Russia 2018: Iceland become smallest nation ever to reach World Cup finals

Russia 2018: Iceland become smallest nation ever to reach World Cup finals
Iceland became the smallest nation ever to book their place at the World Cup finals when they beat Kosovo to top their European qualifying group and claim an automatic spot in football’s showpiece event in Russia next summer.

Iceland, with a population of just 335,000, claimed a 2-0 victory in Reykjavik on Monday thanks to goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. The result ensured top place in Group I, ahead of Croatia, and direct passage to Russia 2018.

Iceland won the hearts of football fans around the world for their surprising run at last year’s UEFA European Championships in France. They reached the quarter-finals, beating England along the way, before finally falling to the hosts.

Their ‘Viking clap’ fan chant also became famous, with several other teams taking up the idea, including Euro 2016 hosts France.

In sealing their berth to Russia 2018, Iceland will beat the previous record for the smallest nation in terms of population to appear at a World Cup. The record was held by Trinidad & Tobago, with a population of 1.3 million, who appeared at the 2006 finals.

READ MORE: Thousands celebrate on streets of Cairo as Egypt qualify for Russia 2018 World Cup (VIDEO)

After the game against Kosovo, Iceland head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said it was a strange feeling that his team would now be mentioned in the same breath as former World Cup greats.

“This is really odd, I don’t know what to say. I mean ... Pelé, Maradona, Aron Einar Gunnarsson,” he said, the last name on the list being the Iceland midfielder who plays his club football for Cardiff City.

Elsewhere in Iceland’s qualifying group, Croatia secured second place and a play-off spot after a 2-0 win against Ukraine in Kiev.

Serbia booked their place in the finals thanks to a 1-0 win against Georgia, with substitute Aleksandar Prijovic’s strike on 74 minutes proving the difference.

Manchester United’s Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matić was seen in tears on the pitch after the game, as his county reached their second-ever finals and first since 2010.   

The Serbs topped Group D on 21 points, two ahead of Republic of Ireland, who booked a spot in the play-offs thanks to a narrow 1-0 win against rivals Wales in Cardiff.

Already-qualified Spain rounded off their campaign with a 1-0 win against Israal in Jerusalem, courtesy of a 76th-minute strike from Asier Illarramendi.

Group rivals Italy, already guaranteed second place and a play-off spot, won 1-0 in Albania.