Iceland’s ascent from the lower reaches of the FIFA rankings to Euro 2016 contenders is no coincidence. It is the result of a well thought out and meticulous plan that has thrust greatness upon a squad of players who have made history by reaching the tournament in France.
Iceland had never qualified for a major tournament in 23 attempts but that all changed when they finished 2nd in qualifying Group A to secure a place at Euro 2016. Victories against Holland and Turkey will live long in the memory of Icelandic football fans as their dreams of reaching a major tournament finally became a reality.
The Panenka looks at the steep and dramatic rise of Group F’s Iceland.
Football had been little more than a seasonal hobby in Iceland. The season runs from May to September and the weather makes it difficult for people to become truly engaged with the sport. The top division in Iceland is called the ‘Urvalsdeild Karla’ and until now there are few reasons why you would have heard of it.
Since the 90s however, the Icelandic Football Association (KSI) have turned the sport into a national passion through some visionary forward thinking and bulky investment.
Iceland is a nation of 325,000 people. That’s roughly the same as the population of Coventry in the UK and is the equivalent of the number of people that attended the Indy 500 in 2016. The island has only 21,508 registered soccer players, less than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Despite having only a tiny pool of players to select from, the KSI have created an environment where every youth player has the opportunity utilize top facilities and receive the best coaching possible. These initiatives are not exactly groundbreaking ideas but are both part of a 20-year plan which is coming to fruition at Euro 2016.
One of the first steps into becoming the smallest ever nation to compete at the European championships was to give players the opportunity to play. Living and growing up in Iceland brings climatic and geographical challenges where the weather will restrict the amount of playing time players get.
For that reason the KSI built its first “Football House” in 2000. These indoor pitches meant that players could train all year round on a full sized floodlit football pitch. Inside, players are protected from the harshness of the Icelandic climate by a massive dome and have access to a top class playing space, even in the short daytime hours of winter. Equipped with all mod cons the football houses began to spring up across the country and today there are a total of 11.
Iceland experienced an economic boom in the early 2000s and that caused a large amount of the investment in football infrastructure. “There seemed to be endless resources of money flowing around, and municipalities had relatively easy access to loans,” recalled Ómar Smárason, KSÍ’s marketing director. “It certainly gave a boost to the building of facilities, just like it did in every area of our society,” he added.
This soccer revolution was aided by the influx of coaches to the country. In the past volunteers and parents had led most of the coaching of provincial youth teams. However, by the latest estimation, there is now thought to be one UEFA-qualified coach per 500 people in Iceland.
“You have to realize when you are a small island like we are, we are not a leading nation in creating new ideas in the game,” says Geir Thorsteinsson, KSÍ president since 2007. “You must go out and find new ideas and new methods and not stick to the old English style of playing.”
Many of the coaching techniques that eventually reached the far-flung island of Iceland involved players returning to their homeland after spending part of their career in mainland Europe. Players like Stuttgart legend Sigi Sigurvinsson was inspirational as one of the first players to return to Iceland. Many Icelanders cite his influence as someone who helped improve the standard of football and professionalized the sport.
If you asked any football fan ten years ago to name an Icelandic footballer they’d do well to name anyone other than Eidur Gudjohnsen. As a result of KSI’s investment in facilities and coaching, players from a host of the major European leagues join the former Chelsea forward in the Iceland set up at Euro 2016.
A majority of the players currently ply their trade in the Scandinavian leagues but as a testament to Iceland’s ever-growing influence on football’s world sphere, the English Premier League, Serie A, the Bundesliga and the Eredivisie are all represented in Iceland’s 23-man squad for Euro 2016.
As the first generation to reap the rewards of the ‘bio-dome boom,’ many of Iceland’s players at Euro 2016 have been together since U-19 level and are helping to fuel Iceland’s growth. The squad includes the likes of Gylfi Sigurdssin from Swansea City, Alfreo Finnbogason currently contracted to Real Sociedad, FC Nantes striker Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, and Cardiff City central midfielder Aron Einar Gunnarsson.
In Iceland it is hoped that this group of players will serve future generations. With their experience, they could be the vehicle to import even more ideas and developmental techniques to Iceland after playing in some of the best leagues in football. Furthermore, their unlikely achievement of reaching Euro 2016 can act at the new benchmark for the next era of Icelandic footballers to attempt to surpass.
The beginnings of Iceland’s rise to footballing prominence can be traced as far back as the 90s but Iceland really started to make a name for itself in their unsuccessful 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. During qualification, away at Switzerland, the minnows recorded a morale boosting 4-4 draw after recovering from being 4-1 down.
With “Remember Switzerland” as the rallying cry, Iceland ended qualification unbeaten to secure a two-legged play-off with Croatia. Iceland came within minutes of qualification but ultimately fell short. They wouldn’t be headed to the World Cup in Brazil but the result hardly mattered.
What’s most striking about Iceland is their fearless confidence. They almost seem immune to any self-doubt. Whether they are playing Brazil or Lichtenstein, they grace the field with a refreshing naivety to the fact they are such an unknown and unrecognized force. Teams who have underestimated Iceland have done so at their peril.
Iceland justified their place at Euro 2016 with six wins, two draws and two defeats in qualifying. They raced to pole position in their group by winning five out their first six matches. During qualification, Iceland recorded back-to-back victories against Holland and notched up home wins against both Czech Republic and Turkey. Despite only managing one point from their last three games they were safe enough to book their plane tickets to Euro 2016 in France.
The Iceland team is co-managed by Swedish international Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson, the latter of which will go solo after Euro 2016. Lagerbäck brings tactical knowledge and professional experience to the national side while Hallgrímsson uses his local knowledge of the country to scout players and build relationships with the country’s new and blossoming football community.
“It doesn’t matter who we play or what the scoreline is, we try to never change our priorities,” Hallgrímsson told The Guardian. “We do not think of ourselves as a small country in these moments. We know we don’t have the individual players of Holland or Turkey. We win on unity and hard work and organization, and we have to be better than everyone else in these areas.”
It’s unclear where Iceland’s confidence comes from but it’s obvious that they’re going to need it at Euro 2016. Despite being handed a tricky draw alongside Portugal, Austria, and Hungary in Group F it is more than possible that they could advance to the knock-out stage.
“If you meet somebody from Iceland, they’re almost delusional about their ability,” says Dadi Rafnsson, the director of youth coaching at Breidablik, an Icelandic Premier League side. “When [the national team] lines up against someone, we’re not thinking, we’ll try not to lose so bad. We’re thinking we’re going to beat them.”
Iceland opens their Euro 2016 campaign against Portugal on June 14.