In global football the narrative never stays the same. Success on the pitch is not defined by population density and landmass. Footballing excellence does not grow from dry, unfilled fields left stagnate with fodder crops. Iceland, an actively volcanic island nestled in the North Atlantic Ocean with a population of around 325,000 people has an overabundance of footballing riches. Iceland’s main exports are raw aluminium, fish, ferroalloys, and footballers. The island nation has tilled the volcanic soil and reaped the benefits of high coaching standards, volume training, and player preparation from the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils.
Iceland has figured out how to meld the best of both the top-down and bottom-up approaches regarding player development. Icelandic football is enjoying an impressive and unprecedented gilded age and surge of footballing success to the point one wonders what is in the water of the islands’ famous geysers that yields such proficient players the likes of Eiður Guðjohnsen, son of Arnór Guðjohnsen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hermann Hreiðarsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, and Aron Einar Gunnarsson.
Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, Director of Education for the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ), believes the improvement is the result of consistency, education, and an iron-clad national mentality. Arnar Bill, who himself holds a UEFA A coaching license, kindly discussed the systematic approach Iceland is taking to build on the achievements of the past, continue the success of the present, and forge the road ahead for Icelandic football.
“Football is by far the biggest sport in Iceland. There are about 20,000 players. Players that play games with club teams are the only players we register. We don’t count the players who are just playing for fun,” says Arnar Bill.
The uniform approach, organisation, and the concerted effort to register those turning out for clubs ensures player pools are tracked and monitored. In addition to identification, a functional and thorough scouting network is in place to make sure players do not slip through the cracks.
“We have a scouting system that works throughout the whole island. That is no problem. The island is not that small but it’s not that big. There’s no way, for example, when we choose our first group of players at the age of 14 that we miss out on a talented player. I’m talking about national team football. The country is small and it’s very easy to scout it. We get a lot of good players from outside the Reykjavik districts. I think maybe 10 years ago we had an ‘A’ team that played at the national team level and each and every one of them, the starting XI, came from smaller towns. So, that can happen, but most of the players are from the Reykjavik area.”
Arnar Bill pauses when asked about the prototypical Icelandic footballer. “That’s a tough question. I’m not sure if we have a ‘goal’ about what type of player we want to have, but Icelandic players have always been known for their mentality. Their winning mentality, we adapt easily and have a great fighting spirit. And that’s one of the reasons we have been quite successful when you consider how few [in population terms] we are.”
In order for a generation of players to maximise their potential and compete, the environment in which they play has to not only be created, but it has to accommodate the lifestyle of the Icelandic people and account for the extreme conditions the island experiences. Iceland, with its harsh winter conditions and isolated location in the North Atlantic has taken the initiative in creating the setting for its players to thrive in year-round. The result is more training sessions and chances to teach and hone the overall baseline technical ability of players in the Icelandic football system.
“There’s been a revelation in the past 10 or 15 years in terms of the facilities. We have the longest pre-season in the world. We have about a seven-to-eight month preseason. Our season starts in May and ends in September. The reason is because it’s too cold. So, we play on regular grass from the beginning of May to the end of September. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have improved our facilities. We have about seven full-sized indoor football halls, and about 20 to 25 artificial pitches, and about 150 mini-pitches. This means we can play football all year round.
“When I was playing, 20 years ago, I only had one training session a week during the winter in football. I just had to play basketball or handball or some other sport during the winter. But now, we can play football the whole year even though the season is very short. We can train three to four times a week. What I’m trying to say is our technical ability is getting better because of this. Now we can train on good facilities all year round. We are getting better at getting the ball and passing the ball. The overall technical ability of our players is improving. The skills are getting better.”
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Read | How Icelandic players’ unique mentality is facilitating success
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The benefit of year-round access to high-level training affords Icelandic footballers more actual training sessions than many other countries that place heavier emphasis on match play. In Iceland, the increase in training regularity becomes the platform for improvement through repetition and frequency. Additionally, the variety of playing surfaces forces players to hone their skills in different ways.
The mini-pitches, indoor football halls, artificial, cinder and natural grass pitches serve the players well as weather is less of a hindrance than in years past. This increased exposure to the game at any given time during the year helps mitigate the logistical obstacles plaguing countries that have yet to place value in creating available space for players to train and compete in.
Perhaps the key reason the standard of football in Iceland has risen dramatically is rooted in the level of baseline coaching education. For example, in the United States pay-to-play models, inconsistent and expensive coaching education prices out potential coaches while creating a fragmented educational standard of coaches within the system. Icelandic football regards coaching as a skilled position. Icelandic football follows a similar method Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands have employed regarding coaching education and qualification. For young players, the exposure to highly qualified coaches produces players with a strong mentality. The approach is simple: to coach, one must be highly proficient and licensed.
“The key is when the players start training at four or five years of age, they get a qualified, paid coach. Almost every coach in Iceland has a qualification. They have a UEFA B or UEFA A license. So when you are a four or five, or even three years old, you get a qualified and experienced coach. And, if kids get an experienced and qualified coach who is fun and entertaining the kids love the game. What happens when you learn to love the game, you go out on the training pitch and do something extra. You play football outside of organised training sessions. That is the mentality in Iceland. If you look at the other Scandinavian countries, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, in most cases there are parents coaching the kids until they are 12-years-old as volunteers.”
The commitment to a higher standard of coaching education works well for Iceland’s population size, but the absence of volunteer coaches also produces a higher pedigree of player in Iceland.
“If you compare that concept with a qualified, paid coach in Iceland who has gone through all the courses through the Icelandic FA with a parent in Norway or Sweden, it’s a win-win situation in Iceland,” says Arnar Bill. “That is why we are able to produce so many good players even though we are so few. Twenty years ago we didn’t do it regularly, so we didn’t qualify, but we are getting better. It’s not something that happened suddenly.
“The facilities are definitely helping us. No doubt about that. That’s one thing. But the coaches’ education is the other thing. We started with that system with the mandatory UEFA A and UEFA B license in 2002-2003 and now every coach goes through the same system and they’re qualified. The improved facilities and coaching education are better — these two aspects helped the most.”
The players from the 2002-03 group are members of the current talent-rich generation of Icelandic footballers. In Iceland, the responsibility of player development is balanced by the FA and the individual clubs. The dependence on individual clubs with qualified coaches to drive the bulk of a player’s development is further reinforced by the consistency of the national team training camps. The role of a club in a player’s footballing upbringing is tribal in nature in Iceland and mirrors the national identity of the nation’s football.
As the Director of Education for the KSÍ, Arnar Bill does not exalt on what Germany or the Netherlands do in terms of national playing identity. Players are taught to identify with their communities in both life and in football. There is little club-hopping in search of the delusions of grandeur for youth players in Iceland. The country’s football league structure validates just how quality youth coaching pays dividends.
“I think the league structure is pretty good that way it is. The leagues are semi-professional. The players get paid, but they all do some job on the side and some do university. Many clubs are gambling too much with the money. They are paying too much with the salaries, so I don’t think there is room for making it fully professional.
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Read | How Iceland have ridden on the back of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s rise
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“The best teams that always qualify for Europe and receive money from that can maybe afford to pay more with the salaries and bring in more foreign players, but there is no way a club can bring a full team of players making $100,000. I don’t think anyone is interested in it, really. Unless there is a team that qualifies for the UEFA Champions League, they would have the money to do it, but other than that, who knows?”
Arnar Bill exudes an academic pragmatism. “I would say that Icelandic football has its own individual and national identity. We can’t copy what everyone else is doing. We are so few. If you spare me, I will tell you a story about why we are so successful. The main reason is the club culture, which I will explain. In Iceland there are no professional clubs. Every club is amateur. And when you are born into a neighbourhood you go and play with your local team and that’s just how it is. And if your parents stay in that local neighbourhood, you continue to play in that local neighbourhood. You don’t change teams. Very few do.
“Everyone gets the same coach, everyone gets the same opportunity, and everyone gets the same amount of training sessions. The very best players might get to play with age group above to get better training opportunities. The girls are allowed to play with the boys to get more speed within a training session.”
The boldness of the Icelandic approach is the player-first philosophy and where football is not used as a way to eek money from parents and players. Rather, it is viewed a sporting pursuit that harnesses the strengths of a proud footballing nation. Arnar Bill is quick to point out that Icelandic football aims to avoid falling victim to a culture comfortable with using misleading buzzwords and catchphrases.
“Each team has its own way of producing talent. The word ‘academy’ is getting overused. Everything is called ‘academy’. We do not do this. Each club tries to do its best for the best players, of course. But, everyone has the same service and the same amount of training sessions. As they get older, we try to do a little bit more for the absolute best players. Maybe they get an extra training session or they are allowed to train up an age group. But there are no formal academies.
“During the winter, we have a lot of training sessions. Every other weekend we have a training session for the boys and the other weekends we have a training session for the girls who play on the national teams. So we train the top kids are getting additional training sessions throughout the winter. The other countries get more games, but we get more training sessions because of where we are situated. It’s very expensive for us to go and play a game with the national team. So, 95 percent of the development is done with the clubs, and about 5 percent is done with the national teams, which is about 10 weekends [comprised of two training sessions per weekend] a year for the youth national teams.”
The current Icelandic national side boasts a golden generation of talent and Arnar Bill describes the present, realistic expectations for the individual players and the national program beyond qualifying for a major international tournament for the first time in its footballing history.
“Definitely qualifying for the Euros in 2016, we were so close to qualifying for the World Cup, but we lost in the playoffs against Croatia. But, that was the first time we’ve reached the playoffs. We started the group play very well. Even though there are only four games down and six to play, we have started well and there is a realistic chance to qualify. That is definitely the goal. Every year about 5-10 Icelandic players leave to go abroad to become professional players … so that [export of Icelandic talent] won’t stop. It will only increase, in my opinion. We will have more and more professional players.
“But you spoke about the Golden Generation, that’s a good expression because those same guys qualified for the finals of the under-21, and now they are playing together on the senior national team. So I think the mentality in the group is very good. For example, when we beat Holland, the mentality of the group was so strong. After we won there was no celebrating on the pitch. It was ‘Well done. Next game. Come on, guys’. They were not huddling in the middle, screaming and celebrating. It was just, ‘Now we beat Holland, next game, come on!’ It’s pure focus.
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Read | Iceland’s growth through its top-level footballers
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Success in international football has seen the country’s FIFA rankings, which Arnar Bill admits is “a strange list”, rise 100 places in the past year, from 135 to 35. Many of the top players take a gradual approach to establishing themselves abroad.
“I think the decision about what league to go to is up to each player and the kind of player he really is. Some are brilliant in the Dutch league and others do well in Scandinavia. But the mentality is most of the players start by going to Scandinavia. And they are not going to Scandinavia to become a legend in Scandinavia. They are going to Scandinavia to use it as a springboard to go to England, Italy or Spain. That’s the mentality. There are only a few players going straight to England or the Netherlands and right away succeed at the first attempt. Most of our players who go abroad young, they go to a big club, which is maybe too big, and they have to take two steps back before they go up again.
The exceptions are maybe Gylfi Sigurdsson who went to England, and he started with Reading and played a few games for their senior team. And Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who went to AZ Alkmaar. So players have to think about their football and maybe get a good education before going to Scandinavia to make the step up again if football doesn’t work out. That’s the trend really. Many go to Norway, and succeed there, then transfer to bigger leagues.”
The senior national side under the tutelage of Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck relies on the same principles that players are brought up playing. The players representing Iceland are technical and intelligent. The years of guidance from high-level coaching from their earliest introduction to the game to the professional level is evident according to Arnar Bill.
”We always play 4-4-2. We always play fast. We always play with two strikers. The style of play is number one. The work rate has to be high the entire time. If a player cannot work for us, they do not play. Some players can be the top scorers in Holland or Norway but can’t make the starting XI for Iceland. It’s about having a fantastic work rate. We can’t have any relaxed players on the team that don’t want to run. When we win, we don’t change the winning teams.”
So what does long-term success for Iceland really look like? Arnar Bill conveys a great deal of modesty and humility, traits that serve the Icelandic people well.
“I don’t think anyone has thought that far to be honest. I think, if we were to qualify [for Euro 2016], the FA will get much more money to spend. That will help our youth national teams to develop. Like I said before, we don’t play as many games as the others do. We just can’t afford it. So, this will help the youth national teams and the women’s national teams if the men succeed. Improved financial status will help us. The next goal will be to qualify again. We can’t take it for granted to qualify again. It will always be about the next tournament in 10 or 15 years. ‘Let’s do it again and again’. I don’t think we can say ‘Okay, let’s reach the semi-finals or finals’. For us, we’ve never qualified, so let’s start with that.”
Iceland’s ability to set a standard for its coaches that is just as high as that of its players is evident. Players who learn the game the right way from well-qualified coaches has fostered a generation of Icelandic players vying to establish themselves in European and international football. There are lessons to be gained and plaudits to recognise for this proud nation.
Some 3,500 miles to the west is the United States and 1,000 miles to the east is Great Britain.
Both boast better infrastructure, more robust economies, and deeper sporting landscapes and both could learn a great deal in the realm of player development and coaching education from an island nation that has never qualified for a major football tournament at the senior level.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3