Sport360° view: Smaller European nations shining in 2016 qualifiers

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Coming out of the cold: Iceland lead their group in Euro qualifying.

Between 1974 and 2010, Iceland’s qualification records for European Championships and World Cups read: Played – 156, won – 33, drawn – 28, lost 95, for – 132, against – 282, goal difference – minus 150.

They were among their continent’s most notable minnows, the perennial whipping boys of any group, who finished bottom or second-bottom in 15 of 19 qualification campaigns over the 36 years. 

With such a consistently miserable record, in a country of barely 325,000 people (15 per cent of the population of Dubai), the prospect of them ever reaching a major tournament was as bleak as a January night on the tundra. 

The only time they entered the football conversation was during the 1990s when players such as Gudni Bergsson, Hermann Hreidarsson and Eidur Gudjonsson, via PSV Eindhoven, made their mark in the Premier League. They were ambassadors for the country and success was measured through their own personal journeys. Little was expected of the national team, nor should it have been. 

Yet the turn of the decade has seen Iceland slowly become a genuine competitor. In qualification for World Cup 2014, a 2-0 defeat in Zagreb in the second leg of their play-off against Croatia denied them a place in Brazil, but that disappointment has only fuelled their desire. On Monday, they recorded the proudest result in their nation’s history with a 2-0 triumph over World Cup semi-finalists the Netherlands. And it was no fluke. 

Iceland have now gone 441 competitive minutes without conceding at home and, with nine points from their first three games in Group A, they are well on track to be a part of Euro 2016 in France. 

Of course, Michel Platini’s idea for an expanded competition has aided their quest, but at the same time Iceland are a lesson in why nations shouldn’t be cast aside as no-hopers. 

The continual debate amid thrashings of San Marino, Liechtenstein and, now, Gibraltar, is for a two-tier qualification system to be devised to separate the established nations from such unheralded opposition. Iceland would have been placed among those nations in any discussions of that nature in the 1980’s and ’90s. Yet now it would be foolhardy to brand them with the minnows moniker. 

Investment by the Icelandic government in indoor facilities coupled with a smart managerial appointment – Lars Lagerback led Sweden to five consecutive tournaments – has helped turn things around. Iceland’s determination shows that the smaller nations can prosper, while equally highlighting the arrogance of the continental elite, and that international football is an ever-evolving beast that shouldn’t be tampered with. 

Smaller nations have big ideas

Germany and the Netherlands are not the only teams enduring a severe post-World Cup comedown.

Spain, Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Russia and Portugal were all present in Brazil this summer yet have all made 
inauspicious starts in attempting to qualify for France 2016.

Some of the leaders across the nine groups read like an alternative European travel guide, with only England, Croatia and Denmark providing any normality to Iceland, Wales, Slovakia, Poland, Northern Ireland and Austria.

With just three rounds played, there are sure to be changes between now and next year as the bigger nations awake from their Brazilian slumber. 

But in opening up the qualification process to the top two teams plus the third-best entering a play-off, Michel Platini has given the smaller, less-successful teams a greater opportunity and increased motivation to make it to a major tournament.

In recent times the likes of Scotland or Slovakia would have to settle for a play-off spot at very best, now they have a genuine chance of qualifying automatically. 

Theoretically, qualification for the bigger nations has been made easier, but with even more teams in contention right until the end, in reality it could become harder and there is a genuine danger one of the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Russia or even Germany could miss out.

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