PARIS – There could not be more different teams than Portugal and Iceland at the European championships.
A well-established European soccer power, Portugal is relying heavily on the prowess of Real Madrid star striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who hopes to take advantage of the competition to show the world how good he is.
Iceland, on the other hand, qualified for the first time and has no star player in its squad apart from the aging ex-Barcelona and Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen. The tiny Nordic island's best player is Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Swansea creative midfielder whose work ethic, and shooting skills are not getting much attention outside of the Premier League.
While team spirit is essential for Iceland, Ronaldo epitomizes the individualization of football. Following Real Madrid's latest Champions League triumph, he missed Portugal's friendly defeat to England at Wembley and only joined his teammates after taking some time off on a yacht with friends. The three-time world player of the year is as famous for his goals as he is for his perfect abs, and each of his public appearances makes headlines.
There is no such fuss surrounding the Iceland squad, which makes its debut in the tournament against its Group F rivals on Tuesday in Saint-Etienne.
"We've got good players who can score goals and create goals but I think our great strength is how good we are defensively and how hard we work for each other," Sigurdsson said in a TV documentary about the Iceland team's recent success.
With such a mindset, Iceland defied the odds in qualifying to become the smallest nation to reach a major final soccer tournament. With a population of 330,000, Iceland finished second in its group behind Czech Republic and above Turkey and the Netherlands, defeating the Dutch twice.
The team usually plays in a classic 4-4-2 formation in which every player works defensively to retrieve the ball quickly and launch counterattacks.
"Everyone is leading by example, it's fantastic to have players like that in a squad," said Heimer Hallgrimsson, who is coaching the team alongside Swedish technician Lars Lagerback. "We have had our best games against the best teams. And luckily there are only good teams in the finals."
Particularly Portugal, which is making its sixth straight appearance at the Euros and reached the final of the 2004 tournament it hosted. The Portuguese won their last seven competitive matches and never failed to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Apart from Ronaldo, Fernando Santos' side is lacking top-notch strikers and the former Man United striker should be playing upfront alongside Nani or Ricardo Quaresma in a 4-4-2 system.
In France, Ronaldo will be looking to equal Michel Platini's record of nine goals during the finals. Ronaldo has already scored six in 14 European Championship matches.
Quaresma has been challenging Nani for a starting role in Fernando Santos' team recently, scoring twice in Portugal's final friendly game before the tournament, a 7-0 thrashing of Estonia.
The win boosted confidence within the Portuguese ranks, but keeping a low profile will be key to progress from a group also featuring Austria and Hungary, said defender Cedric Soares.
"We know it will be a difficult game (against Iceland). They have a good, solid defense and you don't win 0-0," Soares said. "We looked good versus Estonia and we need to continue in that vein. We know football goes from game to game and we have to be focused on Iceland. It's a hard task."