Iceland moved 90 minutes closer to becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup when it held visiting Croatia to a scoreless draw Friday in the first game of their two-leg UEFA playoff.
The teams will meet in a rematch Tuesday in Croatia with the winner moving on to Brazil next summer. Six other UEFA teams also played first-leg matches Friday with Portugal beating Sweden, 1-0, on a late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo while Greece got two scores from Kostas Mitroglou to beat Romania, 3-1; and Ukraine whipped France, 2-0.
The winners in each playoff will be decided on aggregate goals over the two games.
A number of international friendlies were also played Friday with a listless U.S. team settling for a scoreless draw with Scotland in Glasgow. In 10 games the U.S. has yet to win in the United Kingdom. In other games of note, Chile blanked England, 2-0 on a pair of goals from Alexis Sanchez; Germany and Italy tied, 1-1; and the Galaxy's Robbie Keane scored in the first half to start Ireland to a 3-0 win over Latvia.
Back in Iceland, heavily favored Croatia dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard, holding a 2-to-1 advantage in possession and outshooting Iceland 14-4. None of Iceland's shots forced Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa to make a save.
Croatia also had a man advantage for the final 40 minutes after Iceland's Olafur Skulason was shown a red card.
With a population of 320,000 – fewer than Anaheim – Iceland is just one-fourth the size of Trinidad and Tobago, previously the smallest World Cup contestant. But Iceland has been playing big over the last year, moving up 85 spots, to 46th, in the FIFA world rankings.
More than 35,000 people – a 10th of the population – applied for one of the 9,800 tickets to Friday’s match, which sold out in 3 1/2 hours. But Nordic island soccer fever has spread as far as Ireland, where fans there have been urged to support Iceland because “they’re only one letter away.”
“It would mean everything to that country to get to Brazil,” former Icelandic national team coach Tony Knapp, speaking of Iceland, not Ireland, told the BBC. “The idea of a World Cup group with Brazil, England, maybe Ghana or Ivory Coast and Iceland is incredible. I hope with all my heart they do it.”