As the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins this week, a lot of attention has been paid to one of the two newcomers to the global football championship, namely Iceland, (the other country making its debut is Panama). Yet, the Icelandic team has already made history by being the smallest country by population to enter the World Cup finals, and has quickly redefined the word ‘underdog’ in many ways.
The team faces an uphill battle to make it to the knockout round, given that its partners in Group D are Croatia, Nigeria, and two-time Cup winner Argentina. Iceland was able to enter the finals after defeating Kosovo in a qualifying match last October, and the team had previously distinguished itself by holding its own again much more established squadrons. Iceland will play its first match on Saturday local time, and there will be much anticipation about how well the Icelandic team fares, especially given its newfound reputation as both a ‘dark horse’ and an occasional giant killer.
The latter moniker was a result of a shock defeatof the English team, 2-1, in the Euro Cup in June 2016, a victory which brought the Icelandic team, and the country’s football culture, international attention for the first time, (and likely added yet another boost to the country’s already burgeoning tourism industry). Iceland fans’ signature ‘Viking clap’ [video] became an institution all its own, and the team itself also became known for its humility, including by being coached by Heimir Hallgrímsson, a part-time dentist.
In addition to the host country, the Arctic is also represented by Denmark (Group C) and Sweden (Group F). This week, it was also announcedthat the World Cup 2026 would be co-hosted by two other Arctic states, Canada and the United States, along with Mexico. This North American team-up may face difficulties in the early planning stages however, given the ongoing brittle relations between the US and Mexico, and the recent chill over American relations with Canada in light of harsh criticism President Donald Trump levelled against Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Canadian trade practices after the G7 Summit in Québec this month.
The Icelandic team has been called a ‘sleeper’ entry into the World Cup, as well as a fan favourite, and even made the lead story in this week’s edition of Timemagazine as the squad which ‘crashed the party’ and demonstrated that ‘Iceland stands for more than Instagram-ready glaciers and volcanoes, and a banking collapse,’. Despite the long odds the team faces, (estimated at 200 to one to actually win the Cup), the group’s breakout goal scorer, Eiður Guðjohnsen, said that his team was ‘in a good place’ for the start of the event. Regardless of the outcome of the first matches, Iceland has already secured its place in football history.