Will There Be a “New Iceland” at Euro 2020? Smaller Nations That Could Do Well
England fans will not need reminding of how well Iceland did at the European Championship in France in 2016. The smallest nation in the competition knocked out the home of soccer in one of the biggest upsets in history.
Not that the European Championship hasn’t had its fair share of shock results in its time, however. Who could forget late entrants Denmark winning the trophy in 1992? Or Greece surprising everyone, Cristiano Ronaldo included, in 2004?
But there was something about Iceland, previously regarded as a soccer minnow, beating England in the 2016 quarterfinal that resonated with fans of the global game and gave hope to smaller nations around the world.
The qualifiers for the Euro 2020 are nearing conclusion, and some lesser fancied countries could progress to next summer’s finals. I’m going to look at the state of the groups with just a few games to play and see if there are any Euro 2020 sleepers that may be able to emulate Iceland and make headlines around the world.
Not Just Iceland
Although Iceland’s success was one of the big stories from the 2016 European Championship, it wasn’t the only smaller nation at the tournament. There were four other nations making their Euro debuts — Wales, Northern Ireland, Albania, and Slovakia.
If anything, Wales was the real success story, reaching the semifinal after topping a group that included England and then sensationally knocking out Belgium in the quarterfinals.
But Iceland’s rise from a FIFA ranking of 131st in 2012 to beating England at a major tournament is the real rags to riches tale. The fact that this was a country that could only choose its squad from a population of around 330,000 makes its achievements even greater.
There are not many nations involved in Euro 2020 qualifying with populations that small, especially any that have a chance of making it to the finals, but which of the “minnows” could spring a surprise next year?
Nations to Look Out For
With the extension to 24 teams qualifying for the European Championship in 2016, we saw a few new names in the groups, and that is likely to be the case in 2020. There is also the Nations League route to take into consideration.
The ins and outs of the Nations League qualification route are far too complex to go into in any detail here. But one of the main ideas of the new competition was to give some of the smallest and least successful countries the chance to qualify for a major tournament. When the “leagues” were drawn, it was done by UEFA ranking, meaning that there will be four smaller countries battling it out in the playoffs. One of Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Belarus will be competing at the 2020 European Championship.
Once this international break is over, there will be just two matchdays left. Depending on the results, some of these teams could be qualifying for the finals.
It seems slightly unfair to include Romania on a list of soccer minnows. This is, after all, a nation that has qualified for a number of World Cups and European Championships in its history and has had some world-famous players pulling on the yellow shirt. But recent history has not been kind to Romania, and the possibility that it may qualify for Euro 2020 is a big step in its return to Europe’s top table.
If Romania manages to get a favorable result at home to Norway this week, then it looks like it will be a straight fight between it and Sweden for the runners-up spot in Group F. Both countries still have to face Spain, so the game between the two in Bucharest in November could be like a playoff of its own.
Romania did actually qualify for 2016 but drew just one game, so this has been a quick turnaround in results. It is a team still not that well known around the world, but Ianis, the son of legend Gheorghe Hagi, is now a regular in the squad and could lead this team to a successful tournament next summer if it makes it that far.
Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have all had their moments in the sun when it comes to international soccer, so although these players wouldn’t call themselves Scandinavian, it must be difficult for Finland to consistently miss out on competing at a major tournament and watch its near neighbors get there instead.
Finland has never qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship, but that might well change soon. Fired with goals from Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki, Finland sits second in its group behind Italy and is looking good for automatic qualification. Although Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina are both in Group I as well, it is the game against Armenia on matchday 8 that is crucial. If Finland can win or even draw at home, then qualification would seem to be in its own hands.
Finland is another strong squad that has worked on its youth setup over the last few years, as was the case with Iceland, and it is now looking to reap its rewards. Whether it can compete at next summer’s European Championship or not will depend on who it is grouped with, but two narrow defeats to Italy in this campaign suggest that Finland is able to give anyone a good game.
Due to the Nations League playoffs, Kosovo may not need to finish in the top two in Group A to qualify for finals, but it might achieve that feat anyway. After scoring 15 goals in six Nations League games, Kosovo looks the best of the four League D nations who will be competing in the playoffs next March.
But as long as Kosovo keeps playing the way it has been in qualifying so far, it could mean automatic qualification for a nation that only declared independence in 2008 and became a member of UEFA as recently as 2016. That means Kosovo was not even included in the qualifying for 2016 and has only ever competed in one World Cup campaign.
England may be running away with Group A, but Kosovo is handily placed to finish second if it manages to beat the Czech Republic in Plzen in November. When Kosovo was 5-1 down to England at half time of the game at Wembley, it may not have seemed as though this was a side that could go on to play in a major tournament. But a second-half effort that saw Kosovo score two goals without reply and a game plan concentrating on attacking play suggests that this is a team to look out for.
With the benefit of the Nations League back-up plan, I would say that Kosovo is actually the most likely out of the nations profiled here to make it to Euro 2020, and it could cause some further surprises at the tournament.
What of Iceland? Could Iceland be the “new Iceland” after all? Even considering the small population and lack of truly global stars, it is questionable whether Iceland can be considered a minnow anymore.
After the success of Euro 2016, Iceland qualified for its first-ever World Cup in Russia, and although performances were not of the same standard as in France, it did have to deal with the “group of death,” which also included Argentina, Nigeria, and Croatia. A group stage exit was the result, but Iceland is now battling with France and Turkey in this campaign to make it to the 2020 European Championship.
It will be tough for Iceland to make it to the tournament, let alone repeat its 2016 heroics. With such a small number of players to draw from, it is more likely that it falls back into a more natural, if still overachieving, position in European soccer. Like Wales, Iceland will probably go back to qualifying for the odd major tournament rather than being a regular fixture at such occasions.
As the history of major soccer tournaments shows, it is usually the case that the bigger nations go on lift the trophies. There have been some surprises over the years, but in the end, the winners generally come from a small group of previous champions.
But it is always good to see new nations and players perform on the biggest stages, and the achievements of Iceland and Wales in France in 2016 show that anything can happen if the belief is there.
With the 2020 European Championship being played at 12 different host cities rather than in one country, there might not be the same chance for a smaller nation to get some momentum going. But if Kosovo, Finland, or Romania make it to next summer’s tournament, they will be going all out to make up for their absence on the main stage.
As they have all shown throughout qualifying so far, the bigger teams should not disregard their abilities. England fans know only too well what can happen if they do.