Euro 2016 Spotlight:Iceland

Something interesting has happened in Europe over the last few years. After decades of being a punching bag for the rest of the continent, Iceland got good. No, not just passably decent, more likely to snipe a periodic win than they used to — they got good.

Iceland took Croatia to the limit in a playoff for World Cup qualification, and despite not making it, they used that tie as a launching pad to what wound up as an utterly fantastic Euro 2016 qualification run, finishing second behind the Czech Republic in a group that included Turkey and the Netherlands.

That finish was no fluke, either — they kicked all kinds of butt to get there. Iceland beat the Netherlands twice, beat Turkey 3-0 at home and spent the entire year-long qualifying run opening eyes and dropping jaws. Reykjavík became a place no one wanted to play in, because almost out of nowhere, Iceland were a burgeoning power in Europe.

How did it happen, though? How did Iceland go from perennial joke to sudden nightmare? It all starts with one man: Gylfi Sigurðsson.

The 26-year-old midfielder has spent the last five years steadily improving and quietly emerging as an impressive young creative talent. Sigurðsson started his senior squad career with Reading in England, but it was with Hoffenheim in Germany when he really started to blossom. A half-season on loan with Swansea City in the Premier League cemented him as a rising star, and despite two mediocre years with Tottenham (struggling in systems that didn't suit him), ever since Sigurðsson returned to Swansea in 2014, he's shown time and again that he's a tremendous threat in open play, capable of audacious passes to teammates to put them through on goal, and a significant risk to shoot from range himself.

But it's Sigurðsson's skill outside of open play that keeps putting him in highlight reels, and that has turned him into a leader and source of inspiration for Iceland. He is absolutely lethal on set pieces, capable of serving up dangerous chances for his teammates from almost any range, and if he thinks a goalkeeper is at all napping on a free kick, he can and will punish them for it. It's almost worth watching Iceland play just to see what Sigurðsson will do with their set pieces.

But it's not just Sigurðsson doing all the work for Iceland, though he is their standout star. They've gotten to this position by getting better across the board, with a number of quality talents hitting their prime, like Alfreð Finnbogason, Aron Gunnarsson, Birkir Bjarnason and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson — all players you may not have heard much of, but are immensely valuable players for their club sides, and bring that quality, form and experience with them to Iceland. This team doesn't just rely on Eiður Guðjohnsen and Emil Hallfreðsson to pull magic out of a hat anymore — they have an incredible supporting cast who all can step up to contribute at any given moment.

And if you're thinking that Iceland will just be a flash in the pan who might make some noise in Euro 2016 and fade away again, you might not want to hold your breath. It's not just the cagey vets and players in their prime making waves in the cold north — they've got quite the generation of younger players coming up too. Just in their Euro squad, the likes of Sverrir Ingason, Hörður Magnússon and Jón Böðvarsson all offer a lot of promise and upside in the coming years to keep Iceland going strong, and they're far from alone in an impressively growing talent pool.

Many casual observers might think that Iceland are only in the Euros because of the expanding tournament and might help contribute to the "weakening" of the field, but that's anything but the case for Iceland this year. Without a swoon in form in their last two qualifying matches, they would have won their group handily, and even then they still easily qualified straight out of their group. They're a legitimately good team, and they're out to prove to everyone just how good they are.

Iceland have already spent the last two years telling the world that they're coming. Now it's time for Gylfi Sigurðsson and his team to kick down the door — probably from a set piece — and make the European Championships their true arrival on the world soccer scene. Iceland are a stepping stone no longer — now it's time for them to step on a few backs.

Schedule & Results

Tuesday, Jun. 14
Saturday, Jun. 18
Wednesday, Jun. 22
Monday, Jun. 27
Sunday, Jul. 3