Iceland’s men’s national football team know that they are only one win away from securing an unprecedented opportunity to qualify for the Fifa World Cup in Brazil next year. If they win at Nordic rivals Norway tomorrow evening, they will have qualified for the European play-offs, where they will be just a two-legged tie away from a plane to South America.
A land of volcanic rock and ice flats, Iceland is unsurprisingly not renowned for its sporting prowess. Given the climatic difficulties of organising outdoor sports, the nation’s greatest sporting triumphs have tended to be in indoor events (such as handball, weightlifting and chess) and winter sports (ice hockey, biathlon, skating).
The first international football match played by Iceland was against the Faroe Islands in 1930 and their first fully-sanctioned game was not until 1946 when they lost to Denmark. That said, Icelandic football has its origins in the 19th century, before much of the rest of the world.
During the 1870s, English sailors arriving at Scandinavian ports brought with them footballs and the early codified rules of the Association game that their countrymen had pioneered back home.
In addition to spreading the popularity of the sport amongst the working classes of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm, the game also reached Reykjavik. Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR) were established as the first Icelandic club side in 1899, sporting a black-and-white striped kit reminiscent of Newcastle United. This adaptation of an English team’s strip would be a feature of the global spread of soccer at the beginning of the twentieth century when British traders and colonialists quickly disseminated the popularity of the sport.
By 1912, the Icelandic Football League had been established, running between May and September to avoid the harsher conditions of winter. Despite this early introduction to organised soccer, Iceland was always constrained in its football development by its small population and harsh climate.
It is perhaps unsurprising that few countries outside of their Nordic neighbours wanted to travel to face Iceland and the tiny island nation was isolated for many years from the footballing world.
A well-managed, if small, footballing infrastructure has developed in Iceland over the years and its women’s national side has taken full advantage. Only involved in competitive matches since 1981, Iceland’s women qualified for both the 2009 and 2013 European championships, no mean feat regardless of the reduced competition.
The only notable achievement of the men’s team (despite the relatively long history of Icelandic football) occurred in 1996 when Arnor Guðjohnsen was replaced by his son Eidur, the only time a father and son have played on the same national team in the same match.
Although their place in Brazil is far from secured, victory tomorrow will give Iceland an excellent opportunity to become the latest Nordic nation to make it to a major championships, well over a century since those first English seamen dared to kick a ball along Reykjavik’s icy shores.