The boom boom clap of the fans was deafening and in truth, The Three Lions of England did not stand a chance. A small nation of Vikings literally is what Iceland was when they stormed the 2016 Euros and rocked the tournament, writing one of the most incredible fairytale stories in Euros history.
A tournament that has produced such stories as a team ranked second-lowest winning and a team reaching the semi-finals with only 14 available players is one with a rich history of upsets and fairytales. We hope that we can have more of these stories from the 2021 edition but before that, here are four of the finest fairy tales to whet your appetite for what’s to come.
Russia 2008 – Semifinal
The Russian national team’s fairytale at the 2008 Euros had the same blueprints that another Russian fairytale that occurred barely a month before Euro 2008 started. In the months leading up to the Euros, Zenit St Petersburg beat Marseille, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, and Rangers to claim their first ever European trophy and the second in four years for a Russian team after CSKA Moscow’s 2005 win. Russia’s team at the Euros boasted 10 players from those two triumphs. Five each from CSKA and Zenit. These players ended up being the bedrock of the team that shocked Europe.
Their journey in the tournament started where it would eventually end. In a defeat to eventual champions Spain. Without their talisman and chief creator Andrey Arshavin who was serving a suspension, Russia crumbled to a 4-1 loss. In the game that followed against defending Champions Greece, still without Arshavin, Russia battled to a 1-0 win with Konstantin Zyryanov who had scored in Zenit’s final win over Rangers getting the winner.
They then faced Sweden in a straight duel for the second qualification spot in the group and with Russia needing to win, they were able to call on Arshavin who did not disappoint. He ran the Swedes ragged and after his run had helped Roman Pavlyuchenko open the scoring, he doubled Russia’s lead with a cute finish into the bottom corner.
Russia then had to do battle with the Netherlands who had topped a group that also included France and Italy where they finished top of the group with maximum points beating both Italy and France by three-goal margins.
The undaunted Russians matched Netherlands blow for blow and by the end of normal time, the scores were even at 1-1 with the Dutch, not the Russians being lucky to still be in the game. Pavlyuchenko had given Russia the lead but Netherlands drew level thanks to an 86th Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser. Russia had seen their prey escape their grasp at the death in normal time and weren’t going to let them off the hook again. Not on Arshavin’s watch.
After a host of near misses, Russia, coached by Dutchman Guus Hiddink, took the lead with eight minutes of extra time left. A brilliant Arshavin run and cross was met by Dmitri Torbinski. Four minutes later, Arshavin closed the Dutch chapter emphatically with his second goal of the tournament to send Russia, the lowest-ranked team going into Euro 2008 into the semifinal where they eventually fell to Spain.
Iceland 2016 – Quarterfinal
That Iceland even qualified for the tournament itself was a small miracle. A small nation with a population of only 330,000 people at the time reaped the rewards of 15 years of careful planning and development. After narrowly missing out on the 2014 World Cup ticket, Iceland qualified by finishing ahead of more established countries like Turkey and Netherlands -whom they beat both home and away.
Joined with Swedish manager Lars Lagerback, part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrímsson were co-managers of the Iceland team at Euro 2016 and led the team out in the nation’s first competitive tournament against one of the tournament favorites Portugal who had in their ranks one of the best players of his generation Cristiano Ronaldo. During the game against Portugal, Iceland defended doggedly in their own half, at times having to defend deep into their own 18 yard area. It all proved to be worth it when Birkir Bjarnason scored an equalizer to earn them their first point in a competitive tournament.
They threw away a chance to win their first tournament match when they conceded an 88th minute equalizer against Hungary in their second group game but they made up for that error with a late winner of their own against Austria in the final group game with a 94th minute winning goal from Arnór Ingvi Traustason after part-time film director Hannes Þór Halldórsson had saved a penalty to keep them in the game.
The win meant that Iceland qualified for the Round of 16 to face powerhouse England in what was billed as the end of the road but instead turned into Iceland’s proudest and loudest moment.
At the Stade de Nice which at capacity could host over 10% of the entire Icelandic population, Iceland went up against England’s Three Lions and despite going down to an early penalty, the Vikings rallied to win 2-1 and send England packing from the tournament leaving the world in awe of their bravery and their intimidating boom boom clap celebration which they duly enjoyed with their fans.
Their journey would end at the hands of hosts France in the quarterfinals in a 5-2 defeat but their time spent at the Euros would forever be remembered as nothing short of magical.
Denmark 1992 – Winners
If Iceland reaching the Euro group stage in 2016 was a miracle, then Denmark doing the same in 1992 was perhaps something more.
Iceland had actually qualified for the group stages but Denmark’s progression to the same stage alone had been a story fit for Nollywood.
With infighting in the squad over overly defensive tactics, Denmark struggled through Euro qualifying. One of the finest teams of the 1980s, Denmark had failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup and the fallout was threatening to ruin the team. Their brightest stars, The Laudrup Brothers Michael and Brian, quit the National team after the first three Euro Qualifiers that left Denmark with only four points.
Under coach Richard Møller Nielsen, Denmark had to get back into contention for Euro 1992 qualification with a run of five straight wins but they still needed Yugoslavia to drop points on the final day of qualifiers but Yugoslavia did not, and Denmark were condemned to another failed qualification campaign under Nielsen….until 10 days before the actual tournament when Yugoslavia received a ban from UEFA owing to the ongoing Yugoslav wars. Denmark who were expecting to spend the month playing friendlies were now faced with a place at the 1992 Euros.
To make matters worse, they were grouped with France, England, and hosts Sweden and opened their group stage with a draw with England and a loss to Sweden which left them needing to win their final group game against France who had the likes of Luis Fernandes, Jean Pierre Papin to qualify for the next stage. It seemed like a hopeless task, but if you’re a team playing in a tournament you didn’t even qualify for, nothing seems impossible anymore. France fell 2-1 thanks to goals from Henrik Larsen and Lars Dahl Elstrup.
In the Semi final, Denmark faced another mountain in the form of defending Champions Netherlands who had been widely expected to retain their crown. Instead, they too were victims of Denmark’s unwillingness to be counted out. After 90 minutes and extra time, the tie went to penalties where Marco Van Basten who had scored the goal that won Netherlands the trophy four years ago was the only one of the 10 penalty takers to miss and when Kim Christofte scored the final penalty, it was official, Denmark were through to the final of the Euros for the first time in their history.
In the final, they overcame reigning World Champions Germany 2-0 thanks to goals from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort to complete their miraculous movie script arch and become the first and currently only Danish senior Men’s team to claim a major honor.
Greece 2004 – Winners
Finally, to the lowest-ranked team ever to win the EUROs.
Entering into the 2004 Euros, the only country ranked lower than Greece in UEFA’s coefficient system of the 16 qualified nations was Latvia. At the start of the tournament, they were given 80-1 odds of becoming Champions and given that they were in the same group as hosts Portugal and Spain as well as Russia, it was .
When they shocked Portugal 2-1 in the opening game, it was seen as one of those games, a one-off game where David slayed Goliath. Something that would happen only once. Greece on the other hand were just getting started slaying.
In the second group game, they faced Spain and secured a 1-1 which meant they would qualify if they bettered the results of Spain who faced Portugal in their final group game. Spain lost to Portugal and Greece lost to Russia but Greece qualified because of a 43rd minute Zisis Vryzas consolation in the 2-1 loss to Russia that ensured that they had the same goal difference as Spain but crucially more goals
In the quarterfinal stage, Greece met another giant in the form of reigning European Champions France and with a slingshot in the form of a brilliant Angelos Charisteas header they took down Les Bleus 1-0. It was a weapon that would come in handy again much later.
In the Semifinal, they faced a Czech Republic side who had been one of the best at the tournament and had on their side the top scorer in the tournament Milan Baros who had netted five times including a brace in the quarterfinal. Greece went on to break Czech hearts with the first and only Silver goal in Euros history scored one minute into additional time in the first half of extra time leaving Czech Republic no time to reply.
As fate would have it, Greece came up against Portugal again in the final and proved that their opening day victory was no fluke. Another brilliant header from Charisteas was enough to deflate the hopes of another giant and send all of Greece into Euphoria.