Iceland begin preparations today for a Euro 2016 quarter-final against France still coming to terms with the headlines that greeted their remarkable victory over England.
They have been hailed as miracle workers, as weavers of an impossible football fairytale, as the dreamers whose dream came true.
But it’s easy to forget how much work went into getting there.
Just as Iceland’s success on the pitch at this tournament has been built on a ferocious work ethic, the story behind their rise to fame was not founded on chance, fate or fluke — it was built, step by step, by an off-field revolution that has reaped dividends in France.
One visit to the team’s picturesque team base in Annecy, in the French Alps, is enough to build a picture of what lies behind the performances of players who have shocked the footballing world.
Training there is fiercely competitive and surprisingly technical, with plenty of emphasis on small-sided games and close-range finishing.
Joint coach Lars Lagerback has worked particularly hard at encouraging his team to play more on the floor, especially in the final third, and there were signs against both England and Austria that his effort is paying off, adding a more refined edge to their brutal power and athleticism.
Plenty of the focus on Monday was on the long-throw which led to Iceland’s first goal and also on the terrible mistake by Joe Hart which led to the team’s second in a 2-1 win.
Less attention was paid to the clever inter-play around England’s penalty area which preceded Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s strike and Hart’s embarrassing fumble. There’s more to this Iceland team than meets the eye.
Press officer Omar Smarason, a former player whose career was ended by injury, has been around the team for years and seen first hand the nation’s rise to fame. He knows how much work has gone into it.
He revealed, for instance, that Iceland’s choice of Annecy as a base was no fluke. In fact a list of every single training camp was given to players as if it were a holiday brochure half-way through the qualifying campaign. They were effectively told ‘we believe you’re going to qualify so choose your camp’.
As a result there is a huge collective affection for Annecy from the squad and no complaints about being away from home so long.
Competitiveness has been encouraged ever since they arrived in France, too — there are daily competitions for everything from golf to table-tennis, table-football and even quiz nights.
“Everybody here is very competitive and you need an outlet,” Smarason said.
“Every day we have an activity with points on offer and it helps keep us going. But the players know each other very well anyway. It’s a small country, many of them have probably known each other since they were young and that builds a real togetherness. I don’t think you’ll find a team spirit like this anywhere else.
“The bond with the fans is the same. The players can look up into the crowd and probably know a lot of the people up there; they feel like they are playing on behalf of real people.”
Some of those comments go a long way to explaining the remarkable spirit which drives Iceland on as they prepare to face the hosts in Paris.
But the history of how a country like Iceland developed 23 players of good enough quality to beat England is more complicated.
Many people put it down to technological advances in artificial pitches and the arrival of indoor facilities, which have transformed junior coaching in the country.
“Almost every child in the country now has access to these kind of facilities,” said Smarason.
“That’s very important in a country where the weather can be difficult. But even more important has been a big focus on developing and encouraging top-quality coaches. We’ve got to the stage now where pretty much every young person who plays football is being coached by someone who has a Uefa A or B licence. How many countries can say that?”
In England, the FA has spent millions trying to achieve something similar but is a long way from reaching its goal; a vast number of children in the UK still learn their football from parents, PE teachers and volunteers with no real qualifications, leading to an emphasis on results rather than technique.
Some things, however, you can’t teach, such as the mental toughness which makes Iceland so cool under pressure — an attribute accentuated when juxtaposed with England’s nervous players who were frozen and neutered by fear and pressure in Nice.
“There really is no fear in this squad, so playing France isn’t going to worry them,” said Lagerback. “These players are mentally strong. They are used to taking care of themselves, they are used to working hard. It’s a little bit in the country’s culture.
“I don’t know if it has to do with being a small country or being a bit isolated. It’s difficult to say, but I was brought up in the northern part of Sweden and the climate maybe influenced people a little bit too.
“I can identify with that. These players are strong, they want to work hard and they are relaxed, and they are building a remarkable story.”
BallTalk: Mike Sheehan and Steve Neville look ahead to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals and ask will there be any more shocks.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved