Iceland reaches Euro 2016 for its biggest soccer achievement
MANCHESTER, England (AP) When Lars Lagerback took over as Iceland coach in 2010, he set big targets for a tiny nation that had never qualified for a major football tournament.
''Lars told me that the team was strong enough to qualify for the (2014) World Cup,'' said Heimir Hallgrimsson, who shares coaching duties with Lagerback. ''I thought he was crazy.''
That proved just beyond Iceland - it lost to Croatia in a tight playoff - but the European Championship will do just fine as a second prize.
With a population of approximately 320,000, Iceland became the smallest European country to reach a major tournament by qualifying for Euro 2016 on Sunday with two games to spare.
''When I started playing football,'' Iceland coach Aron Gunnarsson said. ''I never even dreamed this could happen.''
And Iceland has qualified in style, losing just one of its eight group games so far and conceding only three goals. There have been home and away wins against the Netherlands, which was third in last year's World Cup.
It didn't really matter that qualification was achieved with a 0-0 draw at home to Kazakhstan on Sunday. It completed arguably the greatest achievement in Icelandic sport.
For the experienced Lagerback, it was just part of the job.
He took his native Sweden to five straight major tournaments as head coach, and was also in charge of Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup. Guiding Iceland to a European Championship tops the lot, although he doesn't want to be regarded as some sort of hero.
''People like (Nelson) Mandela and Martin Luther King are heroes - I'm just a football coach,'' the laid-back Lagerback said.
However, Lagerback's impact mustn't be downplayed. When he became coach, Iceland was ranked No. 134. Now the team is No. 23 and on the rise.
The playoff loss to Croatia in 2013 gave Iceland the kind of big-match experience that has proved significant in the current qualifying campaign.
There are some interesting back-stories from within the squad.
Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson once juggled his football career with film-making. He shot the video for Iceland's entry to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and also a video for an airline in which he cast himself and his Iceland teammates.
Then there's Eidur Gudjohnsen, the 36-year-old striker who has been a beacon for Icelandic football during a career in which he has played for European giants Chelsea and Barcelona among other clubs.
Swansea's attacking midfielder, Gylfi Sigurdsson, is the heartbeat of the team and probably its most famous player, especially now that Gudjohnsen is often consigned to a place on the bench.
But this has been a team effort from Iceland.
''This is a great group of players and they fully deserve to go to the Euros,'' Lagerback said. ''It's amazing to work with this team. We are through and there are still two games left. That's a fantastic achievement.''
With the expansion of the European Championship to 24 countries, it was inevitable that some unheralded nations would be competing in France next year.
Iceland fits that bracket perfectly. Previously, the smallest nation to reach a European Championship finals was Slovenia, whose population was estimated at about 2 million when it qualified for Euro 2000.