First Leicester City, now Iceland. It is definitely the Year of the Underdog.
Other than French fans, it is safe to assume much of the rest of the world will be rooting for the Icelandic fairy tale to continue with an upset over host France in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals Sunday at Stade de France in Paris (3 p.m., ESPN).
How can you not root for a team whose coach moonlights as a dentist and whose goalkeeper is a part-time film producer? How can you not love a team from the tiniest country ever to qualify for the European championships, a country of 330,000 with no professional league and a national stadium that seats only 15,000.
And how can you not admire the Icelandic fans, their Viking chant and their unified slow clap above their heads — a Nordic battle cry — which has become the iconic image of this tournament. Roughly 27,000 fans from Iceland — eight percent of the population — are in France watching the matches live.
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Iceland’s biggest stunner in the previous round, when it knocked off heavily favored England, was a result so humiliating to the English team that it wound up costing manager Roy Hodgson his job.
Joint-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, a village dentist in his other life, said the team has been inspired by underdog Leicester City’s magical run to the English Premier League title.
“I think I would like it to end like it ended with Leicester City,” he said. “They played on their strengths and we’re trying to do the same. There’s the same team spirit in both teams. We are willing to work for each other and that’s the only way for our team.
“There’s not many in the Iceland team that has played Champions League. In individual quality you can see that France are superior. So we have to be collective and work together to make up for it.”
The French have many high-profile players, including breakout star Dimitri Payet, but they have yet to play their best in this tournament. They have not held a halftime lead in any game thus far, and they sweat for an hour against Ireland before scoring.
Hallgrimsson said all the pressure is on France and his team has nothing to lose.
“We can go relaxed, we can show our best. We don’t have the pressure of the world that we need to win the game,” he said.
There were signs during the Euro 2016 qualifying rounds that this was a special Iceland team. It beat the Netherlands home and away without conceding a goal, and also beat the Czech Republic and Turkey.
The recent success can be traced back to 2011, when Hallgrimsson and Lars Lagerback joined the coaching staff. They immediately imposed a more professional feeling in team camp. Also, the construction of indoor facilities in recent years has allowed Icelandic players to train all year long, even when it is frigid outside.
▪ Strikers on fire: The Fort Lauderdale Strikers proved in the past two weeks that not only can an NASL team beat a Major League Soccer team, but it can beat two MLS teams back-to-back.
The Strikers beat D.C. United on the road in the previous round of the U.S. Open Cup, and on Wednesday night followed that with another MLS conquest. They beat Orlando City SC 2-1 on the road, winning in the 120th minute. Next up: the Chicago Fire on the road July 20.
Fort Lauderdale is the only one of the eight teams left that is not in MLS. The other quarterfinalists are Philadelphia, Houston, New England, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.
▪ FC Surge, Weston FC excel: FC Surge, a Miami team that plays in the WPSL (an amateur women’s league), beat Team Boca Blast 5-0 to move into fourth place in the standings. Chrissy Gratz, a former player at Archbishop McCarthy and East Carolina University, scored two goals. Other key players were University of Florida’s Melanie Monteagudo, University of Miami’s Gracie Lachowecki and goalkeepers Johanna Rathbun and Phallon Tullis-Joyce. The team is coached by Ramiro Vengoechea, Rafael Arias and Carlos Quezada.
Weston FC’s U15/16 U.S. Soccer Development Academy team reached the final eight of nationals and on Wednesday plays Chicago Fire’s academy team at FIU Stadium. The winner advances to the final four in Los Angeles.
MLS: East — Philadelphia (26), NYCFC (24), N.Y. (23), Montreal and D.C. (21), Orlando City (20). West — Colorado (32), Dallas (31), Real Salt Lake (28), Vancouver (24), Portland and Los Angeles (23).
On the tube
Sunday: NYC vs. N.Y. (noon, ESPN, ESPND), France vs. Iceland (3 p.m., ESPN, ESPND), K.C. vs. Columbus (7 p.m., FS1, FOXD).