Iceland cause England’s greatest embarrassment

Shame: The motherland of football lost to a nation with a population the size of Coventry. © PA

England are out of Euro 2016 after losing to Iceland — yes, Iceland. It has been called the worst result in the history of the national team. What has gone so wrong with English football?

Half a century ago England was in a state of ecstasy. A 4-2 victory over West Germany won Sir Alf Ramsey’s team the FIFA World Cup. It is still talked about today by those who can remember it. ‘Where were you in ’66?’

Fast forward fifty years from now, to the year 2066. Those of you who are now 15 are 65. But instead of reminiscing about the glory of winning a major tournament, the question will be ‘Do you remember the Iceland game?’

For that is how big England’s 2-1 defeat to Iceland was, as they were eliminated from Euro 2016 on a night of infamy. Henry Winter wrote in The Times that ‘Nothing in England’s 144-year history compares to this’.

The scale of this upset cannot be overstated. For every person from Iceland, there are 163 English people. England has the most popular league in the world whose teams are known all over the globe. Meanwhile the big beasts of Icelandic domestic football — KR, Valur, Fram — are semi-professional minnows, unknown to all but the most extreme football anoraks.

The usual post-tournament recriminations have already begun. Roy Hodgson resigned as manager just minutes after the full-time whistle, when England’s underachieving players felt the full wrath of the thousands who had travelled to Nice, a mutinous chant of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ ringing in their ears.

Many believe that England need to hire a world class foreign manager — someone who can turn a talented but tactically naïve side into an effective, modern machine. Compared with Spain and Italy, there are distressingly few good English coaches.

Some think it is a mental problem. In the second half, England seemed to lose belief. As the game went on, they played worse and worse. There may also be deeper societal issues, such as technology leading to fewer children kicking a ball around in their spare time, meaning the talent pool is smaller than it used to be.

Monday’s defeat came with a deadening sense of inevitability. As the words of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ say: ‘We’ve seen it all before. We just know that England’s gonna throw it away.’

Déjà vu

‘For goodness sake, it’s only Iceland’, came the frustrated cry from thousands of living rooms. This failure was down to simple things: poor management, tired players and a fair slice of bad luck. Though this result was disastrous, English football must not despair.

But many experts think a wholesale rethink is needed. If the famous footballers of England are being outfought and outplayed by Iceland, something is seriously wrong. Any kind of change must be considered: a winter break, foreign coaches, more encouragement for grassroots football. England’s regular humiliations cannot be allowed to continue.

You Decide

  1. What do you think is the single biggest reason for England’s underachievement at Euro 2016?
  2. To what extent, if any, does sport have an impact on the national mood?


  1. Iceland’s success at the European Championship has gripped the nation. Approximately 8% of their population travelled to France for the tournament. Imagine you are one of them, and write a report of the match.
  2. List five important ways in which football was different in 1966 from how it is now.

Some People Say...

“England are overpaid and overrated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is there any hope for England?
Yes, but as every tournament goes by it becomes harder to dream. The positives for England are that their squad was the youngest in the whole tournament. Players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling may have disappointed in France, but they will be better players in two years time when the next tournament comes around.
How on earth did Iceland do it?
Iceland have risen from the depths of obscurity. Four years ago they were ranked 131st in the world, just ahead of Tajikistan. Now they are 34th. The catalyst of their improvement was the appointment in 2011 of the veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck. He has made them an effective, organised force of players. Despite not having much possession, they actually created better chances than England.

Word Watch

4-2 win over West Germany
England’s only tournament success came on home soil in the 1966 World Cup. West Ham United striker Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the final. The captain was another West Ham player — Bobby Moore.
2-1 defeat
Wayne Rooney gave England a third minute lead from the penalty spot, but just two minutes later Ragnar Sigurdsson equalised. After 18 minutes Iceland took the lead thanks to a Kolbeinn Sigthorsson shot which should have been saved by England goalkeeper Joe Hart.
English coaches
England has 1,178 coaches with a UEFA A Licence. In Germany there are 5,500 and in Spain there are 12,270. Iceland has one qualified coach for every 500 people.
By the time the next tournament comes around it will have been 12 years since England won a knockout game at a major tournament. England have only reached two semi-finals in the last 50 years since winning the World Cup.
Winter break
The Premier League is the only major European league not to have a winter break. Many believe introducing one would mean England’s players are fresher for tournaments.


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