SPAIN, GERMANY AND BELGIUM are countries that the rest of the world have looked to regarding the production of players in recent years. Iceland, however, has started to make similar waves in their pool of players plying their trade abroad, if only with their Scandinavian neighbours in the short-term.
The education of coaches is one of the key aspects in the development of Icelandic football in recent years. KSÍ, the Icelandic Football Association, began to overhaul its system in 2002 – and its outlook today is vastly different to what it was prior to their now-heralded revolution.
KSÍ hired Sigurður Ragnar Eyjólfsson as head of coach education at a time when the coaching curriculum had no structure or theme: “There were five levels in the old system and it was random which one was taught each time. Someone was called and asked if he could teach from his expertise, just anything he felt was interesting. That was maybe something that had been taught on another level the year before. It was totally random, no curriculum was available,” Eyjólfsson told These Football Times.
This lack of planning affected the quality of players and coach education, and when Eyjólfsson started work at KSÍ he was told that the association wanted build into the education system at UEFA. To get there, KSÍ and Eyjólfsson had to build a curriculum from scratch for coach education. “We needed to evaluate what we wanted our coaches to know, who was to teach them, what to teach and how often we could have seminars. This was sent to UEFA and we got UEFA A and B licensed in the end.”
Icelandic football has reaped the benefits of the new system. The number of annual seminars have hugely almost ten fold along with the number of coaches who attend them.
According to a report from KSÍ, there were 26 seminars held in 2014 with 760 people in attendance. That is a healthy turnout – in percentage per capita terms, the greatest number in Europe – something that has been made easier for people by the fact that courses are kept as cheap as possible according to Eyjólfsson.
“We received good backing from KSÍ and they agreed with us that it was paramount to run the courses without a view to a profit, that nothing was added on top of the fee.” This intelligent, common sense-based overhaul of the system has worked wonders for the education of Icelandic coaches at all levels.
The proof is very much in the pudding – especially when the numbers of Icelandic coaches with UEFA A, B and Pro licenses are compared to countries like Denmark, Sweden and England.
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But what does this means for Icelandic football? According to Eyjólfsson it’s important that everyone obtains a high level of coach education as the numbers in the small Nordic nation were tiny. “We are able to add much quality to the work that is being done inside the clubs, make better players and the national teams, and club sides, get better. The work is therefore more purposeful.”
Having coaches with a high level of education gives Icelandic children the opportunity to receive a strong foundation. This is something that is not the case in many countries – in particular the U.S. where grassroots coaches are often under-qualified and lacking in basic training principles.
“This gives our players the chance of becoming good footballers,” Eyjólfsson said, “They are taught technique at the right age for that kind of training. This is not the case in many countries where you often have parents coaching kids, people who have not been educated in what they are doing. In the countries around Iceland the focus on structured training does often not start until about the age of 13. This gives Iceland a much-needed extra edge over other countries.
“In my opinion, it is getting obvious in Sweden that you need to get your education in a good academy if you want to become a professional footballer. You can succeed the long way as well, but it is getting more rare,” Einar Brekkan told me, a man who has coached in Sweden throughout the years.
Brekkan added that the structure there is different to the one in Iceland. “You could say the Swedish system is like a lottery,” he said. “If you are lucky you can get a good education, but if you are unlucky you can get a coach during your first year of learning football who has no education or experience.”
Icelandic clubs tend to allocate a lot of their resources into the youth system to pay their coaches and fund programs. The thinking is long-term, with the fundamental aim of improving the coaching sphere, national team and number of players at the highest level. The domestic game, for now, can wait.
“I really like the Icelandic model,” Brekkan said. “They use players in the older teams and also have head coaches. In Sweden, smaller clubs don’t put money into youth football. The only money that is put in is the money that generates from the youth activities. But often a big part of that money is spent on the senior team as well.”
The increase in the level of education Icelandic coaches receive today has been one of the biggest factors in the development of football in the country. The results of the national teams, and various club sides, have made fans and officials take notice. Eyjólfsson has seen the rise in popularity.
“People in Norway are bewildered why their national team is not doing better and why they have no top players in foreign countries, apart from Martin Ødegaard at Real Madrid,” Eyjólfsson said. “They find the amount of players Iceland produces remarkable and they have difficulty understanding that – and want to learn from Iceland.”
What the future for Icelandic coaches hold remains to be seen. Last December Rúnar Kristinsson, former manager of KR Reykjavik, moved to Lilleström in Norway. Eyjólfsson himself moved with Kristinsson to be his assistant manager. It would be no surprise if they would follow in the footsteps of national team players in moving to bigger leagues. They certainly have the correct grounding and experience.
One thing that is certain is the fact that this increased level of education has made coaching at all levels far more organized and productive. The numbers, the results, speak for themselves. That in turn produces better players. And it has all come from the very basics: coach education.
By Jóhann Ólafur Sigurðsson. Follow @johanno12