Saturday, June 13, 2015

Czech Republic 1 at Iceland 2 (Group A, Euro 2016 Qualifying) - June 12, 2015


The Euro 2016 soccer tournament will take place in France next year, which means qualifying is taking place this year. There are 53 countries participating, divided into 9 groups. Each team plays each other in the group both home and away which means that 10 "matchdays" are required between September 2014 and October 2015. Each matchday consists of 26 games played over three consecutive days, which is perfect for a sports road trip to tiny Europe (though with Asian countries Israel and Kazakhstan part of UEFA, it is not so tiny after all).



Each matchday has several possibilities for a trip. The best option is to find 3 neighbouring countries that are all part of the Schengen Area so you can limit your travel time and passport controls. UEFA's matches page makes it easy to eyeball potential journeys, keeping in mind that the home side is on the left, not the right as we are used to in the States. Checking out matchday 5 in March for example, you could have seen games in Spain, Andorra, and Portugal in three consecutive days.



Matchday 6 between June 12 and 14 came with a few more opportunities. An important criterion is that the visiting team is competitive and the match will be meaningful, and the top game for the first day was surprising Iceland hosting the Czech Republic. With Reykjavik just under 6 hours from New York, this meant an overnight flight would get me there on Friday morning. Saturday's options included Denmark hosting Serbia, Hungary traveling to Finland, and Ireland welcoming Scotland. Sunday's menu was quite limited though, as I needed a quick flight home on Monday and most of the countries lacked inexpensive direct flights to New York. I decided on Montenegro at Sweden, which meant that Saturday's best bet was Denmark. As I have already been to Iceland and Denmark, I also wouldn't regret spending such a short time in these countries. Flights were booked and I eagerly waited for June 11, when I would begin my whirlwind 3 games in 3 countries in 3 days trip.



I arrived in Reykjavik early on Friday morning and, unable to check into my hotel, ventured to Laugardalsvöllur, the national stadium. It was empty but you could wander around and look inside, which is what I did, taking the pictures you see above. A very beautiful setting.



The statue above is Albert Guðmundsson, Iceland's first pro soccer player, who played for Rangers in Scotland among other teams.



I eventually got into my lodging and slept off some of the jet lag before rising around 4:00 to make my way back to the stadium. The game, a 6:45 pm start, was sold out, so I was hoping to get there early in case tickets were released. I asked at the ticket window and was told that no tickets would be made available. I then wandered inside and took a few pictures of the stadium, such as the empty concourse above. I took a seat to rest but was soon asked to wait outside, and so I went back to the ticket booth. I overheard a gentleman asking how much the tickets were, and when he received a response, it became clear that tickets had been released after all. Excellent! I lined up behind him and was happy to see dozens of tickets laid out on the counter. I guess these were returns from UEFA, whose fat cats didn't want to travel to chilly Iceland during the warm European summer. There were several other fans, including tourists from Canada and Japan, who had also ventured here in the hope of finding tickets and all were rewarded, as there were a few empty seats at kickoff.



The visiting Czech fans were out in force as well, making lots of noise before gates opened (above).



The stadium is very simple, there are two stands for seating: the main stand facing east (above), and the secondary stand facing west (above). The organizers had laid out placards for the fans that spell Ísland, which is how the locals pronounce the name of their nation.



There are no end zone seats, though in the south there is an open fence and you can stand there during the game and watch for free, which many fans did. At the opposite end is the simple scoreboard with that mountain backdrop.



My seat was in the main stand midway between midfield and the goal line, a bargain at 6,000 ISK (about $45).



As soccer games do, it started right on time, with the players marching out ten minutes before kickoff for the anthems and traditional photos. Quite majestic and a welcome change from the hype that characterizes so many American sports.



The Czechs came in atop Group A with 13 points from 5 games, a point clear of Iceland, who had lost 2-1 in the reverse fixture back in November. The first half was not particularly thrilling and finished without a goal, though Iceland had a great chance off a free kick that was parried aside by Petr Čech, his helmeted form famous from his years with Chelsea (above).



Ten minutes into the second half, the Czechs struck when Bořek Dočkal received a pass at the top of the box and let fly with a wicked rising shot that beat a diving Hannes Halldórsson and stunned the fans. Five minutes later though, Iceland knotted things when Ari Skúlason lofted a long ball that beat the Czech defense and found the head of captain Aron Gunnarsson (above), who directed behind Čech.



With 15 minutes left, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson (above) intercepted a silly back pass in the Czech box and moved in alone on Čech, deking to the left and slotting home the eventual winner. A great result for this tiny country, which is looking to make its first major tournament appearance. With just four matches left, they have a pretty good shot to do so.



Notes

Iceland's population is around 300,000 yet they are ranked 37th by FIFA, giving them the highest FIFA points per population in the world. Definitely a team worth rooting for.

Best,

Sean

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