Where Now For Iceland?
Was it a one off, or can Iceland establish themselves as a major force in European football?
Iceland. A country with more puffins than people. More fishermen than footballers. And a grunty "HUUH" handclap, or Viking War Cry, that became so popular at Euro 2016 their French hosts pinched it.
For a while they were the talk of the tournament, their colourful fans helping to light up an otherwise dull competition, with the #IcelandSmites hashtag proving a big hit on social media the further they went against more favoured opposition, and they deserved their big moment in the spotlight. Beating England was described by their newly elected president Guðni Jóhannesson as, "The greatest victory in Iceland’s history, with the possible exception of the cod wars.”
It also sent the English Football Association scurrying back to the drawing board with the kind of manic desperation that Wile E Coyote experienced with Road Runner. Exit Roy Hodgson. Enter Sam Allardyce. While England ended the tournament in turmoil, returning home to a storm of criticism, Iceland went back to a hero’s welcome despite their 5-2 defeat to France in the quarter-finals.
Some said the fairy tale was over. Others insist it has only just begun. So was it a one-off or are Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys) here to stay on the international stage?
The volcanic ash cloud caused by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air travel across Europe, was gone after six days. Iceland lasted longer than that in France. But the challenge now is to build on their rise from a low of 131 in the Fifa world rankings just four years ago to a high of 22 at the time of writing, and make sure they stick around among the footballing elite for much longer. Investment in coaching and infrastructure has helped Iceland make massive strides in terms of player development and the hope is that what happened at Euro 2016 will inspire a new generation to rival this one.
The midfielder Birkir Bjarnason, looking every bit the Viking himself with his long blond hair, head band and beard, scored his country’s first ever goal at a major tournament when he hit the equaliser against Portugal in their first group match. Asked about Iceland’s footballing future, he said, “I’m very positive. What we achieved will inspire kids in Iceland to try even harder.
“The last couple of years we’ve seen that we can play against anybody. The team has improved so much. This is the start of something, 100%. We have got really good players coming through and we have some good players who are still of a good age. They will carry on. We will definitely make it to another finals for sure. We want to be playing regularly on this stage.”
For Bjarnason, a Swiss Super League winner with FC Basel last season, the Euros were the continuation of the run that took Iceland to a World Cup qualifying play-off in 2013, in which they lost 2-0 on aggregate to Croatia. “That was the real start of the story,” he said. “This is just the next chapter.”
But for others it goes back even further, to the day 15 years ago when Iceland decided to start ploughing money into the sport. With temperatures in some parts of the country reaching -30 degrees celsius in the winter months and daylight absent for up to 20 hours at a time, conditions are not exactly conducive for practising football.
So Iceland’s football association, the KSÍ, oversaw investment in 30 full-size, all-weather pitches, seven of which are in purpose-built indoor arenas, and almost 150 smaller, artificial surfaces, allowing young players to train all year round. From the age of four, every child has a Uefa-accredited coach. That’s quite an achievement.
After the Euros, tens of thousands gathered in the capital Reykjavik to welcome the team home, thronging the hill of Arnarhóll and making an almighty din as they took part in a communal War Chant, clapping in unison in a kind of mass salute. Imagine how many kids there must have been in that crowd eager to lace them up and emulate the likes of Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurðsson and Cardiff City’s Aron Gunnarsson, probably the team’s two most important players.
They both come from a nucleus of players all born in 1989-90 which also includes the likes of Real Sociedad striker Alfreð Finnbogason, Malmö’s Viðar Örn Kjartansson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson of Nantes and Jóhann Guðmundsson, who signed for Burnley after the tournament. Younger players such as the 23-year-old left-back Hörður Magnússon of Juventus, who played on loan for Cesena last season, and 21-year-old Hjörtur Hermannsson, who was loaned to Gothenburg from PSV Eindhoven, have also made an impact.
Shortly after the France defeat, Sigurðsson said, “There is plenty of talent in our squad. 10 or 15 players are still of a good age so hopefully the future will look bright for us. Nobody expected us to come as far as we have, but we don’t want to stop here.
“We're very proud. It's been a fantastic tournament, something special for a small team like us, we probably achieved something no one expected us to. It gives the kids back home hope that something like this is possible, and hopefully we'll be back in another finals.”
The task of qualifying for the World Cup is now the responsibility of Heimir Hallgrímsson, the part-time dentist who co-managed the team along with veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck, who stepped down after the Euros. It’s in safe hands. Hallgrímsson is a brilliant communicator who believes that his day job working in his dental practice has helped teach him the skills needed for coaching.
“Working as a dentist has helped me a lot as you're always working one-on-one," he said shortly before the tournament. "Some people are really afraid of going to the dentist, so you have to find the right way to talk to each individual client. You might have to relax one, be funny to the next one, be serious to the third, but you have to be quick to adapt. It is the same with footballers."
That ability to listen and communicate proved essential in helping Lagerbäck get bigger-name players such as the former Barcelona and Chelsea star Eiður Guðjohnsen, a Champions League winner, to sign up to his methods, and Hallgrímsson has been the glue that held it all together ever since. He is even responsible for drumming up the kind of support which made Iceland fans the talk of the tournament in France. He restarted the supporters club himself and would regularly turn up for their meetings in a Reykjavik pub before home games, giving fans a report of what the team was going to do and showing them the motivational videos they had made for the players. To begin with, only 10 or 12 would turn up. Then there were 400 or so at every meeting. 10% of the Icelandic population travelled to France to support their team. If the same proportion of England’s population had gone, France would have been flooded with 5.3 million people.
For all that, though, it remains a numbers game for Hallgrímsson. There are still only around 100 professional players in Iceland, and the same 11 started every game at the Euros. Some wonder how much future progress is possible. “I hope we see more Icelandic players playing in the top leagues now,” Gunnarsson told me shortly after the France game, “because we’ve shown we can compete with the best in the world. You’re in this to test yourself and hopefully that will keep on going and more of our players will be playing in the bigger leagues. The talent is there.”
But Hjörtur Hjartarson, a journalist and host of a radio talk show for the Icelandic mass media company 365, said. “We haven’t seen a tidal wave of players going to big clubs. In fact, not one single Iceland player has been signed by a huge club. Take Ragnar Sigurðsson, who plays for Krasnodar in Russia. He’s the guy who made the big tackle on Jamie Vardy when he was through on goal. His agent spoke with Liverpool. But Liverpool told him they don’t take players based on a few performances in one tournament. They bought Ragnar Klavan instead, a player they had watched for 12 to 18 months.
“It’s a delicate situation. In a few years’ time we could end up with a group of players who are just not as good as this one. This generation, the 89-90 one, is the best we have ever had, but we still don’t have enough professional players. I do think this group can get us to the World Cup, and potentially to the next Euros. But after that we might not qualify again for another ten or 15 years. We haven’t turned Icelandic football around yet. Everything just came together for this tournament. We had the players. But it needed Lars as well. We don’t know what the future will bring yet.”
There are grounds for optimism. At the time of writing, Iceland’s Under-21 team are second in their qualifying group for the 2017 European Championship in Poland. The seniors are in a World Cup qualifying group containing no major powers and should not fear the likes of Turkey, Finland, Kosovo, Ukraine and Croatia, against whom they will fancy a spot of revenge-smiting.
Some of their players did also earn moves to bigger clubs on the back of the Euros and will be playing in bigger leagues. Fresh from being relegated with Charlton Athletic, Guðmundsson now finds himself in the Premier League with Burnley. Arnór Traustason, who only made his Iceland debut last November, helped IFK Norrköping win the Swedish championship last year and is now with Austrian giants SK Rapid Wien. Left-back Ari Skúlason left OB in Denmark for KSC Lokeren in Belgium.
Bjarnason said, “I think you will see more Icelandic players playing at a higher level and I think you will see more kids taking up the sport. Our Under-21s are doing well in their group, which has some big nations in it, and we have other really good players coming through. It doesn’t have to stop here. Coaching has improved a lot in Iceland and hopefully we will start to see the benefits of that.”
With a population of just over 330,000, Iceland were the smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament and big changes to the way young players are coached at grassroots level had a role to play in helping to pave the way for that success. Around 70% of Icelandic coaches, even at grassroots level, have a Uefa B licence. There is one Uefa-qualified coach for every 500 people. In England the ratio is one for 5,000. In addition, all the clubs in the top two leagues are subject to a licensing system where education for their coaches is mandatory and they can be fined if they do not fulfil the requirements. Young players are regularly given a shot at first team football too. Guðjohnsen started playing in the top flight at 15. But it’s far from the perfect set-up.
“We have one of the best coaching systems for young players,” said Hjartarson “Kids have access to organised coaching right from the age of four or five. But we don’t have the same level of dedicated training that many other countries have once they get older. Big clubs in other countries see a great player at the age of ten or 12 somewhere and they bring them right into their own professional set-up. We don’t take our best players from each age group and focus on what they need like that. We need to start doing that, to offer the best of our young players that extra dedicated coaching they need to make the big step up. That hinders us.”
In some ways Iceland has been lucky. Had the country’s banks collapsed a few years earlier than they did in 2008, there would not have been the same level of investment in football and none of this would have been possible. But by then the pitches were already built, the indoor complexes well established, the coaches already at work. There is even an argument that the crash may have helped the national team by forcing clubs to rely on cheap young talent instead of expensive foreign signings. It was three years before Iceland began to recover from what analysts still regard as one of the worst financial crises in history. Yet recover they did, paying off most of their debt ahead of schedule and proving much more resilient than many feared.
Whether they make to Russia in 2018 is uncertain. “I know for a fact the boys are not through yet,” said Gunnarsson. “We are hungry for success. The spirit we’ve shown, the togetherness, has been second to none and what we’ve done as a team, we can be proud of it.
“The next generation is strong as well. It has a strong mentality. Long may it continue because it can’t stop now. We have to keep going because this is the path we want to stay on. It’s been an incredible journey so far and it’s not over yet. Our fans were the best in the tournament. Everyone was talking about them, and that hits you in your heart. We hope it carries on.
“We were the underdogs. But we were in every game we played. We showed anything is possible. Going out was hard to take, but we will learn from it. We are not finished yet.”
This article appeared on Episode Seventy Six of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.