Paraguay had an estimated population of around 850,000 when it was invited to the 1930 World Cup. In 2005, Trinidad and Tobago became the smallest country to ever qualify for the tournament with a population of just over 1.2 million. Iceland has shattered their records.
Iceland defeated Kosovo 2-0 on Monday to top its UEFA qualifying group, and in the process become the smallest country to ever make the World Cup. The last estimate of Iceland’s population is 334,252, according to the United Nations.
It’s possible that no other country takes training soccer players as seriously as Iceland. The country has over 20,000 registered soccer players, or 5 percent of all Icelandic people. One in 500 Icelanders has a UEFA B license or higher, meaning some players start training under professional coaches as 5-year-olds. I highly recommend Barney Ronay’s piece in The Guardian on Iceland’s rise to prominence in global soccer.
Soccer fans around the world got the chance to fall in love with Iceland during Euro 2016, the first major tournament that Iceland ever qualified for. It drew Portugal and Hungary, then beat Austria in the group stage, securing a place in the knockout stages. In the Round of 16, Iceland pulled off an amazing comeback upset win over England.
Despite its small population, Iceland had incredible fan support at the Euros and got to introduce the world to the viking clap, which the players did with tens of thousands of supporters upon their return to Reykjavík.
Despite its successes, Iceland only ascended to Pot 2 in the draw for UEFA World Cup qualifying, and was placed into a difficult group with Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey. But Iceland put together a perfect home record in qualifying and two wins on the road, including a dramatic 3-0 victory in Turkey last Friday. Croatia failed to beat Finland at home on the same day, gifting first place in the group to Iceland. The Icelanders went into Monday’s matches knowing that they would make the World Cup if they defeated Kosovo, which they did comfortably.
The goal that Gylfi Sigurdsson scored to win the match for Iceland was a spectacular one. Watch as he beats the entire Kosovo defense by himself.
Sigurdsson — who signed for Everton for a reported £40 million transfer fee this summer — is Iceland’s biggest star, but he’s not usually a one-man show. Iceland owes its success to surprising depth — there are dozens of Icelandic players who started with small clubs in Scandinavia before moving on to clubs in bigger European leagues. Check out the wide variety of European clubs that Icelandic internationals play for.
Iceland is good enough at developing talent that it is no longer an underdog story, despite its small population. Its results have consistently improved over the last decade. Everyone knows who Iceland is now, and no one will underestimate it in Russia.