Iceland's win over England was no fluke: They earned it
PARIS -- There were about 30 seconds after Iceland's historic triumph over England that would soften the hardest, most logical hearts. The players, soaked through and still in their dream state, stood on the grass, facing their delirious supporters. Their group-stage finale had been watched by an astonishing 99 percent of their country, either in person or on TV; 99.8 percent were watching now.
Led by their bearded captain Aron Gunnarsson, Iceland's 23 and their adoring thousands clapped their hands in unison over their spinning heads. First they clapped once, then twice, then three times, each time a little more quickly than the last, until eventually their applause built to a crescendo that sounded like a hailstorm on a metal roof.
It's in the pursuit of that moment that any of us watches sport. And that particular moment, one more of Iceland's miraculous-seeming series of them here in France, will be used by UEFA to justify the expansion of its signature tournament from 16 teams to 24. Expansion has shortened the odds for the impossible.
That argument is as emotionally appealing as it is wrong.
Euro 2016's group stage provided evidence for both sides of the debate. It didn't give us many memorable matches. Most teams, knowing that only eight of the 24 hopefuls would be eliminated, played not to lose. Other than the frantic couple of hours when Portugal and Hungary played to a wild 3-3 draw and Iceland beat Austria 2-1, on-field drama was, to use a kind word, limited. The number of late goals obscured the fact that the majority of the games were tight, grinding affairs.
But the so-called minnows exceeded pre-tournament expectations. Of the six teams in Pot 4 of the draw, the presumed last seeds in each group, four (Ireland, Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland) survived. Their fans were also delights. The other two, Albania and Turkey, finished third in their groups but failed to advance on goals. There were several surprising results, and the top seeds won only two of their groups. If the play wasn't wide open, the field still was.
The curse of expansion wasn't truly exposed until the new, previously unnecessary round of 16. This was Euro's uncharted territory. For the most part, it proved a wasteland.
The first day was beset by some of the worst football in recent and even long memory. After a defensive Poland topped Switzerland on penalties, Wales and Northern Ireland played their tepid match, decided by an own goal. Then Croatia and Portugal played easily the ugliest game of the tournament, when neither side managed a shot on target until the 117th minute. That's a sentence that should never have been made possible to write.
The second day saw a series of blowouts, when the favorites, freed from the rationality of the group stage, brutally exposed the gap between them and the smaller sides. Only the score of France against Ireland was close, and Germany and Belgium humiliated Slovakia and Hungary.
It wasn't until Monday that we were rewarded for our thinning patience. Italy's win over Spain was nearly flawless in its execution, a beautiful display of the difference between creative tactics and cynical ones. A single but important argument against that game was that it came so early in the tournament. It felt like a final, yet eight teams remain, and few of them are nearly as good as Spain.
And finally, of course, came the match that will live forever, in glory and in infamy, because it was the match that seemingly broke every rule: Iceland over England.
"The Iceland Exception" will now be cited like vital precedent in case law, employed particularly on behalf of the expanded Euro. That argument will do a real disservice to what Iceland have accomplished here.
First, it presumes a team that came within a game of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup wouldn't have won entry into Euro's more selective 16. After beating the Netherlands home and away, Iceland might well have been here without UEFA's charity.
More importantly, it casts their win over England especially as a kind of fluke, as though they were lucky to pull off such an unlikely result. There was nothing lucky about Iceland on Monday night. They were the better team. They played better football in every possible way. England's only goal came on a penalty, and they never really threatened again. Does anybody who watched that game really think that were it played 100 times, England would have won the other 99?
Iceland's win will be considered an incredible upset because of the country's tiny population, and because of England's increasingly ridiculous belief that they remain one of football's powers. But Iceland won for same reason most football teams win most of the time: They were good and their opponents were bad.
If it's truer upsets that we're after, it's important to remember that they existed in the narrower version of Euro. Greece won in 2004. The pivotal difference between Greece and Iceland is that nobody wanted to see Greece play, let alone win. Every neutral in the world wanted Iceland to hold on against England. So it stands to reason that we would do everything in our power to help make that happen, and to make it happen again and again, the way Iceland's postmatch applause built in its strength and its pace. For some, for many even, expansion will be the way.
But if Iceland have made anything clear, it's that they never depended on us to make room for them. They're here because they decided to earn a place for themselves in our hearts. And now that they've claimed it, they hardly look as though they're going to need our help to stay.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.