Iceland, the Nordic island country best known for sparsely spectacular landscape, soaring volcanoes and breathtaking fjords, has been inching towards the spectacular in its football history. Qualification for the 2011 European Under-21 Championship was the country’s first step to playing a major international tournament.
Iceland then qualified for the 2016 European Championship which was the national team’s first foray into a major tournament. Qualification was sealed last September and the team finished second in their group, seven points ahead of the mighty Netherlands. With around 331,600 people (even Sikkim has double the number); Iceland became the country with the fewest people to qualify for a major tournament, and the first to do so with a population of less than half a million.
When Swede Lars Lagerback was appointed coach in 2011, Iceland were ranked 104th. A year later, they had fallen to 131st. But Lagerback, with a lot of help from the Iceland football federation (KSI), had already started putting in place a broader structure to enable the team to progress. The main goal was to qualify for a major tournament. Not only was that aim achieved within five years, Iceland vaulted up the ladder and are currently ranked 31st in the world.
Omar Smarason, KSI media liaison, attributed the success to a combination of factors, long and short term. “Lagerback’s appointment is seen as key. Also, the fact that we have a strong generation of players, who came through the youth national teams together and now form the backbone of the team, helped us qualify for the Euros,” he said.
According to Smarason, the development of professional coaches and quality pitches helped the most. Football starts in a disciplined way right from school, although there are no organised sports in Iceland schools and no inter-school tournaments.
“Kids train with their local clubs in football halls under the tutelage of coaches with UEFA B- or A-level licences (for those who wish to manage at the semi-professional and professional levels) right from the time they start attending sessions at the age of four or five,” said Smarason. While there was no Icelandic coach with UEFA A/B level badges in 2003, by the end of 2015, the country had produced more than 800 of them.
Earlier, Smarason said, it was difficult to play football on frozen pitches during the long winter months, when the sun shone for only three to four hours. Now, it can be played any time in football halls or ‘football houses’. There are 11 such houses around Iceland — seven with full-size pitches and four with half-size ones — and all of them are equipped with stands, cafeterias, locker rooms and gymnasiums, enclosed under one giant dome.
Artificial pitches with under soil heating and floodlights were also built in large numbers. This was the first generation of players to benefit from the new system. Now, there are 179 full-size pitches across the country and several mini pitches strategically built next to schools.
The team’s immediate aim is to clear the group stage in France. That will help in the long-term goal of all-round development and push more kids into the youth system.