Gylfi Sigurdsson is one of the stars of the current Iceland team. Filip Horvat
out from the cold

The footballing revolution that helped the smallest-ever country qualify for the Euros

With a population of less than 330,000, Iceland is finally ready for the big stage.

ICELAND IS KNOWN as a country of great contrasts often called “The Land of Fire and Ice” due to the North Atlantic island being home to some of Europe’s largest glaciers and most active volcanoes.

Isolated from the rest of the continent, it is ready to take centre stage at this year’s European Championships.

With a population of just under 330,000, it’s the smallest country to ever qualify for the competition and the first nation to do so with a population of less than a million people.

To put Iceland’s accomplishment in qualifying for Euro 2016 into context, it would be the equivalent of removing 200,000 people from Cork and then putting a team from Leeside together to finish ahead of Netherlands and Turkey in a qualifying group – it is that unthinkable.

Two victories over Netherlands as well as home wins over Turkey and Czech Republic meant not only did Iceland qualify, but they did so with two games to spare.

Compare this to just four years ago when Iceland were ranked 131st in the Fifa rankings below Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Vietnam. They now lie in 35th place and are looking upwards.

Even in 2012 when Iceland were at their lowest ebb, the country was in the midst of a footballing revolution, although the results and rankings were yet to reflect this change.

To understand Icelandic football, you need to be aware of Iceland’s climate where the sun can still be shining after midnight during the summer, in contrast to their almost completely dark winter days.

On top of this, the country’s freezing temperatures have proved prohibitive to producing technically-gifted footballers in the past with the bitterly cold weather preventing players training the whole year round.

At the turn of the century however, a plan to transform Icelandic football was made, thanks to the collaboration of the Icelandic FA (ISL), the state and the relevant local authorities.

Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, the Technical Director of the Iceland FA is responsible for football development in the country. He has helped implement a youth development strategy that is the envy of some of the world’s biggest nations due to their world-class facilities and high number of Uefa-qualified coaches.

The introduction of seven specially-designed indoor halls fitted with full-sized artificial pitches, for example, has helped to eradicate the problem of not playing football for 12 months of the year.

“Now we have artificial pitches inside indoor halls so the players can play across the year. The FA took the initiative with the help of the relevant town councils and the state. Before this, the players could only play for about four months of the year,” Gunnarsson tells The42.

In addition to the indoor halls, the Icelandic FA have strategically placed 30 artificial pitches across the country with another 150 mini-pitches dotted around towns and villages.

Crucially, it’s not just the infrastructure and training facilities that have helped to propel Iceland up the Fifa rankings and into their first major tournament, but the quantity and availability of skilled and trained Uefa-level coaches in the country.

Currently, there are over 600 active qualified coaches in Iceland — more than any other country, per capita, in the world.

Kazakhstan Iceland Euro Soccer In 1996, Eidur Gudjohnsen made history by coming on as a substitute for his father, Arnor. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Gunnarsson believes the requirement for coaches to have formal qualifications, rather than children being coached by parents or volunteers, is key to having any success in the future.

“Anybody in Iceland that wants to become a qualified coach can become one. The clubs will pay for Uefa-qualified coaches. The local clubs are owned by the state so they don’t have to run the facilities – all of the money goes into coaching. Parents are not afraid to say if the coaching is not good enough here anymore.”

It is important to Gunnarsson that the game remains fun, to continue to attract the next generation of players despite the allure of other sports, particularly handball, in which Iceland has shone in recent years with a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics and quarter-final spot in London four years later.

Consequently, the emphasis on the coaching in the country is not to create the perfect footballer or to replicate the latest tactical trends from across Europe.

Instead they have put faith into their coaches that they will gradually improve the technique and skill levels of Icelandic players over time with training sessions held up to four times per week.

“One style of play isn’t always necessarily better than another, we let the coaches decide,”  Gunnarsson  says. “Over the years we’ve always had a strong work ethic but now we need to get the players tactically and technically better.”

Gunnarsson, who also works as a scout for the national side, believes that “the league is too small to go professional” with the season lasting for five months of the year from May until September over just 22 matchdays.

Despite the short season and clubs making little impact in Europe in the past, Gunnarsson feels that a breakthrough for their club sides in either the Champions League or Europa League may not too be far away.

“The teams can smell success,” he says. “Qualification to the group stages of a European competition will bring extra money that can help the teams become more and more professional. At the moment we have players coming in and training during lunchtime for extra sessions.”

None of the players named in the 23-man squad for Euro 2016 play in their homeland with the majority of players based in Norway and Sweden, including 37-year-old Champions League winner Eidur Gudjohnsen of Molde. Of those based further afield, Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Alfred Finnbogason of Augsburg could have a greater say if they progress past the group in France.

Iceland also prides itself in excelling in sports dependent on physical strength and power, having prolonged success in the World’s Strongest Man competition, but now it is the turn of their football team to take on the best in Europe with the weight of a nation on its shoulders.

“It will be crazy in Iceland, everybody is delighted. There are lots of people going over to France; we have nearly sold out our allocation.”

They will be led into the tournament against Portugal, Austria and Hungary by co-managers Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson.

Lagerback led Sweden to five consecutive major finals and will be stepping down after the tournament when Hallgrimsson will take sole charge, yet more evidence of forward planning at the Icelandic FA.

With participating teams at Euro 2016 earning a minimum of €8 million from Uefa, not including any result-related bonuses or revenue generated from sponsorship deals, it promises to be an unprecedented windfall for such a small organisation and Gunnarsson believes that the prize money will continue to help Iceland build for the future.

He feels they need to start putting some of that money towards the more talented players to give them better chances to prosper when and if they get a move abroad, although the country prides itself on giving every child the same opportunities.

“We need to do more for the better players but it is difficult, it is something we need to work on,” Gunnarsson admits.

After managing to bounce back from the disappointment of losing to Croatia in the play-offs for the last World Cup, Iceland are determined to ensure qualification for Euro 2016 is not the end but the beginning for this country.

The majority of players in the squad would have benefited further if the structure that is in place now was there when they first started playing, but the future looks brighter for the country than ever before.

On the face of it what Iceland have achieved seems straightforward.

More training sessions with qualified coaches in a playing environment where players can flourish sounds like the minimum any nation with ambitions to prosper on the international stage should aspire to have in their country, but this is not the case for many national associations for one reason or another.

But for any country looking to improve their international credentials, Iceland is proof that if the relevant bodies are willing to work together and invest money with a long-term view and common purpose then objectives can be achieved.

Otherwise you’re leaving people who love the game out in the cold.

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