English football fans will not have to look too hard to find a familiar face at the European Championships, with a quarter of players present plying their trade on these shores.
The opulent and cosmopolitan Premier League is the best-represented competition in the world at Euro 2016 and its stars will be at home in the surrounding media frenzies and mega-crowds that accompany a major international tournament.
Yet there will also be 37 players present from the less-heralded climes of the Football League, more used to staying up late into the night to spot themselves on blink-and-you’ll-miss-it highlight clips than being broadcast to millions of fans around the world.
Icelander Johann Gudmundsson of Charlton and Northern Ireland’s Conor Washington of QPR are two Championship players who will be trading the “Sky Bet” prefix for the more weighty “European” this summer.
The two players have had mixed seasons with their respective London clubs: Gudmundsson topped the Championship assists charts but Charlton propped up the majority of other clubs in 22nd position, while Washington earned a move to QPR in January after scoring 15 times for Peterborough but has yet to find the net for his new club.
If the chips didn’t quite fall their way in the Championship, the pair could be forgiven for a sense of foreboding with the likes of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Germany’s Mats Hummels waiting in France for Gudmundsson and Washington respectively.
Yet neither player, whose tiny nations Iceland and Northern Ireland have upset the odds just to make it this far, appear daunted by the step up in calibre.
“We’re not going to be affected by other teams,” Gudmundsson insisted to City A.M., citing this Iceland side’s already impressive list of scalps as evidence of their ability to come out on top against Portugal, Austria and Hungary in Group F.
“We’ve played big teams. We beat Holland [in Euro 2016 qualifying]. We played Croatia in qualifying for the World Cup. It’s not going to affect us.
“The only thing is when you get there and you see the [size of] the stadiums that it’s going to sink in that you are playing at the Euros.
“That’s going to be the major factor in keeping our nerves. I don’t think it’s the opposition, more the occasion.”
Washington meanwhile has actually taken to the international arena more quickly than the Championship.
Despite not finding the net in 10 appearances for Rangers so far, the 24-year-old scored the winning goal in his full international debut against Slovenia and followed that up with another in his second start against Belarus last month. He is relishing the opportunity to continue that run against the sterner opposition of Germany, Poland and Ukraine in Group C.
“I didn’t expect the Championship to be as physical as League One but if anything it’s more physical,” the striker told City A.M. “All the centre-halves are absolute monsters.
“I’ve had to adapt to the Championship. And playing against defenders like Mats Hummels is another thing you have to adapt to. If I do get the chance to pit myself against some of the best centre-halves in the world it would be a massive achievement and I’d really enjoy it.”
For both players, the idea of duking it out with the world’s best on a world stage would have once appeared an unlikely prospect.
Simply being born in Iceland has often been enough to preclude a player from such competitions — Euro 2016 is the first time the national football team has ever reached a major international tournament.
“I always said to my parents ‘I want to play professional football’ and they said ‘No, really, do you want to be a policeman or something like that?’,” admits Gudmundsson.
In attempting to qualify for the last European Championships, Iceland won just one out of eight games, yet the introduction of the tactical pragmatism of veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerback was the final ingredient needed for the fulfillment of a footballing revolution in the country which has also included investment in improved coaching and training facilities and the emergence of a golden generation of players who grew up together including Gudmundsson, Reading’s Aron Gunnarsson and Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Washington’s path to France would have seemed even more unlikely four years ago. Northern Ireland had endured a similarly pathetic qualifying record to Iceland in recent qualifying campaigns, yet the Kent native would have hardly been considering declaring himself eligible for the country by virtue of a grandparent while still pulling himself out of bed at the crack of dawn for a paper round.
“I would have still been working and just playing part time,” he says. “I was a postman at that point so I would have been up at five most mornings doing my round and then maybe some gym or some golf in the afternoon and a game on Tuesday night and a game on a Saturday.
“I probably would have missed a fair few of the games because I had to play or get up early the next day. It’s a surreal thought to think about where I am now compared where I was four years ago. But it’s that burning desire drives me on.”
Both players and their nations have shown what such desire — plus a little bit of organisation, nous and talent — can achieve. They may not be so recognisable to British fans now, but don’t bet against that starting to change in France this month.