Iceland charge into quarters by rallying past England

By The Rex Factor

The expanded European Championships were generally thought of as nothing more than a money-grab by UEFA to add an additional 20 games to a tournament that expanded from 16 to 24 teams.

There’s always going to be a feel-good story in these big events, and often times more than one. While Wales advancing to the quarterfinals in their first-ever appearance at the event has been exciting, nothing has matched what Iceland has pulled off to this point.

The tiny island nation with a population that is less than that of Bakersfield, Calif., just dumped one of Europe’s most esteemed footballing countries out of the tournament with a rousing effort, beating England 2-1 in the round of 16. Iceland will next face host France in the quarterfinals on Sunday.

The rest of the field is also set, with Portugal playing Poland on Thursday, Belgium meeting Wales on Friday and Italy facing Germany on Saturday. All four quarterfinals will be at 3 p.m. Eastern time, with ESPN2 providing US television coverage for the first three games before ceding to ESPN for the Icelanders and French.

And while there are certainly intriguing storylines and subplots for the first three matches, the Icelanders are literally taking over France. Between 8 and 10 percent of the population of the whole island have attended at least one of their four games to this point – that would be like 31 million Americans attending a sporting event if taken in proper context.

But there has been no accident to how Iceland has gotten to this point.

The golden age of soccer in Iceland is here, and it’s happening for a powerful set of very different reasons. The turn of the century brought purpose built indoor domes across the island for the sole ability to train year-round, despite how hideous the weather might be outside. This has allowed all athletes of varying ages, genders and sizes to have the ability to train in top-class facilities with a UEFA A or B licensed coach – one in every 500 habitats of the island can make that claim.

Because there is no full time Icelandic league to play in, the very best players go overseas once they become adults and learn new systems and how to survive once leaving the island. The very same connection that the Icelanders have with their fans is something that has not gone unnoticed by supporters of England, who sense a disconnect with the highly-paid players like at no other time in history with their talented but flawed side.

England had the most impressive qualifying campaign of any side but seemed unsure of itself throughout the event, and coach Roy Hodgson was second-guessed countlessly throughout the four matches – he resigned his post almost immediately after the Iceland shocker. The English were favored by more than a goal in the closing betting markets.

Still, more credit should be given to the winners than humiliation felt by the losers. After conceding an early penalty and falling behind, Iceland answered immediately as a sixth-minute goal by Ragnar Sigurosson tied things at 1. It came directly from a throw in, which was crossed right in front of goalie Joe Hart and rammed home by Sigurosson. Iceland has shown more than any team in recent international history to put a premium value on any plays coming from a dead ball, whether they be throw-ins, free kicks or corner kicks. There is almost always some sort of intent to try and make something positive out of a throw-in, rather than just getting the ball back into play. Co-head coaches Heimir Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback deserve a lot of credit for the cohesion shown on the pitch for the Icelanders.

Draws against Portugal and Hungary came before wins against Austria and England, but Iceland also won at Holland home and away during qualifying in helping keep the Dutch out of this event altogether. They won’t be intimidated.

Many consider the French the favorite, and now more so with England bowing out this early, but Sunday’s match should prove to be just as fascinating as any of the other three quarterfinals.

 

The Rex Factor has been handicapping professional soccer for over a decade. It was his best sport as a youth player. He specializes in international play, the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.

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