By Eiríkur Ásgersson
It was a painfully familiar story for Iceland as they once again narrowly failed to reach the finals of a major tournament following their 3-0 defeat by Germany in UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 5.
As it turned out, the loss in Hamburg was not the deciding factor - Iceland would still have qualified for a place in the final tournament in Portugal next summer had Lithuania held Scotland to a draw in the other match in the section. But Berti Vogts' side turned Iceland's dream into a nightmare by edging aside the Baltic team 1-0.
Iceland had come closer than on any previous occasion to taking their place on the top table of European football but goals from Germany's Michael Ballack, Fredi Bobic and Kevin Kuranyi destroyed any chance of what would have been a historic victory on their travels.
When Iceland were drawn in the same pool as Germany and Scotland few people envisaged that they would be travelling to Hamburg in their final game still in with a chance. A win would have meant pipping the FIFA World Cup finalists to first place and direct entry into UEFA's showpiece tournament next summer.
What makes the near miss all the more agonizing is that it was not the first time Iceland had acquitted themselves well in qualifying. They kept pace with Russia, the Ukraine and France in the hunt for a berth at EURO 2000™, finishing a creditable fourth and seven points clear of fifth-placed Armenia.
Similarly, Iceland proved considerably stronger than Malta and Northern Ireland in securing fourth spot in the standings in qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It was certainly no disgrace to trail group winners Denmark, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
This time around, Iceland went a step further, remarkably leading Group 5 until a month ago, having garnered just three points from their first three games. Asgeir Sigurvinsson and his assistant Logi Olafsson were handed what was tantamount to a rescue mission when they were appointed in May. The pair almost completed it, winning three matches and drawing one before Saturday’s reverse.
Sigurvinsson could not help lamenting missed chances in the scoreless draw against Germany at home last month. "We should have won when we played them at our own ground as the chances were certainly there," he reflected. "We could only dream of winning in Hamburg and going to Portugal. Our best chance was for Scotland to lose a point in Lithuania, allowing us to advance to the play-offs. The Germans were simply to good for us and their victory was deserved."
Iceland were never seriously expected to edge out Rudi Völler's side but failing to take a point from their two encounters with Scotland – losing 2-0 in Reykjavik last October and 2-1 in Glasgow the following March – was to prove their undoing.
Chelsea FC striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, the Iceland captain, admitted as much when he accepted his side were no longer on the way to EURO 2004™. "We did not lose anything tonight," he said. "But to think we dropped all those points against Scotland is severely disappointing in retrospect. We must now look at the big picture. We took on the World Cup finalists on their own patch and it was not an easy job."
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