*Note: As is the custom in Iceland, individuals will be referred to by their first names 

IF YOU WERE ASKED ABOUT ICELANDIC FOOTBALL, you’d be considered a footballing hipster if you were able to reply with the time when Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen was substituted on for his father Arnór Guðjohnsen against Estonia in 1996. But most likely you would not even know about that. To the rest of the world, Icelandic football has essentially always been as remote and obscure as the proper pronunciation of Eyjafjalljökull. Now, however, there is a glimmer of hope in producing another such magical moment, this time truly worthy of a pub quiz. Iceland is currently in possession of a generation which could qualify for a major international tournament for the first time in its footballing history.

Icelandic football has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent decades, moving from elfish novelties of continental qualifications to Viking warriors. They have moved beyond the odd results against the giants (1-1 vs. France 1998 and 2-0 vs. Italy 2004) to today, producing credible performances against almost every team they face, both in men’s and women’s football. But what changed? Labelling it a fluke or blaming it on Platini’s all-encompassing European framework would be missing the bigger picture.

The foundations

Although the game of football had reportedly been played before on Iceland, knattspyrna (as it is called in Icelandic) was originally introduced on to the Atlantic rock by a Scottish printer by the name of James B. Ferguson in 1895. Before his arrival, however, urbanisation had already started a social process of union and sports club creation, with wrestling having taken a strong hold in Icelandic society. Ferguson also introduced gymnastics, but it was football that stuck with the boys in Reykjavík, resulting in Iceland’s first club, Fótboltafélag Reykjavíkur (Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur, KR, today), being created in 1899.

Over the next few years, other clubs started cropping up around the capital, and the first recognised match between Icelandic clubs took place in 1911 when Fram beat KR 2-0. The following year marked the first league competition in Iceland, where KR emerged victorious in a three team competition.

It was not until 1946, two years after Iceland’s independence from Denmark, that the best footballers of the country were collected to form a national team. The first international saw Denmark win 3-0 over the locals in Reykjavík, despite the Icelander’s clever trick of taking the Danish team on a day’s journey on horseback the day before the match. A year later the Icelandic FA (Knattspyrnusamband Íslands, or KSÍ) was formed. Milestones were reached in the following years, as Albert Guðmundsson, one of Iceland’s all-time greats, scored the first international goal against Norway in 1947, and the first victory followed in 1949 against Finland.

Football continued its rapid growth throughout the following decades with improving conditions allowing Icelandic club sides to play more regularly against foreign opponents with Valur, for example, battling to a 0-0 draw against Eusébio’s Benfica in 1968. Icelandic football’s first European win did not come until 1985 when Valur defeated Nantes in Iceland by two goals to one.

The eighties were marked by other accomplishments by Icelandic footballers as they continued to thrive on foreign ground. Arnór Guðjohnsen signed for Anderlecht at sixteen, becoming Iceland’s youngest ever professional footballer, and later went on to become the first Icelander to play in aEuropean final when Anderlecht lost out to Tottenham in 1984. Others such as Pétur Pétursson, Atli Eðvaldsson and Ásgeir Sigurvinsson had excellent careers in the Netherlands and Germany, with Ásgeir captaining Stuttgart’s title winning campaign in 1984.

The dam had burst and Icelandic players have since continued to flood abroad with mixed success. Iceland now have over 90 professional men and women playing abroad, and the quality is ever increasing, with the men’s youth and women’s national teams taking part in continental competitions over the last few years. Icelandic businessmen have dipped their toes in the foreign footballing sector – Stoke City and West Ham being the most famous examples – and a handful of managers have also crossed the ocean, albeit with limited success mostly in the Nordic countries.

Domestically the game has continued to undergo a steady transformation although the Icelandic league (Úrvalsdeildin or Pepsi-deildin currently) remains a non-professional competition. Only a handful of players in Icelandic clubs solely focus on football, with examples of players putting their careers on hold for study or work being a common theme.

Developing talent against all odds

This is only a part of the distinctiveness of Icelandic domestic football. The league season is comparatively very short, lasting from May until September, leaving seven months of the year for pre-season. While clubs do conduct training in the winter months, this is mostly limited to fitness and strength exercises, with actual football being restricted to indoor gyms. This situation leaves much to be desired, but the unforgiving climate of this nearly uninhabitable rock does not provide many alternatives. This was especially the case as clubs practised, and even played, on gravel pitches, with KR winning the league title while training on gravel pitches as recently as 2003. How, then, did Icelandic football develop from these harsh conditions?

Today the situation is very different. Having recognised the problem, the Icelandic FA started a revolutionary process of improving the facilities available for the nation’s footballers. From 2002, six full-size indoor football halls have been built around the country (roughly one pitch per 50,000 inhabitants; 1200 pitches would need to be built in the UK for a comparable figure), as well as over 20 artificial pitches and more than 130 mini-pitches for schools and communities, allowing football to become a year-round sport.

In an exclusive interview for These Football Times, Sigurður Ragnar Eyjólfsson, the former Technical Director of the Icelandic FA, explains that not only has the development itself been an instrumental factor in the recent development of the sport in Iceland, but also the way in which it has been organised. He describes that after the first of the indoor halls was built, named Reykjaneshöllin, other teams began to demand that more infrastructure of that same quality was needed, after realising the benefit to both training and playing.

In most countries these sorts of projects are privately owned and operated, and pitches are therefore rented out to sporting clubs, usually pricing out most youth clubs. What is unique in Iceland, however, is that these facilities are available to every man, woman and child in the country. These sports halls are owned by municipalities who in turn allow the clubs to use the facilities, provided that they allow every member of that municipality to make full use of the pitches when not in use by the clubs.

The societal benefits of sport, which have been extensively researched in Iceland, have convinced the municipalities of the need for such projects in the community. This was again illustrated in KSÍ’s drive for the mini-pitches at schools, which was again fuelled by the demand by communities as the benefit became clear. The way in which it was funded and built, with KSÍ and municipal funds, again made sure of the wide-ranging benefits of the project, which could easily have been far more limited in other circumstances.

Icelandic football has been built upon this philosophy of inclusiveness; KSÍ’s approach towards coaching, Sigurður Ragnar explains, is also part of this philosophy and aims at providing quality education and frameworks for as many coaches and players as possible. This was initiated around 2002 when Sigurður was hired as a full-time technical director to work with coach development and education in Iceland. In his role, he created a training programme for coaches (both UEFA A and B license training, as well as a Pro License in cooperation with the English FA) which has been made available to all coaches in the country at the lowest possible cost – KSÍ does not make a profit on the programme.

These changes have seen a drastic increase in both the number of academic seminars (from 2-3 to 20-25) and the number of participants (from 70 to 700-800), and in this way KSÍ are able to accommodate every coach in Iceland, of which there are around 700. This is obviously made easier by Iceland’s small population, as a country with 70,000 coaches would struggle to keep up such an extensive programme. Furthermore, the wave of coaches getting their licenses has been spurred on by a “hype, therefore creating a certain pressure” in the footballing community to not be left behind without the qualifications. As a result, over 70% of coaches in Iceland have a UEFA B license, and around 30% have UEFA A, which is unprecedented in Europe.

Not only does this benefit the coaches, but it results in every age group of players having access to qualified coaches. Sigurður points out that the age between eight and twelve is a “coaching window for technique” and thus it is imperative that they get the best possible opportunities and staff to utilise that potential. He further argues that while countries can create, in theory, the perfect plan for player pathways based on best practices, it is really the person who is out on the training pitch with the kids that matters. Many countries ignore this until the kids are ten or twelve years old “by which time it is too late, because you cannot build that technical foundation needed”. To this effect, KSÍ require all football coaches in Iceland to have a coaching education, which is rarely the case in other countries.

Iceland’s sporting culture has also played a part in their success. It is not the case that Iceland is a giant football pitch where occasional fishing takes place, despite football being the most popular sport on the island. Handball, basketball, athletics and gymnastics are greatly prevalent, with Iceland having achieved particularly good results in handball. It is therefore not uncommon for children to participate in more than one sport well into their teens, with Aron Einar Gunnarsson, Strákarnir okkar’s football captain, for example, being selected for both the handball and football national teams when he was sixteen. Icelandic coaches are equally well-rounded, with several of them having grown up as players, and many of them having physical education training from working in schools, helping them to be better teachers, according to Sigurður Ragnar.

As a result of Iceland’s population and the competition from other sports, a wide net must be cast in order to find potential football talents. To this effect, clubs have an open door policy with regards to participation and training, as any individual up to 18-years-old, regardless of his or her footballing level, can train with any club in Iceland. In this way, clubs can catch so-called “late bloomers” or children who did not take an interest in football until later. One example of this policy’s benefit is Real Sociedad striker Alfreð Finnbogason, who joined Breiðablik’s U19 second team when he was fifteen years old, and ended the 2013/14 season as Holland’s Eredivisie top scorer with Heerenveen. This is especially important in the smaller communities and has helped clubs such as ÍA and ÍBV, both from towns with fewer than 7,000 citizens, achieve remarkable success in terms of titles and player development.

A new-found confidence

All this is not to say that Iceland has cracked the proverbial code for football and that they will now go on to conquer the world. Sigurður Ragnar admits that there are shortcomings in the current system, such as the number of coaches; around one per every twenty players, whereas many foreign clubs have three for every twelve. This is partly cost-related, with clubs sometimes opting to use young assistant managers – often players – for youth coaching, which Sigurður argues could hurt development, and instead hopes more full-time staff will be in charge of youth development in the future.

He also argues that Icelandic players are leaving the country too cheaply, especially given the improvement of the national team (which rose from 124th place in 2011 to 28th in late 2014 in the FIFA rankings). With more and more players choosing to leave Iceland at a younger age, many as young as sixteen with little or no domestic league experience, this will become an important topic in Icelandic football. Sigurður does point out that this development is actually beneficial to Iceland’s player development, as players who go abroad are exposed to a higher level of competition and full-time training, which the Icelandic league cannot offer. This leaves Iceland, for now, as merely a starting point for players rather than an environment capable of fully forming world-class talent.

Iceland hasn’t stopped learning, though. Sigurður Ragnar recognises that it is not enough to look at player development over a few years as it takes over a decade to create a footballer, and KSÍ have therefore looked at this generation’s overall background to try and learn from their success. It is, he says, “a process, where you try and improve football every single year, on a club and national cooperative level, because players are formed in their clubs and then take a step up when they join the youth and full national teams.”

While Icelandic clubs might therefore have to wait to take part in a European group stage, the Icelandic men’s national team is getting ever closer to their first. Sigurður Ragnar concludes that the future is bright, for both the men and women’s national teams. To the question whether he believes Iceland can qualify for the 2016 Euros in France, he positively states:

“These players have been to tournaments before [with the U17 and U21 teams] and they don’t settle for anything else than a win and going to a tournament. When they step onto the pitch, they find it completely reasonable to beat the bigger sides.”

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic