At the 2016 European championship, the Icelandic national team surprised everbody by reaching the quarterfinals. This summer, Iceland will be looking to pull off another surprise – at the World Cup in Russia.
It's cold in Reykjavik. The thermometer on this April evening reads seven degrees Celcius (44 degrees Fahrenheit) and it is raining. Despite the fact the wind makes it even feel a little bit colder than it is, the streets are pretty full. Numerous people have gathered in Ingolfstorg Park, a small square in the center of the capital. They are wearing Icelandic national team jerseys. They have their faces painted in the colors of the country's flag, and are waving Icelandic flags.
They cheer and celebrate until the director tells them to stop. They are recording a television ad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Iceland is the least populous country ever to have qualified for the World Cup, and this is their first time at football's biggest show. So understandably, there is a great deal of joy in Reykjavik.
"To be part of the tournament in France was awesome," Sesselja Pertersdottir, the mother of Augsburg striker Alfred Finnbogason, says. "To be honest, I didn't expect to be in Russia too. When they qualified, I cried. I actually cried."
'This is a golden generation'
The "Vikings" punched their ticket for Russia by beating Kosovo 2-0 back in October.
"I fully expected it," Petur Petursson says confidently. "This is a golden generation for Iceland, with very good character." Petursson is currently the coach of Breidablik UBK, the club where Finnbogason played his youth football, and was previously the assistant coach of the national team.
The 48-year-old stands on the sidelines of a huge indoor football facility. The football coach works his chewing gum hard, pushing it back and forth from the left to the right of his mouth. He's watching school children take part in a training session. For the last few years, pupils in Iceland have been able to select football as an optional course at school. There are two training sessions a day, one before and one after their regular classes.
Liverpool jerseys unwelcome
Petursson observes the pupils closely and it is not long before he spots one of them wearing a Liverpool jersey. He smiles.
"You know what?" he says. "That wouldn't happen with any of my teams. Pupils who wear such jerseys have to run at least one extra lap."
What his pupils don't know, to begin with at least, is that Petursson is a Manchester United supporter. Fans of other clubs don't have it easy with him. Few turn up to their second training session in a "banned" jersey.
Many members of the Icelandic national team have been through similar experiences. Learning to play football in Iceland is difficult, not least due to the weather. The island of 335,000 inhabitants is covered with snow and ice for almost two thirds of the year. Although more and more indoor football facilities are being constructed, training is often held outside on a plastic pitch.
"It's cold, there's snow, and it is often windy. Training outside builds character," Petursson says. "Everybody comes to practice whether the sun is shining or not. This is typical of the Icelandic character."
It is this mental toughness and the will to win that took Iceland to the quarterfinals of the European championship two years ago. For many, this came as a surprise, but not for Petursson.
"I said even before the tournament that we would go far. We have a strong team spirit and that really helped us in France," he says.
A number of key players
Iceland are also aiming to cause a stir in Russia as well. However, if you are looking for a star among the members of Heimir Hallgrimsson's team, you will do so in vain. There are other qualities that make his team tough to beat.
"We have key players such as Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson or Alfred Finnbogason, who can get the job done when it matters. At the end of the day, though, it is a team sport – especially here in Iceland," Petursson says.
Tough opponents in the group stage
The former assistant coach of the national team believes Iceland have a realistic chance of reaching the knockout stages at the World Cup.
"It will be a bit more difficult than at Euro 2016," he says. "We are up against Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria, so it won't be easy. But our players believe in themselves and will be determined to give everything they've got for Iceland."
So if Iceland are going to cause a stir in Russia, it won't be due to their technical skills, but rather through their fighting spirit and passion. If they succeed in doing so, the celebration promises to be a lot bigger than what the actors at Ingolfstorg Park put on that evening in April.