AP Sports Writer
REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) -- Icelanders who have fought back for five years since the country's spectacular financial collapse finally have something to smile about -- their Cinderella national team can qualify for the World Cup.
If they make it later Tuesday, expect celebrations that last all night. That would make this North Atlantic island nation of just 320,000 people the smallest in terms of population ever to qualify for the world's soccer showcase.
To do so, they have to beat Croatia -- playing on its home turf in Zagreb-- or hold them to a draw in which Iceland scores at least one goal. A scoreless draw could lead to a penalty shootout.
Qualifying for the World Cup is an uphill battle, with Croatia rated far higher in FIFA's world rankings -- 18th compared to Iceland's 46th place. But Icelanders truly believe a stout effort will bring them all the way to Brazil, host of the 2014 tournament.
"It's a big deal for any country to make it," said Bjorn Ludviksson, who works at an aluminum factory in west Iceland. "But, this would be the first time for Iceland, and the first time for such a small country."
Win or lose, many Icelanders are thrilled to have made it so far.
"If they play their best in Croatia, we will be very proud," said Ludviksson.
There's a message here: Never count Iceland out.
Just five years ago, Iceland was on the brink of bankruptcy after suffering the largest economic collapse in modern European history. Debts soared, businesses shuttered, unemployment skyrocketed and the Icelandic stock exchange fell by more than 90 percent.
Once hailed as Europe's banking darlings, Icelanders were faced with financial devastation. Shamed and angry, they took to the streets pounding pots and pans outside parliament, demanding accountability for the country's failed economy.
On Friday, they took to the streets for a very different reason after their team played a 0-0 draw against Croatia in the first of their two matches in the World Cup playoffs. The mood was electric -- smiling revelers coated in flag face paint, beers in hand, with unbridled enthusiasm for the next game.
If Iceland qualifies for the World Cup, it would help the island nation shake the stigma of financial ruin and disruptive volcanoes.
"Qualifying would make them feel part of the world and have another story to tell foreigners," said Garry Taylor, an Englishman who has lived in Reykjavik for four years. "You would hear it for the next 20 years."
The players are savoring the moment. Iceland's soccer players are national icons but because of the country's small size they're very accessible. In the offseason, it's common to see star players in coffeehouses or at concerts, out with their families or standing in line at a store.
"It's not often that Iceland has had the opportunity to get to the World Cup," midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson told the Icelandic news website Visir.is. "Now we are just 90 minutes from it!"
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