Following 208 countries playing a record 871 matches during a qualifying campaign, a final 32 teams have earned their spot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Familiar names like Brazil and Germany will, unsurprisingly, headline the sides participating and be among the favourites to lift the trophy on July 15th. However, some excitement and freshness was guaranteed as there will be two debutants to the tournament: Iceland and Panama will make their first ever trip to a World Cup next summer in Russia. We take a look at each nation and how they got there.
The Nordic nation has not stopped producing surprises since 2015. First was their qualification to the 2016 European Championship in France when they beat the likes of the Netherlands to get there. They then managed to get out of their group and shocked the world big time when they defeated England in the Round of 16, beating them 2-1. This time around, Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and company qualified directly to the World Cup by topping their qualifying group that featured Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Iceland is the smallest ever nation to feature in FIFA’s big tournament. With a population of 335,000, it is dwarfed in comparison to the previous record holder Trinidad and Tobago with 1.3 million inhabitants. The small nation was also one of three teams to qualify without using a single domestic-based player, the others being Sweden and group rivals Croatia. Maybe this time the world shouldn’t be surprised if Iceland and their fans bring their famous hand clap celebration further than the group stage. Iceland was placed in Group D alongside strong teams Argentina, Croatia (again) and Nigeria.
The other debutants come from the CONCACAF nation of Panama. Los Canaleros, like Iceland, also had to beat qualification favourites to go through, doing so in fairy tale fashion. Panama beat the United States to the last qualifying spot thanks to a dramatic late winner from Roman Torres in a 2-1 victory over Costa Rica on the final day of World Cup qualifying. Perhaps it was veteran leadership that got them through as Panama had the oldest team in qualifying with an average age of 29.4. The second oldest was Iceland. Going to Russia will be a victory in itself for the small trading nation and its fans. The players are already national heroes and will not be playing under any pressure, this participation is for fans to enjoy. However, Panama go to Russia hoping to record their first ever points in a World Cup at their debut. Some countries wait multiple participations in the tournament until they see their first points being recorded, and Panama have made it clear they want to enjoy the experience and learn from it. Being placed in Group G with teams like Belgium, Tunisia and England, they certainly could learn a lot and have the potential to sneak a result.
Feature Image: RIA Novosti