Debutants’ performance represents major win for new Euros format…

When the idea of 24 teams participating at Euro 2016 was first mooted the tournament’s new expanded format, allowing some of the so-called smaller European nations to partake in the extravaganza, had its detractors. But, more than two weeks from its inaugural clash those doubts have all been laid to rest.

Indeed, the impressive performances of tournament debutants like Wales have captured the imagination, adding a different flavour to the tournament and making these Euros, arguably, the most unpredictable and exciting ever. With that said, of course, there are some stories that have lasted more than others and have in a way come to define the ethos of the event. Here, the one tale that distinctly springs to mind is that of heroic Iceland.

Icelandic fans have added unique flavor to Euro 2016.

For the volcanic island nation that has witnessed its fair share of political instability in recent times, this is their first major campaign in international football. With a population of just over 330,000 and a vast majority of their players owing their development to clubs in Scandinavia the Icelanders qualified for this tournament ahead of pedigreed names like the Netherlands and Turkey. They then made it to the knockout rounds as runners-up from Group F ahead of mighty Portugal and while Italy Vs Spain in Saint-Denis stole all the limelight in the lead up to yesterday’s games Iceland couldn’t care less. This was supposed to be the easiest passage into the last eight that England could have asked for. Instead, their opponents added another chapter to what has undoubtedly become the greatest fairy-tale in European football history.

This was a typical Iceland display all about organization, discipline and a tireless work rate without the ball, matched by pace, precision and efficiency with it. The Icelanders did well not to let their heads drop after Wayne Roooney’s early penalty success and restoring parity almost immediately was key. However, centre-back Ragnar Sigurdsson’s leveller was nothing that should have surprised the English, coming as it did from a now familiar and well-rehearsed long throw-in routine.

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was a willing workhorse upfront and led the line exceptionally well, fully deserving of the bit of lucky he got for what eventually proved to be the winner on 18 minutes.

Before the tournament Gylfi Sigurdsson was probably the most recognizable name in the Iceland squad for fans of the Premier League and while the Swansea star sparkled as expected he had a very able foil in Aron Gunnarsson with the two midfield strongman cutting out every English attack at source. The full-backs Birkir Mar Saevarsson and Ari Freyr Skulason also played their part by keeping the Three Lions’ wingers like Dele Alli and Raheeem Sterling firmly in check. Meanwhile, Birkir Bjarnason who scored the equaliser against Portugal turned in another fine outing. Mention must also be made of the brains behind this team, those of veteran Swede Lars Lagerbäck, who is one of the finest football minds his country has produced.

Truth be told, wherever you looked there were heroes in blue shirts across the field and credit must also go to the travelling Icelandic support, some 3,000 strong who contributed immensely to the amazing atmosphere at the Allianz Riviera in Nice.

The Islanders now face hosts France themselves determined to go the distance and backed by a vociferous partisan home support. It is difficult to say how much longer this enchanting and gripping tale will last. But, in a way, it doesn’t really matter. For, whatever happens from here on in, this squad has written itself into football folklore, not only in their country but also the world. In doing so, they have ensured that this new and vibrant format of the European Championships is well and truly here to stay. For, they have exemplified how opportunity can become a catalyst for history that will remain edged in the annuls of time.

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Article by Khel Now-Content Editor Mrunal Nakashe. A sports buff, he’s also a foreign policy enthusiast and keen North Korea watcher. Mrunal loves gaming, reading, traveling and is a self-confessed Football Manager addict. You can follow him on Twitter.