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Little wonder Iceland creates giant piece of World Cup history

China Daily | Updated: 2017-10-11 07:58

REYKJAVIK - Less than 18 months after sensationally knocking England out of Euro 2016, Iceland qualified for the World Cup for the first time on Monday following a 2-0 win over Kosovo.

It was a remarkable achievement for a country that has a population of about 350,000. The previous smallest country to have reached the finals was Trinidad & Tobago, in 2006, with 1.3 million people.

Needing victory to guarantee top spot in European qualifying Group I, goals from Everton star Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Gudmundsson ensured Iceland would be on the plane to Russia 2018.

"I thought after Euro 2016 that the hardest thing would be to motivate ourselves again," said Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.

"The first beer after a party is not the best. The hardest thing was to get going again after our massive party in France.

"And what's more, it is in a group contested between Croatia, Turkey, Ukraine and Finland, who are much better than their position in the group would have you believe.

"The success is not an end in itself but a long journey towards a final destination."

It was only two years ago that Iceland qualified for a major finals for the first time, taking advantage of a tournament expanded to 24 teams but nonetheless knocking out the Netherlands in qualifying.

From there the team stunned Europe by not only negotiating its group but also stunning England in the last 16, before going out to host France in the quarterfinals.

Now, the World Cup in Russia will also be graced by the popular northern Europeans and their colorful fans, whose intimidating Viking war chant was one of the highlights of the Euros.

The fireworks blazed into the sky at Laugardalsvollur stadium after Hallgrimsson's team completed its expected victory over European minnow Kosovo, ranked No 184 in the world by FIFA.

Despite gleaning only a single point from its first ever qualifying campaign, Kosovo's coach Albert Bunjaki said Iceland's success could be an inspiration to his fledgling team.

"Congratulations to the whole Iceland team and to Icelanders," said Bunjaki, whose country's population is around six times larger than Iceland's.

"It's a great example for small nations like our own who aim to have a good team, well organized, in the future."

The result left Iceland ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey after yet another impressive qualifying campaign.

Iceland needed all three points to secure top spot in European qualifying Group I as Croatia, which fired coach Ante Cacic last week, downed Ukraine 2-0 in Kiev in the fight to claim second spot.

Andrej Kramatic struck twice in the second half to send Croatia into next month's playoffs as Zlatko Dalic took charge of his first match following the 1-1 draw with Finland that prompted the dismissal of Cacic.

Aleksandar Prijovic scored after coming on as a second-half substitute to cement Serbia's place in Russia, ending an eight-year absence from major finals.

Prijovic struck the winner in the 74th minute in Belgrade as Serbia finished top of Group D, with the Republic of Ireland heading to the playoffs after a 1-0 victory over Wales in Cardiff.

"I think we deserved this, although it turned out that the last step was the most difficult one, but we succeeded," coach Slavoljub Muslin said.

West Bromwich Albion winger James McClean broke Welsh hearts with a thunderous 57th-minute strike to keep Irish dreams alive as they leapfrogged their opponents, without the injured Gareth Bale, into second place.

Ireland remains on course for a first World Cup finals appearance since 2002, as surprise Euro 2016 semifinalists Wales saw its dream of a first trip to the tournament since 1958 turn to dust.

"The players were magnificent playing away from home at a very good Welsh side. To win on their territory was a great result for us," Ireland manager Martin O'Neill told Sky Sports.

"We are in the playoffs. Whenever the draw is made we will take our chance."

Wales manager Chris Coleman admitted said his team's first competitive home defeat in four years was hard to swallow.

"My players gave everything but it wasn't enough in the end to get over the line," he said. "It will hurt for a bit, but you learn from defeat. We will learn from tonight."

Real Sociedad's Asier Illarramendi netted the only goal in Jerusalem as Spain completed its successful qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Israel, while Antonio Candreva grabbed a second-half winner for Italy in a 1-0 victory away to Albania in Group G.

Italy will be the top seed for the November playoffs, the draw for which is made in Zurich on Oct 17.

Agence France-Presse

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