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Iceland’s population is a relevant narrative, just not the way it’s being used

Iceland have made the quarterfinal of a major tournament. That’s absurd. But we need to recognise the difference between Iceland, as a team, and Iceland, as a country.

Elmar Bjarnason (R) and Iceland players celebrate after the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 27, 2016 in Nice, France.
Elmar Bjarnason (R) and Iceland players celebrate after the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 27, 2016 in Nice, France.
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

With their win last night over England, Iceland are through to the quarterfinal of Euro 2016, something that ranks as one of the most impressive results of this tournament. That Wales and Poland’s qualifications to the same stage are completely overshadowed is telling, given the lack of historical pedigree for both those countries.

So first, let’s establish the biggest thing that makes this Iceland story so remarkable: This squad of 23 quarterfinalists has come from a country that’s population is just over 330,000. That’s insane.

But there’s an issue with the #narrative machine. You’ll hear the take that England "should never lose to Iceland," which is kinda wrong, or you’ll hear the narrative framed to make it sound like the Three Lions lost to some crap 5-a-side team, a bunch of random dudes brought in off the streets of Reykjavík that have somehow made their way to the quarterfinal of a major tournament.

Let’s get this out of the way: Iceland have a very good national team, and it’s one that fully deserves their place in the quarterfinal. They have actual tactical acumen, coming into the tournament ranked 34th in the FIFA World Rankings (and sat as high as 23rd during 2015).

If you’ll recall, they were one of the three teams to qualify out of the Netherlands’ group, and it was because of this Iceland squad that the Dutch are sitting at home — Iceland beat the Oranje home and away, also recording home wins over Czech Republic and Turkey, fellow Euro 2016 teams. Hell, if they hadn’t drawn Kazakhstan and Latvia at home, incredible in retrospect, that qualification record would’ve been even more impressive.

And if you weren’t convinced a couple weeks ago, shame on you if the group stage didn’t do the trick for you. Not only did they draw Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, a great result, but they also drew Hungary and beat Austria, a side heavily-favored to make it out of Group F, in a crucial third fixture.

In fact, I’d argue Iceland’s group stage was more impressive, at least on results, than England’s. Russia were miserably bad at this tournament, while (as much as it pains me to say) Slovakia weren’t all that great — England couldn’t beat either of them. Sure, the underlying stats and the run of play indicated the Three Lions were better than their five points, but still, it should’ve been pretty easy to see how Iceland could win last night.

By now? I’d like to think we can agree Iceland are a good side, one that shouldn’t be treated like their result last night is some ridiculous shock.

I’ve also — inexplicably, in fact — seen the idea thrown around that the narrative of Iceland’s population is irrelevant. In my eyes, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To say that Iceland’s population isn’t notable here is to make the argument that Leicester City’s Premier League title wasn’t notable, or that (in the States) George Mason’s Final Four run 10 years ago was nothing special. Leicester’s title wasn’t an incredible story because Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté are fantastic footballers who had ridiculously high-quality seasons, it’s that they did it playing for Leicester City. Leicester’s resources, by definition, put them at a disadvantage. They don’t have the money, prestige and history of the clubs they beat out for the title, like Manchester United, Arsenal or even Tottenham Hotspur.

So if we agree that Leicester being, well, Leicester was part of what made their title so unique, then we have to agree that Iceland being, well, Iceland is a huge part of this story. That they’ve made it to the quarterfinal with a smaller population, worse facilities and a much lesser national league (though none of the 23 play there) is akin to the magnitude of Leicester’s accomplishment.

Before I let you go, let’s recap: It is remarkable that Iceland, as a country, have a team in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016. It is not, however, remarkable that Iceland, as a team consisting of 23 players, are in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016.

So as they go into their "David and Goliath" matchup with France — and let’s be honest, there is more talent on the French side here — remember that, and use it to shape your narratives responsibly.

Iceland being Iceland is the story. Just don’t be lazy about it.