about the prospect of facing one of the game’s greatest ever goal scorers in his prime, they’re hardly showing it.
“We’re not afraid. We’ve played better teams — probably not better players — but we’ve played better teams than Portugal and come out victorious,” says Arnason, who calls Ronaldo “one of the three best players who ever lived.”
“It’s all about how we set up to play him,” he adds. “If one of us gets caught man vs. man, it’s usually going to be him that’s going to be victorious, but if we can inflict ourselves on them and play the way we want to play, then anything’s possible.”
That message has been delivered loud and clear to Iceland’s qualifying opponents; now it’s the rest of the Europe’s turn to take notice.