France v Iceland - Quarter Final: UEFA Euro 2016

Why You Should Be Rooting for Iceland in the World Cup

The country may be small, but the play is big.

American soccer fans looking for a team to root for in the 2018 World Cup might want to consider Iceland. The island nation, which has a population of around 330,000, is the smallest country to ever qualify for the tournament, and it will be making its World Cup debut in Russia. Adding to the drama, Iceland is set to play three tough teams — Argentina, Croatia, and Nigeria — in a loaded Group D. If you’re in market for a lovable underdog, look no further. Here's a little background on your new favorite team.

FLASHES OF BRILLIANCE AFP/AFP/Getty Images FLASHES OF BRILLIANCE A handful of Icelandic players have made an impact at the highest levels of the game, most notably Eidur Gudjohnsen, who scored 54 goals during his six-year run at Chelsea (2000-2006) and later went on to play for Barcelona. That said, the national team has struggled mightily in recent years: During failed qualifying attempts for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Iceland managed just two wins over 18 matches. A GOOD RUN Alex Grimm/Getty Images A GOOD RUN Led by co-coaches Heimir Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback, Iceland found its stride during qualification for the 2014 World Cup. The team finished second in its European qualifying group and subsequently faced Croatia in a two-game playoff to determine which team would go to Brazil. They played to a scoreless draw in Reykjavik, but Croatia won 2-0 in Zagreb, ending Iceland’s run.

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BIG WIN VI-Images/VI-Images via Getty Images BIG WIN Drawn into a difficult qualifying group for the 2016 European Champions, Iceland needed to overcome a long history of disappointment just to reach the big dance. And the team did exactly that, finishing second in qualifying to make its European debut. The team’s key victory came on September 3, 2015, when it defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam. Iceland’s ascendant star, Gylfi Sigurdsson, scored the game’s only goal on a penalty kick in the 51st minute. STRONG SHOWING Jean Paul Thomas/Icon Sport via Getty Images STRONG SHOWING In its first game at its first European Championship, Iceland faced the tournament’s eventual winner — a powerhouse Portugal team led by Cristiano Ronaldo. Few pundits gave the first-timers much of a chance, and when Nani put the Portuguese in front with a goal in the 31st minute, things looked grim. But Iceland’s Birkir Bjarnason equalized five minutes into the second half and the underdogs held on for an impressive 1-1 result. Iceland finished second in Group F and advanced to the knockout phase. VIKING CLAP Clive Rose/Getty Images VIKING CLAP Iceland’s players made a positive impact at the European Championships — and so did its raucous fans. Nothing embodies Iceland’s unity and passion for soccer more than the Viking Clap, which features a resounding shout of “Hoo!” in unison with a powerful clap. Slow at first, the Viking Clap continues to get faster and faster until it evolves into a jubilant round of applause. STUNNER Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images STUNNER The biggest win in Icelandic soccer history came on June 27, 2016, in a quarterfinal match against heavily favored England. Wayne Rooney gave the Three Lions an early lead with a fourth-minute goal, but Iceland’s Ragnar Sigurdsson leveled two minutes later. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson put Iceland ahead in the 18th minute, and the score held. It was such a massive upset that England coach Roy Hodgson resigned immediately after the contest. THE CROWD GOES WILD Alex Livesey/Getty Images THE CROWD GOES WILD The post-game celebration after the 2-1 victory over England was deafening and highly emotional. “When we actually succeed in something like that, it unifies the whole nation,” Icelandic broadcaster Thora Arnorsdottir told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. “When we beat England, it was an out-of-body experience for a huge part of the country.” TOUGH LOSS Matthias Hangst/Getty Images TOUGH LOSS The party ended for Iceland on July 3, when it faced the host nation, France, in front of 76,833 partisan observers at the Stade De France in Saint-Denis. Olivier Giroud scored twice for Les Bleus, and superstars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann also tallied as a fearsome France team trounced the upstarts 5-2. HERO'S WELCOME KARL PETERSSON/AFP/Getty Images HERO'S WELCOME Despite the quarterfinal loss to France in the 2016 Euros, the team received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Reykjavik on July 4. Its historic accomplishments — qualifying for its first-ever European Championship, advancing to the knockout rounds, and then defeating powerhouse England in a do-or-die match — galvanized the nation. REMATCH WITH CROATIA HARALDUR GUDJONSSON/AFP/Getty Images REMATCH WITH CROATIA Determined to build on its 2016 successes, Iceland played with confidence in the buildup to the 2018 World Cup. The team was drawn into the same qualifying group as Croatia — the team that ruined its 2014 World Cup hopes — but flipped the script this time around. Iceland defeated Croatia 1-0 on June 11, 2017, and finished atop Group I to secure passage to Russia. COACH, D.D.S. Mike Stobe/Getty Images COACH, D.D.S. Iceland’s coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, is charmingly down-to-earth despite being the most popular man in the country. Still a practicing dentist, the 51-year-old hails from Vestmannaeyjar, a sparsely populated island chain off Iceland’s southern coast, and retains a small-town approachability. Several hours beefore home games, Hallgrimsson does the unthinkable: He meets with Tolfan, an Icelandic supporters group, and shares key info on the match, including the starting lineup, formation, and tactical notes. STAR POWER Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images STAR POWER Team unity and stout defending are Iceland’s defining characteristics, but star midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson will be central to the team’s hopes in Russia. A stalwart with English Premier League side Everton, the 28-year-old Sigurdsson is a dynamic attacker, and he’s been named Icelandic Footballer of the Year seven times, including the last six years in a row, but it remains to be seen how fully he’s recovered from a knee injury suffered in March.

--John Godfrey (@ThisIsASN)

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