Iceland had appointed West German coach Sigfried Held, with Guðni Kjartansson his assistant, after their failed attempt at reaching Mexico ’86. Not that qualification had ever been expected. Iceland were footballing minnows, and would typically occupy one of the two bottom places in their qualifying group. Held was 43 years of age by the time of his appointment, and he would lead Iceland through a fine qualification campaign for the 1988 European Championships, where they twice beat their Nordic compatriots Norway. They also had fine draws at home to France, just after ‘les Bleus’ had won bronze medals in Mexico, and the Soviet Union. With a total of six points from eight matches, Iceland finished level with the mighty French, whose decline, it must be added, had already set in, and at some pace.
Well into his third year in charge of affairs, Held would have been modestly optimistic about their forthcoming qualification plight. Sure, they were again paired with both the Soviet Union and East Germany, both with whom they had locked horns in the previous qualification. The East Germans had even had the audacity to annihilate Iceland 6-0 in Reykjavik. Away from home, Iceland had never lost by greater margin than two goals. This time around, France and Norway had been replaced by Austria and Turkey. Anyone would’ve been forgiven for thinking Iceland would battle with the Turks in order to avoid finishing bottom of the pool.
The calendar year of ’88 had not brought a lot of success so far. Iceland had featured in the qualifying for the Seoul Olympics, and lost all four of their matches against some nations of fine footballing heritage: the Netherlands, East Germany (something of a nemesis to the Icelandic by now!), Portugal and Italy. They had also played a few friendlies at full international level, although a fair few of those featuring for the Olympic select would also turn out for the ‘A’ team. Hungary had defeated Iceland 3-0 in Budapest in May, whereas Bulgaria had won 3-2 in Reykjavik early in August. A week prior to their qualification opener, Iceland would use their minnows neighbours in the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands, as their sparring partners, defeating them 1-0 in what was the visitors’ first ever official international.
Manager Held would have a good few players operating abroad in foreign leagues to chose from, but perhaps the biggest name of them all, defender Atli Eðvaldsson, had returned back home to the domestic scene just prior to the qualification start. He had played a full eight seasons in the West German Bundesliga. Another veteran and another Bundesliga stalwart was the more attacking Ásgeir Sigurvinsson, still turning out for Stuttgart at the age of 33. Then there were forwards such as Arnór Guðjohnsen (Anderlecht) and Sigurður Grétarsson (Luzern). Young midfielder Sigurður Jónsson had travelled to England and Sheffield Wednesday at a very early point, and now, at 21, he was becoming a key figure for Held. Then there were Guðmundur Torfason in Belgium (Genk) as well as goalkeeper Bjarni Sigurðsson and midfielder Gunnar Gíslason in Norwegian football.
Up and coming players? Perhaps midfielders Þorvaldur Örlygsson (KA Akureyri), 22, and Rúnar Kristinsson (KR Reykjavík), still only 18 at the start of the qualification. 23 year old central defender Guðni Bergsson (Valur) also seemed to be an interesting prospect.
The 3-2 home defeat to Bulgaria prior to the start of qualification had suggested that the manager would be looking to play his troops in a 5-3-2 formation. They could do with a positive start, but it would be difficult against a Soviet Union which had just won silver medals in the 1988 European Championships in West Germany over the summer.