How trio beat the odds to reach Euro 2016

PARIS • They might be small, but they are minnows no more.

Wales, with their population of over three million, on Saturday joined Northern Ireland (1.8 million) and Iceland (330,000) in sealing a place at Euro 2016.

It would be easy to attribute the trio's historic achievements to the expansion of the European Championship from 16 to 24 teams.

Yet Iceland - who, like Northern Ireland, were fifth seeds - earned automatic qualification at the expense of powerhouses the Netherlands.

It was reward for investments they had made more than a decade ago - in facilities, grassroots initiatives, youth, and coaches.

  • 4 - Of the 53 teams involved in the European Championship qualifiers, only four teams have conceded fewer goals than Wales (4).

    7 - Seven members of the Iceland team that qualified for the European Under-21 Championship in 2010 are in the senior squad that sealed their place for Euro 2016 in Paris.

In 2002, they built more than 100 indoor and outdoor football fields. Slowly but surely, football became a full-year sport in a Nordic country where the average daily temperature is close to 0 deg C for almost half the year.

In 2010, Iceland qualified for the Uefa Under-21 Championship for the first time.

Seven members of the side that did the double over the Dutch were among those trailblazers.

It is why Swansea midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, 26, and Nantes forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, 25, are deemed as Iceland's "Golden Generation".

TIGHT BONDS

If we lose the ball, we fight for our team-mate to win it back. We are like brothers and it shows the togetherness in the squad.

GARETH BALE, Wales and Real Madrid star

It is a tag that Gareth Bale and Co. earned for Wales on Saturday.

"They deserve it," Wales manager Chris Coleman said, having previously insisted that his men could only live up to that label after booking a berth in France.

Indeed, the focus was on the collective, even if one individual has stood out for them this campaign.

Real Madrid star Bale was involved in eight of Wales' nine goals, scoring six, with two assists.

But their defence gave them the foundation to win games. Of the 53 teams involved in qualifying, just four teams have conceded fewer goals than the Dragons (four).

"If we lose the ball, we fight for our team-mate to win it back," Bale said. "We are like brothers and it shows the togetherness in the squad."

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill knows a thing or two about moulding a team.

When he took Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League in 2011 on a budget of £600,000 (S$1.28 million) - making history as the only Irish team to reach the group stage of a European club competition - he proved his ability to bring together a side whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

He repeated the trick with an unheralded squad, with players from lower-tier clubs like Fleetwood and Luton.The secret to that has been his relationship with the players.

It can be difficult for international managers to establish bonds with their players, considering the limited time they have with their squads, but O'Neill was determined to avoid that potential pitfall.

He made it his mission to keep in regular contact with his players, through phone calls and text messages. A lot of the Northern Ireland squad do not feature in the first team for their clubs but that does not deter O'Neill from watching them play. He goes to reserve games and junior games to monitor their progress, and his players feel valued.

His handling of Kyle Lafferty, who has experienced a number of vicissitudes during both his club and international career, is testament to his man management. The result? Seven goals from the striker, qualification, and being minnows no more. THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'How trio beat the odds to reach Euro 2016'. Print Edition | Subscribe