x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tiny Iceland are one win away from 2014 Fifa World Cup

Young squad has a chance to re-write history books but World Cup 2014 qualifying second leg in Croatia presents a tough challenge, writes Richard Jolly.

Iceland's Eidur Gudjohnsen can possibly provide the lift his team may need against Croatia in their World Cup 2014 qualifier on Tuesday night. Filip Horvat / AP Photo
Iceland's Eidur Gudjohnsen can possibly provide the lift his team may need against Croatia in their World Cup 2014 qualifier on Tuesday night. Filip Horvat / AP Photo

The theme of the World Cup is a search for new frontiers. Football’s quest for global domination has entailed a first African World Cup — in South Africa three years ago — and will be followed by a first visit to Russia, in 2018, and the Middle East, when Qatar hosts the 2022 tournament.

But the 2014 edition could have a novelty factor of its own. Iceland are 90 minutes away from qualifying.

A cold outpost in the middle of the Atlantic, almost 500 miles from the mainland of Scotland, the nearest country ever to have played at a World Cup, Iceland would add another dimension.

And yet it is not the glaciers and geysers, the volcanoes and the fjords that make Iceland stand out in a footballing sense as much as the population.

A country of around 320,000 people could achieve what China and India — combined population: 2.8 billion — have not: a place at Brazil.

Perhaps more pertinently, France, the 1998 World Cup winners and a land of 66 million people, are likely to miss out having lost the first leg of their play-off 2-0 to Ukraine.

In contrast, Iceland held Croatia to a draw, despite playing the final 40 minutes with ten men after Olafur Skulason was dismissed.

The downside is they face a gifted Croatia side in Zagreb tonight without the suspended Skulason and, probably, the injured Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, part of the golden generation who have propelled Iceland farther than most thought possible.

Eleven of Lars Lagerback’s squad are age between 23 and 25; they formed the basis of the side that qualified for the European Under 21 Championship in 2011. Captain Aron Gunnarsson, Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and forwards Sigthorsson and Alfred Finnbogason are the pick of the younger crop.

Then there is the remnant of an earlier era. Eidur Gudjohnsen is 35 and, in between winning the Uefa Champions League and being signed by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, has been playing international football for 17 years.

Iceland’s greatest player has been reinvented as their impact substitute. Their record goalscorer no longer finds the net — his last international strike came in 2009 — but he was the instigator of the crucial turnaround in their campaign thus far, coming off the bench to inspire his country, 4-1 down in Switzerland, to procure an unlikely point.

It was a reason why Iceland, seeded sixth in their group, finished second.

Now he could be catapulted back into the team for the biggest game in Iceland’s history.

“We still don’t know if Sigthorsson will be fit, there is a swelling and a sprain so it’s a race against the clock,” manager Lagerback said. Gudjohnsen is the likely replacement.

What he lacks in pace, he compensates in class. Not that Croatia appear impressed by their opponents.

“A side inferior in every department in terms of quality,” the veteran defender Josip Simunic rather undiplomatically said. Perhaps that is understandable: while Luka Modric plays for Real Madrid, Kari Arnason plies his trade for Rotherham in League One in England.

They meet as equals and as opposites. If there is a whiff of unhappy underachievement about Croatia, who changed their coach after the group stage when Igor Stimac resigned and his former teammate Niko Kovac took over, Iceland are their antithesis.

“I’ve never known people so excited,” said Gudjohnsen last week.

Around 30,000 people — or 10 per cent of the population — applied for tickets for Friday’s first leg.

There will be an exodus from Iceland to Zagreb for tonight’s second leg to see if they can upset the odds.

The bare facts are that Croatia finished third in the 1998 World Cup, have qualified for seven of the last nine major tournaments and have never lost to Iceland.

They are red-hot favourites, Iceland the ice-cold underdogs intent upon rewriting history.

Trinidad & Tobago, with a population of around 1.2 million, are currently the smallest country to have qualified for a football World Cup. If Iceland have their way, that will soon change.

***

Jordan are up against the odds in Uruguay

Jordan will seek a damage-limitation exercise in their second-leg intercontinental play-off in Montevideo on Tuesday night with their opponents’ place in next summer’s World Cup at Brazil already assured by last week’s 5-0 victory in Amman.

Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, said after last’s week’s win he would field the same team to “honour the fans who will fill the stadium” in the capital.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE