With the European Championships only a few months away, and seemingly always expanding, the opportunities for ‘minnow’ nations to make an impact increases correspondingly.
In this article we will take a look back at the biggest unexpected overachievers of tournaments gone by, including some winners, some nearly-winners, a minnow nation in the true sense of the word and take a look at their journey and some of the players who made it possible.
Iceland – 2016
The smallest nation ever to qualify for a European Championships (and later a World Cup too), Iceland became almost everyone’s second side in France, until they finally succumbed to the hosts in the quarter-finals.
Eight percent of the Icelandic population applied for tickets to watch their side at Euro 2016, the equivalent of 4.4 million English fans applying, and they provided a rapturous atmosphere at all Iceland games and gained worldwide recognition for their famous intimidating ‘Viking Clap’.
The most plucky of underdogs were favourites to get knocked out of Group F, a group consisting of eventual champions Portugal, Austria and Hungary.
But it took them just 90 minutes to prove to everyone just how fierce a competitor they were, earning a 1-1 draw against Portugal in Saint-Etienne.
A late own goal by Birkir Saevarsson denied Iceland a first win in their second game against Hungary but they would only have to wait four days before doing so, when Arnor Traustason’s 94th minute goal saw off Austria 2-1.
They finished second ahead of Portugal and in doing so, rewarded them with a Last 16 tie against England, possibly one of the most infamous games in the competition’s 60 year history.
Much unfancied at 9/1 just to win the game, they fell behind to an early penalty but within 18 minutes they were 2-1 up and the rest is history, the greatest result in the history of Icelandic football, and possibly the worst in England’s.
They bowed out against France, losing 5-2, but were still given enormous praise for the second half performance after being 4-0 down at the break, they showed great courage to pull two consolation goals back, and for a country of their size and stature in the world of football, a quarter final finish was nothing short of miraculous.
Best Player – Ragnar Sigurdsson
His namesake Gylfi was the big name in the squad, but Ragnar epitomised the spirit of the Icelandic squad.
Iceland were up against it much of the time in their games at the tournament but with Sigurdsson at the back, they held firm stoutly and his presence in defence helped all those around and behind him.
His heroic performance in the win over England in which he equalised and was then rock solid as they held onto their lead for over 70 minutes was greeted with links to many big moves across Europe which is why it was peculiar that he ended up joining Championship Fulham late in the window.
Cult Hero & Leader – Aron Gunnarsson
Sigurdsson may have been a rock at the back, but nobody can argue that Gunnarsson was one of the best leaders of any side at the championships.
His very stereotypical Icelandic appearance of a shaved head and an extra long beard meant he really looked the part in the middle of the pitch, but he also done an incredible job for his country.
He gained his cult hero status for being the leader in the Viking Clap the entire squad did in front of the Icelandic fans after they knocked England out, one of the most memorable moments from the summer.
It was also his dangerous long throws that caused havoc in opposition penalty areas, most notably England’s for Ragnar Sigurdsson’s equaliser.
Breakthrough Star – Johann Berg Gudmundsson
Having already been an established international for quite a few years and playing regularly for AZ in Holland, Gudmundsson moved to Charlton where he was a regular for two years before Euro 2016.
He was an ever-present for Iceland and in doing so, earned himself a transfer to newly-promoted Premier League Burnley where he has became and important first team player for the Clarets.
Decisive Moment – Joe Hart’s blunder
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson probably could not believe his luck when his scruffy low driven effort was spilled by Joe Hart into his own goal.
The goal sent shockwaves around Europe, putting Iceland 2-1 up against England and also finished Hart’s England career and he’s never really recovered at club level either.
The goal gave Iceland something to fight for, and fight they did, putting eleven bodies on the line to earn their momentous victory.