With the recent changes to the European Championship, such as the expansion in 2016 from 16 national teams to 24 and an extra qualification opportunity with the Nations League, we more often see smaller nations making an entry on Europe’s biggest footballing stage. Some views include that this expansion and the introduction of smaller nations means a decrease in the overall competitiveness of the tournament. While others maintain that the expansion means that the footballing passion will continue to spread through the whole of Europe.
The Euro’s in 2016 saw smaller nations compete with the best, for example Wales and fan favourite Iceland. The former reaching the semi final and the latter the quarter final. Furthermore those smaller nations have also a rich and passionate footballing community. What do the achievements of such smaller nations mean for those societies?
Football Makes History developer Stefán Svavarsson, a teacher of history as well as avid football fan from Iceland took us through his experiences as a fan from a smaller nation.
Nuts and bolts of football in Iceland
Football has been the most popular sport in Iceland for many decades. Almost every child goes to football practice at one time or another in their childhood. The football clubs are incredibly well organized on the junior level. There is a team and practice facilities in every town and every neighbourhood and coaches, which all get paid for their jobs, will pick the youngest children up from school for practice and take them back afterwards. Every child also gets a 400 Euro,- voucher a year to pay for after-school activities, which many parents use for football practices. Iceland has a football league, both male and female, but only the top tier of the male league is semi-pro, the rest being amateurs so it is not uncommon for a typical Icelandic football fan to root more for their favourite English or Spanish league team than his local team. The best players leave for the continent to play professionally, as there are few opportunities to do so in the country.
Football in Iceland is a family game. Until recently it would dawn upon every generation as they grew up that it was an inevitable fact of life that our national teams would never be any good, with a loss against Denmark in Copenhagen 14-2 on August 23 1967 forever burned in the communal psyche. If you just say the numbers 14-2 to any Icelander, they know immediately what you are talking about. Therefore, to see the Icelandic national team play in the European Championship or the World cup was something you just accepted was never going to happen. Fans would take comfort in individual results, like the time Iceland beat East-Germany 2-1 in 1975 and got a draw against France in 1998, just after they had become world champions. Fans would also take pride in individual players that made it to the professional leagues on the continent. There were also some occasions where the country almost made it out of the qualification group, keeping fans excited until the inevitable happened with 2-3 rounds to go. Then in 2009 and 2013 the women’s team made it to the European Championships which made fans think that maybe something was going right!
Vive la France
For Iceland to reach the male Championship in 2016 was a culmination of several factors. There was a very good generation of confident, professional players, an experienced foreign coach, and the luck that the other teams in the qualification group were having a below-average spell. Qualifying made Icelanders both proud and anxious. Reaching France was of course a great feat, but fans had no idea what to expect. Some Icelanders dared to dream that the team would reach the round of 16, while others thought it more reasonable to expect the team to maybe score a goal, or even get a point out of a match.
The performance of course surprised everyone, and winning against England in the round of 16 was probably the highest point in the history of Icelandic football. Losing against France a few days later was not such a disappointment as one would think. It was clear that the team and the fans were both exhausted and satisfied, and as for the French, one could sense that they were the first team to really take Iceland seriously. As one Icelandic commentator said at the end of the match: “Winning the Championship the first time we are here would have been rude anyway.”
Perhaps Icelandic football has lost a little bit of innocence after the Euro 2016. Not that football was without commerce, but a team would be fielded not really worrying too much about results but hoping for at least a good performance. The stakes and expectations are higher, and not only on the national team, but also on young players and their families. They know that it is not as far-fetched a possibility that their child can become a star football player as it was 10 years ago. Players are also very eager to show that what happened in 2016 was not a one hit wonder.
UEFA has done well by adding more national teams to the Championship, it is now reasonably possible for smaller countries like Iceland to reach glory. However, after the introduction of the current format for the Champions and Europa leagues the opposite has seemed to happen at the club level. Decades ago, any European team could come and play the Icelandic league champions or cup winners. Benfica came and played Valur in 1968 and Barcelona came and played Fram in 1990. Meeting up with great teams was an added incentive for local players and gave Icelanders a chance to see stars like Eusebio and Stoichkov in the flesh. Now an Icelandic club would need to go through several rounds of professional teams before reaching the group stage, which is unlikely to happen. So if things remain unchanged clubs of the highest calibre will probably never play in Iceland again.
Find out more
Have a look at this article discussing the expansion of the UEFA tournaments, or relive the successful 2016 campaign of the men’s team from Iceland.
On this day in 2016, Iceland’s football men lost to France at the European Championship. It ended an amazing run for the team which had not yet reached such heights. This is a story of a small nation in a bigger Europe.