THE WEATHER IN ICELAND CAN BE HUGELY UNPREDICTABLE and changes the way training is conducted. The obvious drive in Iceland toward the building of better sporting facilities has altered that reality dramatically.
The changes to how football is played in Iceland have been enormous in the last 15-20 years. At the end of the 20th century players were used to training on gravel pitches in the off-season, all the way up to just before the season started in May. Two full-sized pitches with artificial turf were built in 1985 and 1992 with grass similar to the one used in the Premier League at the same time by Luton Town. This artificial turf was subsequently banned by the English Football Association in 1988 but was still used in Iceland. The Nordic nation’s facilities were primative at best.
It was not until the start of the 21st century that new full-sized pitches were built, with newer models of artificial turf. The first full sized hall was built in 2000 and the first outdoor, all-weather pitch in 2001. Today, Iceland boasts seven full sized halls, four smaller ones and 22 pitches outdoors. Furthermore, there are close to 150 smaller pitches around the country.
Freyr Alexandersson, manager of Leiknir Reykjavik in Iceland’s top flight, tells These Football Times that this dramatic sea-change has led to football becoming a year round sport in Iceland. “We are able to work towards making our players better during this very long pre-season,” said Alexandersson, who is also the national women’s team manager. “We are often complaining about the length of it [around six months], but it is a huge opportunity to dramatically change our players’ physical ability, whether that is their speed or strength, help them lose weight or to come back from injury. I think it’s impossible to measure how much this has done for Icelandic football,” says Alexandersson.
It is not only the players’ physical attributes that have improved; their technical ability is far more advanced today than ever before. Gunnlaugur Jónsson is the manager of IA Akranes and a former defender. He says that the improvement of facilities has worked wonders for Icelandic football. “With these halls and artificial turfs the technical ability of our players has drastically improved. Their ability with the ball, the passes and receptions are at a different level today.”
Jónsson knows a thing or two about how lucky players in Iceland are today. “You don’t need to look further than maybe 2005, my last year as a player at IA. That was the year before our [indoor] hall was built and we trained on maybe five or six different underlays throughout the winter, running outside on concrete before training inside on parquet, lifting weights in the gym, playing football on gravel pitches and on the sand by the sea. All that before we could start using the natural grass,” says Jónsson. This was something that every club had to accept as a part of their reality.
Iceland now stacks up favourably when facilities for football are compared with its neighbours, Sweden and Norway. There is roughly one full sized hall for every 46,000 inhabitants in Iceland. Norway is the better one of the two to compare Iceland with, mainly due to the fact that winters there get similarly cold. There are 23 full-sized halls in Norway, roughly one for every 224,600 inhabitants. It has to be said however that Norway’s numbers are better in other sizes of these pitches – largely because they started earlier and have more suitable terrain to build on.
In comparison to Sweden, Iceland have more full-sized indoor halls and half the number of outdoor artificial pitches. That’s in a population 29 times smaller than that in Sweden, with a traditionally strong footballing background. It highlights the nationwide belief in the role facilities can play in the advancement of a nation’s football at all levels and ages.
A look at the ages of players on Iceland’s national team shows how facility development has progressed the game. Half of the players that have played a game in the current qualifying campaign, nine of 18, were born between the years 1988 and 1992, many of them key players like Gylfi Sigurðsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Aron Gunnarsson. That means they were around the ages of 10-12 when the first halls were built. It is then no wonder that these players possess a higher technical level than former generations of players in Iceland. It plainly highlights the importance of investment.
Additionally, two senior players in the national side changed teams around the time that the first football halls were built. Alfreð Finnbogason, now at Olympiacos, moved from Fjolnir to Breiðablik in 2005, and Gylfi Sigurðsson, of Swansea City, from FH to Breiðablik in 2003. Both moves were motivated by better facilities at Breiðablik, along with improved coaching. Breiðablik boast a productive, forward-thinking youth structure and in recent years have produced a number of players that have been sold to foreign clubs for increased revenue – revenue that has since been reinvested into coach education and facilities.
Better facilities for the football industry in Iceland has had a major impact on the kind of players the nation produces today. They have become stronger technically and youngsters are used to training in consistent conditions throughout the year. Most Icelandic coaches – at all levels of the game – will state that the improvements in facilities have been the key factor behind the drive in player pool depth.
Not every team in Iceland is lucky enough to have artificial turf to train on. Víkingur Ólafsvík, for example, are set to be promoted to the top flight at the end of the current season. The club is located in Ólafsvík, in the west, 195 km from Reykjavík. There is no artificial turf or a hall, apart from one very small pitch outdoors.
This has a huge effect on the way the team trains says their manager Ejub Purisevic. “The effects of it get bigger every year. It is very difficult to plan and train set pieces and then implement them in games. When it comes to pre-season it is difficult to get players fit without using old school methods, making them run outside on the concrete. Using different underlays throughout pre-season increases the number of injuries as well,” says Purisevic.
It is clear that the country must continue its work in building more artificial turfs, both in towns around the country and in the capital. It is equally clear that developing nations, and ones looking to overhaul their youth development methods, need to look at the success of Iceland and consider facilities as a major factor in improving the depth of player production and quality of coaching.
“There is an increase in the number of players every year in Iceland and we need to build more halls to give everyone an equal opportunity. We need to think big, we can clearly see that anything is possible in football if we continue producing good teams,” says Alexandersson.
With clubs like FH planning on building a full sized hall for themselves, there is clearly an impetus to do more to improve Icelandic football. It’s this sort of thinking that has helped the nation improve at such a dramatic speed. There is no standing around in Iceland – the order of the day is progress.
Perhaps developing football nations like the United States, India and China will look to Iceland and invest heavily in facilities to aide the depth of their player pool. The proof is very much in the pudding, both in the long and short-term.
By Jóhann Ólafur Sigurðsson. Follow @johanno12