REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Iceland’s soccer team are helping to bring back national pride and unity to the country having qualified for this month’s European Championship finals in France.
With a population of 332,000 -- about the size of English city Leicester, the home of the Premier League’s surprise champions -- Iceland is the smallest nation ever to qualify for the Euros. They will play Austria, Hungary and Portugal in Group F.
Having just missed out on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Iceland went one better in Euro 2016 qualifying, finishing second in a tough group and beating World Cup runners-up the Netherlands twice.
The national team is now so popular that an estimated 10 percent of Icelanders -- about 30,000 people -- are expected to travel to France to support them.
The wave of national pride is a far cry from 2008 when the country was an international pariah, its currency having collapsed, the failed Landsbanki bank’s UK assets frozen under the same anti-terror laws used for Al-Qaeda, and its top three banks having amassed debt equivalent to 10 times its GDP.
“The politicians and the president have not been uniting the nation for the past years, but the national side has,” said Petur Orri Gislason, a 32-year-old security guard, over a drink in a Reykjavik cafe.
”We have not been trusting one another, either, said his friend Styrmir Gislason, a 37-year-old store manager. “There has been a lot of anger and bitterness. But when the soccer (team) is playing everybody is happy.”
The fans traveling to France to support the team dream of repeating the successes of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004, both sides winning the tournament as massive underdogs.
“Twelve years is the magic number,” said Gislason.
But Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland’s joint-coach with Swede Lars Lagerback, was more cautious.
”It is OK to dream, but we are realistic,“ he said after a training session in Reykjavik. ”We need to have a perfect game and our opponent needs to have a bad day.
“But we have a chance against everyone... We have shown that we can beat any team if we are well prepared and if we play well.”
With only a few days to coach the team ahead of games, Hallgrimsson is focusing on tactical training.
“We know we don’t have the best individuals, so we have to be superior in other ways,” he said. “And we are quite organized. We are one of the best organized teams.”
Hallgrimsson is widely tipped to take over as sole coach once Lagerback retires after the tournament. But the dentist may keep his practice, as coaching soccer is an unpredictable job.
Iceland’s success can be attributed in part to the fact that in spite of its size, it has more top-level coaches, per capita, than any other nation and has benefited from a huge investment in facilities, including “soccer houses” and artificial pitches, in the past 15 years.
Those investments, protected by local authorities during the economic crisis, made it possible for soccer to be played year-round instead of just in summer -- even when not covered in snow, its grass pitches are often icy or muddy.
Hallgrimsson, however, reckons the main reason is that the bulk of the squad have played together at various national junior levels for a long time and so have considerable experience of playing together.
“Nowhere else would seven or eight players be in the national team at the same time (for a long time),” he said. “That is maybe the benefit of being in a small country.”
Editing by Neville Dalton