Iceland faces France in quarterfinals of Euro 2016
Iceland playing in first ever major international tournament
Defeated England 2-1 in previous round
President-elect Gudni Johannesson to honor heroes
He’s just won a presidential election – now he’s targeting the European Championship finals.
But anyone thinking that Gudni Johannesson is ready to swap his place in the stands for a suit and Champagne has got Iceland’s president-elect all wrong.
While most politicians head for the VIP zone and the rarefied atmosphere of a corporate box, Johannesson says he can’t wait to be in the stands to cheer on his countrymen when Iceland meets host nation France in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 Sunday.
“Why would I go in the VIP room and sip Champagne when I can do that anywhere in the world?” Johannesson told CNN with more than a hint of a smile.
“No, I will be in the stands with the fans and I will wear my Iceland shirt. And with respect to the French team – it should not underestimate us.”
There’s little chance of Iceland being underestimated after it pulled off one of the most astonishing results in the history of the tournament by defeating England in Nice Monday.
It was a result which sent shockwaves across the world of sport, costing England coach Roy Hodgson his job and bringing humiliation upon one of the world’s most famous footballing nations.
Home of the richest and most watched league in the world, England was embarrassed by an Iceland team playing in its first ever major international tournament, becoming the smallest to ever compete at the competition.
While England’s fans went into a period of introspection after losing to a team which is co-managed by a part-time dentist, around 8% of Iceland’s 330,000 population was celebrating with its players inside the stadium.
Iceland fans have flocked to France en-masse bringing plenty of color, song and the renowned cacophonous clapping celebration.
“It was fantastic to be in Nice and cheer the team on to such an improbable result – there were tears of joy,” said Johannesson, who will replace Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who has served as head of state for the past 20 years.
“Of course, for Iceland as a country, this means a lot. It shows that if you set yourself a goal, work towards it, stick together and have discipline then anything can happen.”
On Sunday, Iceland will face its stiffest test yet at Euro 2016 as it attempts to pull off another shock result – this time against a France team dreaming of a third European Championship crown.
Few outside Iceland are giving it a chance but that matters little to those who have been partying in Reykjavik over the past fortnight.
Fresh from filming the second series of TV show “Fortitude,” actor Joi Johannsson also has flights to Paris already booked as he heads to the French capital with his son hoping to find a couple of tickets for another potential Icelandic blockbuster.
“Stepping into the tournament we were already winners however you look at it – we’re the only nation that has never lost at the finals,” the actor quipped.
“Icelanders are typically moody, with the long winter, the snow and the cold but we’re dancing in the streets, kissing and cuddling, without the use of alcohol for once.”
While thousands have traveled to France for the tournament others have stayed at home and gathered en masse to watch on big screens across the country.
“Everyone in the country has a connection with a team member, a friend, or a friend of a friend,” added Johannsson, who is friendly with a couple of the players.
“It’s because everyone has that connection that makes it special – it’s like a family member succeeding at something and that’s why we’re so proud.”
The unity between fans and players has been evident from the very start of the tournament with defender Kari Arnason joking that he knew about 50% of the Iceland support which had arrived after the islanders reached the last 16 stage with a dramatic 2-1 win over Austria.
The iconic clapping celebration – as if summoning the spirit of a Norse god – has become one of the features of the tournament as has the players seeking out members of their families inside the stadium after games.
“It’s a fairytale which has made the whole nation happy,” said Iceland international goalkeeper Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, who was not selected for Euro 2016.
“First, it was a dream come true for Iceland to play against England at a tournament – it’s something we’ve waited years for and it was amazing.
“The entire nation believed we could beat them because we have that mentality. We were the better team, and it felt like they thought they would walk all over us.
“But it was a fantastic performance. You have to remember that when I was a kid, the team was always struggling.”
Gunnleifsson may have missed out on a place in the 23-man squad but he has watched on from afar as the team continues to surprise.
“As a child, I’d watch the World Cup and Euros on television and think, ‘I’m never going to see Iceland play there.’
“We went close to qualifying for the last World Cup but everyone is so happy now.”
The success of Iceland’s football team will not only raise the profile of the country but will also encourage the world’s biggest clubs to increase their scouting on the island.
While several Icelandic players have gone on to play in England, the Netherlands and across Scandinavia, the race to sign the next generation looks set to start now.
One of Iceland’s leading football agents Olafur Gardarsson says the young talent being developed by the country’s successful coaching program is already catching the eye.
“Icelandic players always give 150% on the field and they never complain about the weather or the food,” he told CNN.
“When I first started out 19 years ago I thought I would mostly be moving big, strong defenders but now our players are highly skilful and very committed.
“A lot of the big clubs from Norway and Sweden have always taken players from Iceland but also clubs from England and the Netherlands.
“I think after Iceland’s performances at the Euros that a lot of clubs from all over Europe will now be coming to look at our players.”
Gardarsson cites the growing potential of the Under-16 and Under-17 teams, while the Under-21 team is unbeaten in its qualification campaign for next year’s European Championship.
Iceland has approximately 600 qualified coaches, 400 with Uefa B licences, or one per 825 people. To put this into context, in England this number falls to one per 11,000.
Coaching is at the very heart of Iceland’s success and anybody coaching children from the Under-10 level upwards needs to have obtained a Uefa B license.
The football houses which were introduced in 2000 with high-tech facilities and 3G pitches allowed kids to play indoors and not have to sit at home while the snow fell for months on end.
While the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Swansea midfielder, recalls playing on parquet flooring, today’s youngsters are able to train in state-of-the-art facilities courtesy of heavy investment by the Icelandic Football Association.
Also crucial to the development of Icelandic talent is the need to move abroad in order to become a full-time professional.
While England selected a squad without a single foreign-based player, Icelandic talents have little choice but to fly the nest.
“You have to remember that in Iceland you can only play on grass for three or four months of the year,” said Gardarsson.
“When you go abroad you can play on grass all year round, you play with better players that helps you improve.
“It means that the quality of our players is much better now and while I’m realistic, you know we don’t have 11 or 15 world class players yet, it’s OK because the Icelandic team is not a collection of individuals.
“We’re realistic to know that it won’t be a walk in the park for us to reach the next World Cup or Euros but we have a good chance now.”
While Iceland’s future looks bright, few are looking further than Sunday and the game with France.
The home side will start as huge favorite and will enjoy huge backing from the majority of the 80,000 crowd packed inside the Stade de France.
But Johannesson, who won the election last Sunday with 39.1% of the vote and will take up his role in office on August 1, is confident of his team’s chances.
He remembers the days when a defeat by three or four goals would be heralded as a moral victory. Those days are long gone.
“Whether the players come home after this match or whenever they come home they will be given a heroes’ welcome,” said Johannesson. “They will be greeted at the airport and they will be heroes.”