THE recent World Football Summit in Madrid, naturally, focused a lot on the upper echelons of European football. But one of the most interesting and warmly received sessions was about Iceland, presented by Stefan Gunnarsson, director of business development for the Icelandic FA.
Iceland captured the imagination of European football fans in 2016 during the European Championship in France. As well as the fans’ distinctive and thundering clap, which has since been aped by many groups of supporters, the Icelandic team was incredibly successful, reaching the last eight after beating England 2-1 in the round of 16. Iceland also reached the World Cup finals in Russia, but were eliminated in the group stage. As in 2016, it was their first appearance in the competition.
“We may have peaked with this team,” said Gunnarsson. “But we are good at developing players. We have shown that.”
Gunnarsson was clearly proud of his nation’s achievements, but Iceland do seem to be doing something right with the minimum of fuss. The country has a population of 348,000 people and 7% of them are registered as players. That’s quite a high percentage.
Success has also come at a time when Iceland has emerged from a brutal financial crisis that left the country on its knees. Iceland were certainly in the eye of the storm in 2008, but a focus on tourism has helped them become one of Europe’s most popular destinations.
“We have tried to position Iceland as the world’s second team. We don’t have enemies in Iceland, nobody really dislikes us. We like this very much,” said Gunnarsson. “We are seeing, increasingly, the idea of portfolio fans, with supporters from around the world having more than one favourite club or team. We want to see Iceland as being one of the teams supporters add to their own portfolio.”
Game of the People asked Gunnarsson if the financial crisis was detrimental to the development of football in Iceland. “Not at all…basically, when the crisis started people started to find ways to deal with a system that had broken. In that period, exercise levels went up and people started to look within themselves for ways to cope and improve their lives,” he replied. This is very much in line with expert opinion that regular, outdoor exercise can help people deal with personal crises and depression.
Given the small population, much attention is placed on developing people to become good citizens. Gunnarsson pointed out that Icelandic football coaching is not just about the player, but also the person. “We call it coaching for life, understanding and making a better individual.”
There also seems to be a high quality of coaches. Around 70% of Iceland’s football coaches are UEFA B and 30% UEFA A. There are no academies as such, but from day one of their football education, children get schooled by fully qualified coaches.
Iceland also cultivates players that become sought-after in the transfer market. Of their 2018 World Cup squad, only one player out of the 23 was based in Iceland – Birkir Már Sævarsson, a defender with Valur Reykjavik. The rest were spread out among European clubs, with the most notable being Gylfi Sigurðsson of Everton, who cost the Merseyside club £ 40 million.
Gunnarsson was mildly amused at the way many of Europe’s top clubs invest in academies in various parts of the world, yet very few players appear to come through the ranks… “It is not as if they are very good at developing players.” Iceland, are, however and their recent story is not only heartening but also a reflection of a wonderful island nation that gave us some memorable moments in Euro 2016.