Iceland tied Portugal in their Euro 2016 debut, but let's be honest. Iceland beat Portugal.
Portugal has the eighth-best team in the world, per the latest FIFA rankings, and they have the world's highest-paid player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Iceland has the 175th-biggest population, 1/30th as large as Portugal. Portugal's capital, Lisbon, has 200,000 more residents than the whole of Iceland. This month, 27,000 Icelandic fans, or roughly 8 percent of the nation's population, made their way to Saint-Etienne for the game against Portugal, where they went nuts for their tiny nation's proud team.
Iceland's goalkeeper works as a music video director. One of their coaches is a dentist. And yet Iceland held strong against the Portuguese, with Birkir Bjarnason tallying a goal in the 50th minute that would hold for a 1-1 scoreline.
While Portugal dominated possession and had more chances than Iceland, forcing goalie Hannes Thor Halldorsson to make 12 saves, Iceland threatened late and had opportunities to potentially beat the Portuguese.
After the game, Ronaldo mocked the Icelandic side:
More Ronaldo: "They celebrated like they had won the Euro cup or something. That's a small mentality. That's why they'll do nothing."— Ed Malyon (@eaamalyon) June 14, 2016
Bitterness aside, it's not surprising Ronaldo completely failed to understand the joy of Iceland's accomplishment. He's from a completely different world. The Guardian reported that when he visited Iceland with the Portuguese team for a qualifying match in 2010, he assumed he could have his own private dressing room, when in fact the stadium only had two, one per team.
It's rather hard to track down the salaries of all of Iceland's players (or non-superstar soccer players, period), but their highest-paid player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, makes about $4 million. That's 1/20th of Ronaldo's annual haul including endorsements. We're pretty confident Iceland's entire team combined makes less than Ronaldo does.
Celebrate Iceland for many things: Their rabid fans, their imposing Viking names, their underdog status, whatever. But know this: They come from a freezing volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean on top of the world, and they've managed to make a damn good soccer team. Everything else aside, that's incredible.
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First, let's get a grasp on how small Iceland is. There are 332,000 people in Iceland. That makes them smaller than Luxembourg, or Malta, or the Bahamas, or, for that matter, Topeka, Kan.
They're the smallest country ever to qualify for a competition of this caliber. No country with a currently smaller population than Iceland has ever made the World Cup, and Iceland is the smallest to make the Euros.
If we go to less prestigious events, there's some precedent. Two smaller nations have qualified for North America's lowly equivalent to the Euros, the Gold Cup, and they both got blown out. Grenada was outscored 25-1 in the 2009 and 2011 editions, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines was outscored 8-0 in the 1999 edition. Tahiti made it to the 2013 Confederations Cup on a fluke, and were outscored 24-1 in just three games.
Iceland was like this for many years. In their attempt to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, they finished last in their group, only winning one game, a home matchup with Macedonia. In their attempt to qualify for the 2012 Euros, they finished second to last, again only winning a single game, this time a home matchup with Cyprus. (Macedonia and Cyprus are not as good as Portugal.) As the 2012 Euros were held, the Icelandic squad was ranked 131st in the world.
But several amazing things happened that turned Iceland into a legitimate squad. Some were systemic. The Guardian wrote about the cultural and infrastructural changes that have allowed Iceland to succeed. They've built a slew of top-notch indoor practice buildings, some in small towns that would never justify such facilities, allowing soccer to be a year-round sport in a country that can get rather cold. And an absurd amount of people have received coaching training -- one in 825 Icelandic people has attained a UEFA B coaching license, as opposed to one in 11,000 in England -- ensuring players receive high-quality training from a young age.
Some of it has been due to the brilliance of the team's coach, Lars Lagerback, who had previously coached much bigger teams like Sweden and Nigeria. Vice Sports profiled Lagerback, as well as his assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson, both of whom have been integral to the team's success.
Between infrastructure, coaching and yes, skill, Iceland became a quality team. They were just one game from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, finishing second in their group and making a two-leg playoff with Croatia for one World Cup spot. They drew 0-0 in the first game, but lost 2-0 at Croatia. And they genuinely earned their spot in these Euros. They beat the Netherlands twice, in Reykjavik and in Amsterdam, and finished second in their qualifying group. There have been a lot of newcomers in this tournament because it was expanded from the typical 16-team format to 24 teams, but as the second-best team in their group, Iceland didn't benefit from that change. They would've made it in the old way.
This is a feel-good story, sure, but it's also a legitimate soccer story. After pulling even with Portugal, Iceland are two more strong performances from actually making it out of this group. Austria looked abysmal Tuesday, and if Iceland are good enough to tie Portugal, they should be good enough to hold their own against Hungary as well. There's legitimate reason to believe they can go on to the knockout stages.
We'll be following Iceland's saga as closely as anybody.