England suffered its most humiliating defeat in an international tournament in over 60 years when it was eliminated from the European Championship by Iceland on Monday in Nice, one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game.
The 2-1 defeat led manager Roy Hodgson to immediately resign and will lead to a merciless postmortem as the English media dissect a Euro 2016 campaign that drifted from the mediocre to the abysmal and finally to the utterly abject.
For Iceland, it was the greatest moment in its soccer history — the team was never even expected to qualify for the tournament, eliminating the Netherlands en route to France, nor was it expected to leave the group stage. Yet now, the country of 320,000 people finds itself in the quarterfinals and up against host France, which will certainly not be relishing that encounter.
Iceland’s spirit and unity appeared evident throughout the 90 minutes, as was its organization and discipline, excellent defending and ability to make the most of chances. Its display elicits inevitable comparisons with Greece’s 2004 team, which remains the most unlikely winners ever of the European title.
But in terms of shock value, the result will resonate as much globally as North Korea’s victory over Italy during the 1966 World Cup or Senegal’s triumph over France in the opening game of the 2002 edition in Japan and South Korea. This was the odds being overturned massively.
Until Monday, the Brits considered their 1-0 loss to the United States in the 1950 World Cup as its most embarrassing result in a major tournament. Back then, the U.S. team was a barely organized collection of part-time players and the win, thanks to a goal from Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens, shocked an English team playing in its first international tournament in the sport it considered their invention.
In more recent times, many English fans recall a 2-0 loss to Norway — then considered relative minnows — in 1993 that contributed to the Three Lions missing out on a place in the 1994 World Cup. This loss had a striking similarity to Monday’s defeat; Nordic opponents, a manager who looked out of his depth and a team that played with fear, as if anticipating the backlash to come.
England’s Premier League is the richest and most-watched domestic soccer competition in the world, but the national team has won nothing since its World Cup triumph 50 years ago on home soil. Indeed, England’s only sniff of glory since its run to the semifinal of the World Cup in Italy in 1990 also came with home-field advantage, when it reached the last four of Euro ’96.
Too often in the past, the English media overhyped their average teams and set up the fans for disappointment. But the near constant failure of the national team to live up to expectations has gradually created an atmosphere of jaded cynicism among many English soccer followers.
This year, there was an unusual level of optimism, and it was not without foundation. Hodgson was able to draw from a group of young players who enjoyed excellent seasons in the Premier League, notably Harry Kane of Tottenham and Jamie Vardy of Leicester City, two strikers in great form. There appeared an abundance of attacking options for the front line and midfield. But Kane looked a completely different player in the England jersey while Vardy was restricted to the bench for all but the final group game against Slovakia, and Hodgson never managed to find anything that resembled a working formation.
But for the neutrals, who had already enjoyed Leicester City’s remarkably improbable Premier League title win this year, this was a reminder of one of soccer’s great attractions as a sport — the possibility for a team that, on paper, is made up of modest and unheralded ability, to triumph against big-name and highly-rated opponents, should it get the game plan right and execute it to perfection for 90 minutes.
Is there more to come? The Icelandic players will certainly believe they can produce an even bigger surprise Sunday at the Stade de France against the host nation and one of the tournament favorites.
They couldn’t, could they?