What comes to mind when you think of Iceland? Most people I’d assume would come up with hot springs, volcanoes, the northern lights and even frozen food. Well, now you can add something else to this list – football.
With a population of 320,000, smaller than the likes of Belize, Brunei and the Solomon Islands, Iceland have qualified for their first ever major tournament at this summer’s European Championships in France, becoming the smallest nation to qualify for Europe’s premier competition. Replacing Slovenia who took part in the Euros in 2000 and boasted a population of a comparatively gigantic two million back then. Even more remarkably, Iceland has 20,000 registered football players- six percent of the population.
If you want to put this achievement into perspective, come the summer they’ll be on the same stage as Russia, a country of 143 million people, as well as Germany and England with populations of 80 and 53 million respectively.
In a qualification group containing the Netherlands, Turkey and the Czech Republic, Iceland qualified fairly comfortably, losing only two of their ten games which included home and away victories over the Netherlands. In fact it is a group from which England would struggle to qualify. It was this success and the agonising World Cup qualification play-off defeat to Croatia in 2013, which saw Europe’s big boys look at Iceland as more than just an inconvenient long haul away trip.
In the past you could have been forgiven for only being able to recall Eidur Gudjohnsen when naming top Icelandic players. Now however, the national team can boast the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, a name with which any Premier League football fan will be familiar. As well as Alfred Finnbogason who scored for Olympiacos in a 3-2 Champions League win at Arsenal this season and Kolbeinn Sigporsson, now at Nantes in France, who had an impressive strike rate (46 goals in 112 league games) in his time in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar and Ajax. These are just three of a number of players that have been exported across Europe.
At the time of writing, Iceland sit in 38th position in the world rankings. This is a huge leap for a nation, who just four years ago ranked 131st in the world. This rapid rise up the FIFA World Rankings, coupled with qualification for Euro 2016 is quite an achievement, but when you look into it, this improvement should be seen more as an inevitability rather than a shock.
In a country that suffers from the harshest of winters with limited day light, the country’s Football Association (KSI) has heavily invested in 30 all-weather football pitches, with seven of them being indoor. In addition, over 110 schools in the country have had small artificial football pitches built. It is this investment that has allowed the game to become accessible to anyone no matter how remote the area, thus helping the game grow over the past 15 years.
It was not just the improved facilities that helped. Since the turn of the century, there has been a serious and professional attitude towards coaching, with the provision of over 600 B licenced UEFA coaches, nearly 200 with the level A licence and 13 who hold the Pro licence. That’s a staggering amount when you consider the population size and that there are no professional clubs in Iceland. On top of this, all coaches are paid, meaning children as young as six are being trained by qualified professional coaches.
The Iceland football season is extremely short, running from May through September (the shortest in world football). This, combined with the improved infrastructure and coaching, means Iceland has been able create an identity in the way they play the game. A high tempo 4-4-2 formation with an intensity that enables players to quickly close down their opponents. For a generation, coaches have been changing the DNA of Icelandic football – all players are taught that what you do without the ball is of equal importance to what you do with it. In all areas of the pitch players must work as hard at retrieving the ball as at attacking the opposition with skill and flair.
Come the summer Iceland may not even make it out of their group, but whatever happens to them during the European Championships we should regard their present achievements as a footballing success story.