Most oddsmakers will tell you Brazil or Germany are the favorites to win the World Cup, but only one nation stands as favorites to win our hearts: Iceland.
Those who watched the 2016 European Champonships need no introduction to this tiny island that boom boom CLAP-ed its way to the cover of sports pages worldwide as they drew eventual winners Portugal and then toppled England in the round of 16. Iceland doesn’t have much in the way of household names, historical pedigree or landmarks that don’t have to be spellchecked, but what it lacks in star power it makes up for with a delightful concoction of grit, tenacity, and facial hair.
Here’s what you’re going to hear the most about Iceland from television commentators this summer: It has more UEFA-licensed coaches per capita than powerhouses Spain, Germany and England. Led by Coach Heimir Hallgrímssonm, who was once a part-time dentist, Iceland is a team of confident, well-drilled players who know who they are and what they need to do to win. They know they aren’t going to out-dazzle opponents. Do not expect this team to dribble or pass their opponents into oblivion. Iceland will stay organized defensively and counter explosively. If everything goes to plan, it will use set pieces to sow chaos in opponents’ penalty area, creating high-leverage chances and finishing them ruthlessly.
If Iceland has a star it’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. If you’ve watched any English Premier League over the last couple of seasons you will have no doubt seen him playing for Swansea City, Tottenham and Everton. Sigurdsson is a slippery midfielder with a deadly right foot who led Iceland with four goals in World Cup qualifying. Anything Iceland creates will go through him and opponents will need to be wary of giving him any set piece chances. The 28-year-old midfielder has made 206 Premier League appearances, netting 46 goals and 36 assists.
If there’s any cause for concern, it’s that this season with Everton was a bit of a down year. Sigurdsson struggled as a midseason coaching change and a knee injury shortened his season by eight games.
Another player to keep an eye on is Alfred Finnbogason, who plies his trade in the Bundesliga for Augsburg FC. The 29-year-old striker just completed his best club season with career highs in goals (12), expected goals per 90 minutes (0.55) and expected assists per 90 (0.17). Finnbogason aided his country’s cause with three goals during the qualifying phase.
But though Iceland has won hearts, its hard to see it advancing beyond its group, much less winning the World Cup. Most bookmakers have the team at around 200-1 odds to win it all and it’s hard to argue, given their draw in a difficult group with Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia. Argentina and Croatia are the clear favorites to advance and Iceland placing ahead of them would be an accomplishment on par with their heroics at Euros. Even if Iceland can somehow claw out of Group D, its round-of-16-matchup would likely be France, a tournament favorite that ultimately ended Iceland’s story at Euros.
Still, there is a reason Iceland is many people’s second-favorite team. It would be hard to call its style beautiful, but there’s something about the team and its fans that make watching them an absolute joy. Though they don’t boast nearly the individual talent as many of this year’s entries, there is strength in their collective. If a team wants to take points off Iceland, it’s going to have to earn them.
So if you want to root for the team that’s going to win it all, go cheer for Brazil, France or Germany. If you want to stand with quite literally an entire nation, boom-boom-CLAP with Iceland.
Ian is a lifelong soccer fan and the host of The American Soccer Analysis Show podcast. He’s also the author of Expected Narratives, a weekly column for American Soccer Analysis, and is a contributor at totalmls.net. Follow him on Twitter @ahandleforian.
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