When the teams were selected for Group A of the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers, it was expected to be a formality for the Netherlands in occupying first position with Czech Republic and Turkey vying to be runners-up and Iceland considered the best team among the remainder of the three national squads. With just two games remaining, the expensively priced footballers in the Dutch ranks could be absent from the summer tournament in France after two disastrous results in the past few days, whereas as the Iceland team have secured their participation amongst the elite as they lead the group. Who would have thought that might happen, but is it a surprise.
Defeats in both Iceland and Czech had adversely affected Dutch ambitions for the 2016 tournament but a 1-0 home loss to Iceland and then a damaging 3-0 defeat in Turkey have ended the hopes of the Netherlands team for automatic qualification and they must now hope that the Turks will falter in their remaining games. That may allow Danny Blind’s squad to overturn a two point deficit between the two teams and gain entry to the playoffs via third position.
Danny Blind succeeded Gus Hiddink as head coach of the Netherlands in July this year after his predecessor was responsible for a series of poor results. No goals and two defeats later, Blind faces tough matches against Kazakhstan and Czech Republic in October just to restore some pride among the Dutch ranks. Yet there is a general suggestion that ageing stars Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie do not offer the threat of previous seasons while Daley Blind, Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum have yet to really justify their reputations at an international level despite their expensive recent price tags. There is also the problem of an injury to perhaps their most influential player Arjen Robben.
Meanwhile Iceland earned their position in a major tournament for the first time when drawing 0-0 with Kazakhstan at the weekend after winning in 1-0 in Amsterdam just a few days earlier. Yet there were indications during the UEFA 2014 World Cup qualifiers of a real improvement in the national football team. Iceland finished second in Group E behind Switzerland but were then beaten 2-0 on aggregate by Croatia in the playoffs.
That disappointment appeared to stir the players into believing that qualifying for Euro 2016 in France was a possibility, a feat achieved with two games to spare. Few of the squad play among the top tier of the major European leagues but midfield player Gylfi Sigurdsson has been a revelation at Swansea following his relative failure at Tottenham while goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson has conceded just three goals in eight games for the national team and only recently signed for Dutch Eredivisie team NEC, after previous spells playing in his home country and Norway. Contrast that background with that of Jasper Cillessen who is now the established first choice ‘keeper at both Ajax and the Netherlands.
By qualifying for the Euro 2016 tournament, the Iceland players have demonstrated that high reputations are sometimes immaterial in the face of a collective will to produce a good team performance, and former Euro winners Netherlands appear to be the victims of the increasing confidence of the Icelandic team.