Iceland’s Surge Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone

Enough about Brexit, the real story this week in England was its lifeless 2-1 loss to Iceland in the Round of 16 at the European Championships in France. I thought about writing about it in the immediate aftermath of the match, but I wanted to take a couple days to fully process what the world had witnessed. I didn’t want to say anything in haste.

One of the questions on everyone’s mind was whether this story should be more about Iceland’s historic victory or England’s historic defeat? I think anyone following world football watching the performance would have to say that the story is about England. They completely bottled it in a way you rarely see in sports. Like a guy having match point at 40-0 only to double fault his way out of winning a championship.

Yes, Iceland’s a great story, I know the numbers. They have a population of 330,000, 10% of their country traveled to France for the tournament itself, I heard one sports reporter say that 99.8% of the population watched the match against England in one form or another. It’s all remarkable stuff: they’ve invested in football, identified talent early and honed tactics with their core group of players for years now, they play with a mentality that they are meant to be on the pitch with anyone in the world, and they get results. The whole country is behind them and it’s beautiful–if their post-match celebrations with their supporters don’t give you goosebumps then I don’t know what would.

From the standpoint that they are thriving against countries that are exponentially larger than them, Iceland is a glorious underdog story. But anyone paying attention would know the lengths that Iceland has gone to get the most out of its footballers. For me, this is not an underdog story, but a validation of the notion that population size and a “footballing culture” going back decades is not the be-all-end-all to enjoying success on the world stage.

Iceland was a playoff victory away from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It took a victory in Zagreb for a fine Croatian to get by them after the Icemen drew them in the first leg in Reykjavik. To get to Euro 2016, they led a group in goal difference that included the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Holland. They beat the Dutch in Reykjavik and in Amsterdam. Yes, that Dutch team that includes the likes of Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie, that Dutch team that was ranked 1st in the World Rankings in 2011, that Dutch team that bowed out to the Argentines on penalty kicks in the 2014 World Cup semis. The Dutch didn’t even get to come to France in large part because of Iceland.

The writing was on the wall for this kind of result. A team that tops the Netherlands and Turkey in its qualifying group can take the pitch against England any day of the week and expect to get a result if they play true to form. And they executed their gameplan to perfection. They scored their first goal via a long throw similar to the one they converted against disappointing Austria in the group stage and the run timed at the moment of the flick-on demonstrated they had done their homework on how England was defending long throws. England’s marking was woeful and they got burnt. Their second goal showcased they are capable of world-class link-up play. The sort of play that likely got them to France in the first place if the world bothered to rate them on their merit and not their population size.

My point altogether is that this squad has quality, and it’s almost insulting to suggest they’re shocking the world with this result against England. England was the favorite, but hardly a heavy one, and Iceland played them off the pitch because the squad and the whole of Iceland has put in the time to build a team that can compete with anyone on the world stage.

Now for England, it was one of the most clueless displays in sport that I’ve ever witnessed. There was seemingly no gameplan, which doesn’t surprise me with Roy Hodgson managing, but the damning thing is that even if Hodgson did implement a proper gameplan I don’t think England’s players would’ve played well enough to execute it. The scoreline flattered them as Iceland nearly had a 3rd and Sterling was frankly going no where on the penalty he won off a nervy keeper in the opening minutes.

Harry Kane was dreadful the whole tournament in all facets, Sturridge was launching crosses to the moon, they had no width, no belief, it was slow, how does anyone rate Wilshere, Rooney and Alli invisible, Walker unsure when to go on the overlap and getting it wrong every time, top to bottom it was comically bad. These are players that by and large thrive in one of the world’s top leagues, and then they put on the England top and they play without any belief in their abilities. They were poorly coached, Hodgson’s disregard for tactics is well-documented, but it’s as if they forgot how to make simple passes, simple runs, simple markings.

The English press will hammer this team and for this display against Iceland they do deserve some flack. But at some point the press and its people are going to have to take a little pressure off these boys if they are to perform. You can see the fear in the way they play, and they will continue to struggle at major tournaments until they can play with freedom and with joy.

Iceland’s footballing community empowers its national team while England’s seems to hold its back. I’d rather watch a team playing with belief than one walking on eggshells. So in this regard, it’s good for everyone that Iceland moved on at England’s expense.

Cristiano Ronaldo says Iceland has a small mentality. This small, focused, unified mentality allowed them to finish ahead of Portugal in their group. It allowed them to dispatch mighty England. Keep going Icemen.

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