How Iceland defied the odds to qualify for Euro 2016

With a population less than Cork, Iceland are the smallest nation to qualify for a major football tournament. But they have 850 Uefa-licensed coaches and outperform about 150 countries in developing players. The question is how. Brian Oliver found out

How Iceland defied the odds to qualify for Euro 2016

The standard of coaching in Icelandic football has improved so much that Hermann Hreidarsson, who played in England’s Premier League for 10 years, compares himself to a modern-day 14-year-old.

When Hreidarsson left his Icelandic club to sign for Crystal Palace in 1997 he was moving from a small-town team in the Vestmann Islands, off Iceland’s south coast, to the big time.

The popular defender stayed for 15 years and won the FA Cup in 2008 with Portsmouth.

“Compared to now,” he says, “it seems unbelievable. The standard and quality of kids has gone up so much.

“When I went to England I was 23, but my technical ability was no better than a 14-year-old’s today. The improvements have been immense, in body position, movement, making full impact on the ball and so on.”

The work that started 15 years ago, in improving coaching and facilities, has paid off so well that Iceland twice beat Holland on the way to qualifying for the Euros for the first time. With a population of 329,000 they are the smallest nation ever to qualify for a tournament of this size.

“The youth coaches deserve so much credit, so do the FA for starting the coaching programme,” said Hreidarsson, who won 89 caps for Iceland and is now manager of top-division side Fylkir in Reykjavik, the capital.

“Iceland are contenders now and we will be contenders again in the future because of the coaching system. This is not a one-off.”

While Gylfi Sigurdsson, Swansea’s player of the year, and former Chelsea and Barcelona forward Eidur Gudjohnsen are the best-known members of the squad, theirs is a collective, no-stars approach along the lines of Leicester City.

“If you don’t have the best individuals you can still be the best in other areas,” said Lars Lagerback, the 67-year-old Swede who led the team to the Euros. Lagerback will step down after the tournament and hand control to his assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson, who is a qualified dentist as well as a top football coach.

Iceland’s players celebrate their shock win over the Netherlands in Euro 2016 qualifying.
Iceland’s players celebrate their shock win over the Netherlands in Euro 2016 qualifying.

“In the 50%-60% of the time when you don’t have the ball, you can be best then,” said Lagerback. “A lot of things in football are underestimated. It’s the only team sport where a third division team can beat a first division team.

“Iceland and Leicester are similar. If you have high individual skills and you want to be even better, you can learn from Leicester and from Iceland. The structure is in place.”

The theory will be put to the test in the first game against Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team-mates. The other teams in their group are Hungary and Austria; Iceland have a reasonable chance of reaching the knock-outs.

The economic boom in Iceland, which preceded an almighty crash in 2008, helped footballers to reach these new levels. Clubs and local authorities found it easy to borrow money or find cash-rich sponsors, and the forward-thinking clubs started turning football from a six-month pursuit to an all-year game.

They built “football houses” — full-size indoor pitches, some with spectator stands. Artificial pitches sprang up all over the country.

“Since 2000, football infrastructure in Iceland has taken giant leaps,” said Omar Smarason, head of media and marketing for the KSI, Iceland’s FA. “Icelandic football players, young and old, get shelter from the winter weather. They can now train and compete on top-class pitches all year round. The days of the frozen gravel pitches of the past are long gone.”

There are seven full-size indoor pitches, six half-size, and about 200 artificial pitches of various sizes.

“Mini pitches have been built all over the country, mostly next to schools,” said Smarason. “The aim was to give children a chance to play football, purely for fun, in good, safe conditions, with floodlights wherever possible. These mini pitches have been in constant use ever since they were built.”

Head coach Lars Lagerback, who will step down  after the tournament likens their team ethic to Leicester City’s
Head coach Lars Lagerback, who will step down  after the tournament likens their team ethic to Leicester City’s

And the children who use them, even from the age of five, are taught the game by paid, highly qualified coaches. There are nearly 850 Uefa-licensed coaches in Iceland. Before 2002 there were none, because Iceland’s coaching qualifications were not approved by Uefa.

The man who led the change was Siggi Eyjolfsson, who studied sports science and sports psychology in the United States before embarking on a playing career that took him to Walsall, Chester, Harelbeke in Belgium, and back to Iceland as the KSI’s head of education.

“Iceland is outperforming about 150 countries and is arguably the best in the world at developing players,” said Eyjolfsson, who led the national women’s team to the Euros for the first time in 2009, and now coaches at Lillestrom in Norway.

“You never know where the next Eidur Gudjohnsen is going to come from, it could be a small village. So we made sure there was a qualified coach in every village.”

Youngsters without access to indoor pitches will turn up whatever the weather. Both Hreidarsson’s daughters play, and he said: “The kids are tough here, boys and girls.

“They will always turn up for training, in snow, in rain, three or four times a week. Maybe they’ll put on an extra pair of gloves but they’ll be there. That makes Icelandic players a bit tougher than some others.

“Because of how driven we are as a people, and because we have so many playing in Europe at a decent level, we have a fighting chance in France. The league season here is suspended for two weeks so everyone can go to France or watch at home. I will be there with all the family.”

Another big change Hreidarsson has seen is in the level of support for the national team, who will have at least 20,000 — six per cent of the population — backing them in France.

“When I played we had some good results,” said Hreidarsson. “We drew 1-1 with France just after they won the World Cup in 1998, we beat Russia and the Czechs when they were good, drew with Spain twice.

“But when I played, people would come to watch the opposition rather than us. If we played Latvia there would be 1,500 people there, booing us. Now it will be a sell-out and the atmosphere is fantastic.

“There is belief now, belief from the media, from the fans, from every single Icelander. When you have our work rate, our team ethic, and our support, you are going to have a chance.”

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