So the last World Cup campaign was no fluke. By beating Holland in Amsterdam on Thursday Iceland has proved that getting all the way to the play-offs was no fluke and is now in a position where one point in three games will suffice to qualify for the Euro´s in France 2016.
So far Iceland has beaten Turkey 3-0, Czech Republic 2-1, Kazakhstan and Latvia 3-0 away. The only loss so far has been to the Czechs who won the game in Plzen last year 2-1 and are so far the only team to score against Iceland. Holland has been beaten, soundly 2-0 at home and 0-1 in Amsterdam. Neither game was a steal and in between the Icelandic women´s national team, ranked number 18 in the world beat Holland as well. Next up Kazakhstan on Sunday, and people are talking about longer opening hours downtown and a mandatory day off on Monday.
Oh, and Iceland´s U21 team beat France 3-2 in their European Qualifier today and in the last FIFA rankings Iceland is number 22, one place above France.
Key reasons for Iceland´s success
1. The EEA.
Access to the European Economic Area in the mid-nineties led to Icelandic players being able to go play professionally in leagues all over Europe. Benefiting from the Bosman ruling of 1995, the number of Icelandic professionals abroad exploded and has remained high since. The change in the UEFA Champions League format in 1993 has ensured that a portion of the enormous football-wealth has spread over the Atlantic, enabling the FA and the clubs to grow the game exponentially. Due to Iceland´s lowly status, its footballers have often been low-risk, cheap labor for clubs on the mainland.
The incoming money and active participation in UEFA has meant raising the standard as far as facilities go. The FA and UEFA built small sided turf fields next to most grade schools in the country, enabling kids to easily go out and kick about. In the last twenty years heated and lighted turfs enabled Icelanders to extend the shortest season in the world and now most clubs are year round. Around a dozen indoor halls, many full size have also been built since the turn of the century, offering young Icelandic players perfect conditions to play in. This has meant that the typical Icelandic player is no longer a no nonsense defender like Hermann Hreidarsson, but a player who depends on his technical and tactical ability like Gylfi Sigurdsson.
3. Coach education
These players have also benefited greatly from a revolution in coach education in the last fifteen years. When Siggi Eyjolfsson became technical director at the FA he decided the best way to spend limited resources was on education. Icelandic youngsters have educated and paid coaches from the get-go, unlike the parent coaches often seen in the Nordic nations and US. There are almost 200 UEFA A qualified coaches and at least four hundred UEFA B coaches in Iceland, pretty good given that annually about 400 coaches are working.
4. The system
Sports facilities in Iceland are financed by the local governments, not the clubs. All clubs are member owned organisations run by volunteers and relatively low overhead in office staff. In turn clubs must allow anyone to train and play. This means that top youth programs like Breidablik and Stjarnan have several teams competing in different ability brackets. This also means that kids can find their own way in football that otherwise would have been turned down in an elite youth program. Players like Kari Arnason of Malmö and Alfred Finnbogason of Olympiakos could have gone into different directions in their late teens but instead always had an opportunity to grow and are as a result of their hard work in the Champions League this year.
All of the above can be summed up in this simple sentence. Nowhere in the world do as many kids and teenagers train as often, in as good facilities, with as qualified coaches for as little money and in Iceland.
4. Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson
When deciding on a new coach in 2012, the FA approached Roy Keane for the job but somehow ended up with the quiet Swede Lars Lagerback. What an inspired choice it turned out to be. Lagerback, with priceless international experience from his days with Sweden lifted the professionalism and aura around the national team. The FA wisely appointed local coach Heimir Hallgrimsson as his assistant and together they have built a machine that works. Hallgrimsson is now co-coach and poised to take over when Lagerback retires, probably to run for the president of Iceland.
Icelanders compete. At everything. When an Icelandic insurance officer or a grade school teacher takes up cross-fit, MMA or biking, they go all in, often injuring their back and sometimes achieving way beyond normal expectations. Hard work is at the core of Icelandic values and it shines through youth teams all the way into the national teams. Almost all Icelandic players grow up with the sense that if football does not work out then they have to have a second career. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson is a noted director of TV ads and television shows in Iceland. Pausing shoots to run off to practice, perseverance paid off for Hannes who now plays in the Eeredivisie with NEC Nijmegen.
Success is a combination of many different parts but it should now be clear that Icelandic football has a system that allows us to punch above our weight. Apart from the national team succes, Icelandic clubs have recorded wins against professional clubs with much larger budgets like Rosenborg, Lech Poznan and Sturm Graz in recent years. We are currently experiencing the heyday of Icelandic sports, but there might be more yet to come.