Iceland have secured a spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, becoming the smallest nation by population to ever qualify for the showpiece event.
Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson scored as Iceland earned a 2-0 victory against Kosovo on Monday, giving the team a record of seven wins, one draw and two defeats — two points clear of Croatia for the top spot in Group I of UEFA World Cup qualifying.
Qualification for their first World Cup is a remarkable achievement for Iceland, a country with a population of approximately 335,000. The previous smallest country to reach the finals was Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 (1.3 million people), followed by Northern Ireland (1.85 million), Slovenia (2.08 million), Jamaica (2.89 million) and Wales (3.1 million).
It’s possible that no other country takes training footballers as seriously as Iceland. The country has over 20,000 registered soccer players, or five per cent of all Icelandic people. One in 500 Icelanders has a UEFA B license or higher, meaning some players start training under professional coaches from as young as five.
Football fans around the world got the chance to fall in love with Iceland during Euro 2016, the first major tournament that Iceland ever qualified for. It drew with Portugal and Hungary, then beat Austria in the group stage, securing a place in the knockout stages. In the Last’16 stage, Iceland pulled off an amazing comeback upset win over England.
The country has over 20,000 registered soccer players, or 5 percent of all Icelandic people
Despite its small population, Iceland had incredible fan support at the Euros and got to introduce the world to the viking clap, which the players did with tens of thousands of supporters upon their return to Reykjavík.
Despite its successes, Iceland only ascended to Pot 2 in the draw for UEFA World Cup qualifying, and was placed into a difficult group with Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey. But Iceland put together a perfect home record in qualifying and secured two wins on the road, including a dramatic 3-0 victory in Turkey last Friday. Croatia failed to beat Finland at home on the same day, gifting first place in the group to Iceland. The Icelanders went into Monday’s matches knowing that they would make the World Cup if they defeated Kosovo, which they did comfortably.