Iceland continue magical football run by qualifying for World Cup
It was approaching midnight when Iceland's players, wearing crisp white dinner shirts, were ushered into Petersen Svitan, one of Reykjavik's most exclusive bars. Minutes before, they had been on stage in their national team jerseys, throwing them to a delirious crowd in Ingolfstorg Square before finally taking their leave for a more private celebration.
It had been a stretch to imagine this four days prior, but here it was: Iceland had just qualified for their first World Cup, and the highs of last summer had been outjumped by an achievement of completely different scale.
Did anybody, in their heart of hearts, really think Iceland's qualifying campaign could end this way? They were the darlings of Euro 2016: The minnows who dared to be different and who reached the quarterfinals on merit. They offered tantalising glimpses of trusted methods that, in a football world dominated by commercial imperatives and returns to shareholders, somehow seemed purer.
Stories like that tend to hold the gaze for one summer and then slowly fade into the archives. The news cycle demands it, but so does a sporting hierarchy that, while tolerating minor ripples, tends not to suffer long-term disruptions.
But Iceland are straight back in the consciousness again, their 2-0 win over Kosovo at a sodden Laugardalsvollur completing what was a remarkable turnaround in Group I making them, at 334,000 inhabitants, by far the smallest nation ever to reach the World Cup.
They had only missed out four years ago in a playoff, losing to Croatia; this time, they edged the Croatians for second. If that seems apt, more relevant still is the clear evidence that Iceland's success is no flash in the pan.
"We are workaholics," said their manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, during a lengthy postmatch news conference at which he often seemed at a loss for words, at times asking his assistants to give lengthier responses to questions put his way.
They also are nerveless. Hallgrimsson might have been on a hiding to nothing when hugely experienced Swede Lars Lagerback, with whom Hallgrimsson had co-managed the side for three years, moved on after Euro 2016. Any setbacks in a fiendish group that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey could have been used as evidence that he was not up to taking the job on his own. Iceland sailed through instead, with a stunning 3-0 win away to Turkey putting them on the brink before they negotiated the hurdle of Kosovo comfortably.
Hallgrimsson pointed out that reaching next year's tournament will have further-reaching effects.
"It gives us a lot to look forward to in the next few years," he said, noting that Iceland will start in the top 12 of the new UEFA Nations League and stand a strong chance of being seeded for Euro 2020. That is what sustained excellence does: It creates the platform for more.
"This success is not an end in itself; it is the beginning of a long journey towards the final destination," Hallgrimsson continued. The strong suggestion was that nobody would dare close the book on Iceland's rise now.
They had not experienced the most comfortable of evenings against a Kosovo side that was marginally more impressive in the first half, keeping the ball well while offering an occasional threat further forward. Gylfi Sigurdsson's opener, bundling through to finish coolly, came moments after Milot Rashica had come within a whisker of firing Kosovo ahead from 25 yards and had the effect of settling local nerves.
When Sigurdsson brilliantly set up Johann Berg Gudmundsson for Iceland's second -- again much-needed during a second period in which Kosovo's threat had intensified -- Iceland had both feet in Russia.
"Island a HM" -- Iceland to the World Cup -- was the chant from a previously jumpy crowd, which was relatively unaccustomed to seeing their team take the billing of hot favourites for a game, and the final 25 minutes were played out to a carnival backdrop.
That continued during the team's half-hour communion with their supporters in Ingolfstorg. Players and fans undertook the famous "thunderclap" routine together; they danced and joked together. Two hours before kickoff, Hallgrimsson had, as he has done before every home match in the past five years, revealed the team's starting lineup to several hundred members of the "Tolfan" supporters' group at the Olver sports bar in Reykjavik and explained exactly how to tackle that night's challenge.
The beer flowed, but when Hallgrimsson spoke, his audience was rapt. Iceland's supporters had been directly involved in the evening's thread from its beginning to its giddy, disbelieving end; it is a bond that inspires intense trust, both on and off the pitch, and is unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in international football.
It will not be broken now, no matter how Hallgrimsson and his team perform in Russia. While Sigurdsson and his neatly appointed colleagues dined and drank in more refined surroundings during the early hours, Reykjavik's streets pounded to the beat of Tolfan's band, which had the effect of emptying the bars' populations onto the streets for spontaneous thunderclaps and anthems.
Tolfan's prematch message to its members was that "Monday has never been this exciting." Iceland is unlikely to ever have a better one, and it is not inconceivable that a journey many thought was over has, in fact, only just begun.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.