Iceland: A Saga of the World Cup Underdog

From football anonymity to World Cup debutantes in a little over a decade.

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When you fly into Keflavík International Airport and peer down through the clearing fog, a vast, sparse tundra awaits you, where roads run through the rock and snow like discarded ribbons of tarmac, and the emptiness seems staggering.

How then has this charming yet frigid rock in the northernmost regions of the Atlantic managed to become nearly as synonymous with the upcoming World Cup as the likes of Argentina, Germany and Brazil?

For the World Cup conjures images of glittering stadia drenched in summer sun beneath azure skies. Yet here, nestled between brooding mountains and iron-grey seas, the burgeoning Icelandic passion for football has captured the hearts of millions.

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For many years, though, most people’s perception of Iceland was little more than an icy, barren wilderness whose chief exports were ethereal-voiced songstresses and enormous men who threw ovens over hedges.

What happened to a country with almost no professional footballing pedigree for the public perception to shift so vastly?

In order to understand the secret of Iceland’s fortunes, we have to go back to January 2004. It may seem like a small event in the grand scheme of football, but the turn of that particular year saw Iceland gain its first ever UEFA-accredited coach. For a nation of 330,000 people, or to paraphrase Partridge, roughly the population of Coventry, this was monumental.

Before then, Icelandic football was firmly routed in the amateur game. Plucky Nordic footballers, some of whom would traverse the lower leagues to emerge into the Premier League; veritable giants of men, not known for their technique or prowess on the ball, but for their physicality and refusal to concede defeat.

Think: Hermann Hreiðarsson.  And even then, he was relegated with every Premier League side he played for. The Icelandic Roger Johnson, in essence.

However, as of 2015, that number of trained coaches in Iceland has risen from one to 669, including 17 coaches who possess a UEFA Pro Licence. Over the same period, Iceland rose from 93rd in the FIFA rankings to an all-time high of 21st following Euro 2016. As they approach the World Cup, they currently sit in twenty-second place – ahead of the likes of Sweden, the USA, Serbia and every Home Nation besides England.

Training coaches properly may seem a simple strategy – and in essence, it is – but its a strategy that has worked for others. Take Germany and Spain, for example, the two foremost footballing nations in Europe over the past decade.

As of 2014, both nations possessed by far the highest number of professional coaches – Germany: 6,934, Spain: 15,423 – and it’s no small surprise that the two nations have won four of the last five international trophies available to them.

Not for a second is anyone suggesting Iceland could be the next World Cup winners (well, maybe the folks over at the Reykjavík Grapevine) but their insistence on properly coaching football from a young age has reaped similar dividends to Spain and Germany, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Yet for Icelanders, the transformation of the sport from the amateur realm to professional has been gradual, and one which has still not permeated the way they approach the game.

Vidar Halldórsson, a prominent sociologist from the University of Iceland, explained,

“[Icelanders] still build on valuable elements from amateurism, where the players somewhat approach playing for the national team as play rather than work. The Icelandic teams are in this sense built on: intrinsic motivation, friendships and strong teamwork – which are elements that have been fading from commercialised sports.”

In essence, Iceland treat football for what it is – a game. And while the British media piles the pressure on the next 23 hapless players who have been picked to face the firing squad, the Iceland team will be approaching their first ever World Cup utterly buoyant.

But this progression hasn’t come from just putting the time and money in place to train a generation of coaches alone. Instead, a rather simple factor has helped catapult Iceland from perennial flirters with the top 100 to fanciful dark horses: playable pitches.

In case it escaped your attention, Iceland is, well, to put it mildly, pretty cold. And we’re not talking the sort of cold that would prompt most Britons to dig out their ‘big coat’. Oh, no. During winter, temperatures plummet, snow is abound and the country lives up to its moniker. If we had this weather in the UK we’d to abandon any pretence of running around and go down the pub instead.

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Heimaey youth football tournament © James Brooks

For many years, this has been a contributing factor to why Icelandic football has struggled domestically and on the international level. Only since the turn of the century has the Icelandic FA put effort into renovating the existing facilities and introduce purpose-built, all-weather pitches. Many were built next to schools to allow children to participate in the sport, as the KSI put it, “purely for fun.”

While children up and down the UK are being shoved onto full-sized pitches when they could still be mistaken for an inhabitant of Hobbiton, and are then duly screamed at by over-expectant parents every Saturday morning, Icelandic kids are kicking a ball about all year round for the pure hell of it. Precisely as youth football should be.

With this marriage of facilities and coaching, interest in football has soared, and with it so have the results of the national team. More players than ever ply their trade overseas in Europe’s top leagues, and while it may have taken a generation to achieve it, the wait has been well worth it.

For a country that hadn’t once qualified for a major tournament to qualify for two in the space of four years is testament to the extraordinary progress that can be made if you give football the patience it needs to develop.

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Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson has been Iceland captain since 2012. ©  Jon Candy

Usually, when a country qualifies for its first ever World Cup appearance, they’re summarily written off. The likes of Zaire in 1982, Iraq in 1986, Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, all arrived on the grandest stage and were dumped from the competition at the nearest opportunity.

“Lacking in experience” was a reproach levelled at most of them; basically a polite way of saying when your goalkeeper is a postman, your striker is 46 and your captain plays in the Ukrainian fourth division.

Yet Iceland come into this World Cup with the attention of many an outsider. This plucky little country of bearded Vikings are the smallest ever country to be represented at a World Cup finals, and it helps that they’ve already proved they’re not akin to a spot of pillaging after they dispatched Portugal and England en route to a quarter final finish in Euro 2016.

While very few observers genuinely believe Iceland can win the whole thing (short of Thor manifesting on the pitch and smiting every opposition player in sight) the fact they’re even there is an achievement in itself.

Who’d have thought fifteen years ago that Iceland would be heading to the World Cup, let alone whether they’re 250/1 to win it!

And despite being drawn into a group with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Icelanders can feel tentatively optimistic of escaping into the knockout rounds. Since their third place finish in 1998, Croatia have failed to progress past the group stages since, while Nigeria have never progressed past the round of 16 in their entire history.

With the watchful gaze of Odin looking over them, don’t be surprised to see Iceland steal a march into the last sixteen.

Put that microphone down, Björk, step away from the squat rack, Hafþór Björnsson, and set your TV channels to Smite – Iceland’s latest saga is only just beginning.

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