The “golden generation” in any sport is defined by a collective group of players, of similar age and certainly of similar skill level that are dynamically tipped to be successful in their respective sport.
Over the years, particularly in football, there are many national teams that come to mind: Yugoslavia in the late eighties and early nineties led by former creative midfielder Safet Susic. A Croatia side that reached third place in 1998 World Cup (indeed with many of those Yugoslavic players on their side) and a Bulgarian team led by Stanislav Hristov that perhaps coined the term golden generation in USA’s World Cup of 94.
Since the nineties there have been more national teams that have been deemed the golden generation either by their own supporters or commentators perched on high. Belgium, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen, Maroune Fellaini, Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku, has been the most contemporary Golden Generation to make an impact on the world stage, most notably beating the US in the 2014 World Cup and making it to the quarterfinals after a twelve year absence.
Although the World Cup is not for another three years the European Championships, a tournament just as competitive and nearly as important, is in its concluding phase. There have been a number of shocks and a fair number of expected results but something completely unexpected is happening in the far north.
The Icelandic national team sits atop Group A with 18 points in seven matches, touting a combined record of six wins and one loss.
With a new format in place, one that expands the tournament to 24 teams rather than 16, smaller nations definitely have a greater opportunity to enter the fray. But before qualifying even commenced, Iceland, overshadowed by former World Cup finalists Netherlands, a strong Turkish side and an equally as dangerous Czech team, was certainly not tipped to make a trip to France, let alone lead their group with three matches left.
Regardless of its likelihood, Iceland are doing just that. Their collective team base, most playing in some of the best leagues in Europe, (the Dutch Eredivisie, the English Premier League and Championship, Serie A and Bundesliga) epitomize the term ‘golden generation.’
The term itself is easy to say. Behind the popular brand is a series of financial decisions centered around youth players consciously based on their footballing development. Of course every European country has a multi-tiered domestic league. It is the quality of those leagues that separate the Germans and the French and the English from the Maltese and the Andorrans and the Estonians. However, when organizations actually invest in youth academies, train players, give them resources, then clubs can create something special. The first part of that something special was investing; the Icelandic under 21 national team that reached the u-21 World Cup paid for that investment many times over. The second part was employing a successful coach, Lars Lagerback, who during the turn of the century put Swedish football on the map. And third part is combining all those resources, investment, youth, coaching and applying them to the senior international team.
Unlike the Portuguese team in the mid nineties that underachieved at international level, the Strakarnir Okkar are overachieving.
In the first match of Euro qualifying Iceland demolished Turkey three-nil. They followed that with a rout of Latvia. In October Iceland recorded their most historic victory ever, beating the Netherlands in Reykjavik two-nil.
Their momentum slowed with a late goal lost to the Czech Republic but they followed the disappointment up with another three nil win, this time over group whipping boys Kazakhstan.
Any doubts were cast aside by the end of the domestic season, June 2015. Iceland faced the Czechs once more and this time pulled out as victors, reversing the scoreline 2-1 in their own favor.
Now it is September and only four matches are left to decide which countries can make the final 24 team cut. Iceland was readily prepared for Netherlands in Amsterdam and won one-nil courtesy of a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty. This win effectively knocked the Netherlands out of a top two spot, relegating them to a potential playoff round and pushed Iceland up into first. All the island nation needs is one point from three games to clinch a place in France next summer.
Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty marked his fifth goal in seven appearances, more than double his closest teammate.
Although the influential attacking midfielder may be the most famous player in KSI blue and the most notable, having spent time with Tottenham Hotspur and playing currently for Swansea City, he is not the sole provider.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Iceland’s pacey forward and Aron Gunnarsson, the engine like defensive midfield captain, each grabbed a goal in their victory against the Czech Republic. Eidur Gudjohnsen, the former Chelsea star, scored the game winning against a tough home crowd in Kazakhstan. Birkir Bjarnason netted two goals as well, one in each half.
The plethora of goals scored at crucial times from different players pretty much summarizes the philosophy of Swedish head coach, Lars Lagerback.
“I’ve been involved in international top football since the early 90s, travelling around with [Sweden manager] Tommy Svensson and scouting opponents while working with the youth teams before I started with the men’s senior team, and I would say the thing that stands out for every successful team, notwithstanding good players, is to have a very clear idea of how to play, a clear plan. You have to get the team to work together in a good way, that is also absolutely crucial. If you look at all the good teams, from Spain to Barcelona and other teams who have won tournaments, whether it is international or club football, there is always a very clear idea of how to play football. And if you can’t adhere to that, then it is very difficult to achieve anything.”
Knowing how to play game in and game out is something very evident in Iceland’s European Championship campaign. Where most other teams sit back and defend against a team more skilled than they were, the Strakarnir Okkar used their home crowd as an advantage and took the game to the Oranje.
In games that could potentially slip up the group A frontrunners, they played just as strong. The attacking momentum and dominate possession, not to mention nearly double the number of chances against Latvia and Kazakhstan, can attest to that.
Again, Lagerback and the Icelandic players know any good team needs a few dynamic players and a large variety of role players. Although Gunnarsson is younger and not the most flashy, he was made captain because of his tireless work rate and hound-dog like defending. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson has only ever played domestically in Iceland until this year. In July he was transferred to NEC Nijmegen in Holland. Despite coming from a small island nation housing around 330,000 people to a big time league in a historically successful footballing country, Halldorsson has been nothing but solid in qualifying, particularly against Netherlands and Czech Republic.
The papers and the Icelandic supporters are already celebrating Iceland’s first internal tournament ever. Playmaker Sigurdsson knows they cannot get ahead of themselves although he readily admits they have taken ‘a massive step’. “We need to stay calm and make sure we finish the job.” He says post-match.
Iceland plays Kazakhstan at home September 6th and will return to action internationally in October where they hope to solidify their position as the surprising small island minnow atop Group A.
Follow up: Iceland tied Kazakstan nil-nil, securing qualification for the Euro 2016. Follow the celebration coverage here.
Contributing Writer: Kyle Clemens