IN RECENT YEARS, THERE HAS BEEN A MAJOR CHANGE in the way Icelandic national team stars ply their trade. A greater number than ever are in overseas leagues, which in turn – often for the benefit of the national team – means the number of players in Icelandic and Scandinavian leagues is decreasing.
Scandinavia, in particular Norway, has been a heartland for Icelandic footballers over the years. The Scandinavian countries have often been the place where players get their first taste of professional football. Today, 37 Icelandic players are playing in the top tiers in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
According to ksi.is, the Icelandic Football Association’s website and transfermarkt.com, the national team’s squad in qualifying campaigns for World Cups since 1986 has consisted largely of players plying their trade in Scandinavia and Iceland, except the 1986 and 2002 editions.
From 1990 to 1998, the core of the squad was comprised of players playing in Iceland, from 55% to 73%, while the tables turned after the 2002 edition. Then, around 50% of the squad played in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It marked the first stage of progress for the North Atlantic minnows.
In the current Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, 20 players in total represented Iceland in their ten games. Six of those 20 play in Scandinavia and the number will drop to five when Jón Daði Böðvarsson leaves Viking for Kaiserslautern of the 2. Bundesliga in January. This means that only 30% of the players that played minutes during this campaign plied their trade in Scandinavia, dropping to 25% when Böðvarsson leaves for Germany.
What’s also interesting is that none of those 20 players currently play in Iceland. The team has for many years largely been made up of players playing in foreign countries, but there has always been the odd few from the domestic league. With many teams looking at Icelandic players from around Europe, this has changed – and for the better. The proof is very much in the pudding when it comes to the national team’s performance. It seems obvious, but playing at a higher level can improve a national team. Take note, MLS.
Víðir Sigurðsson, a sports journalist for Morgunblaðið, is sure that this development is a part of Iceland’s success recently. “For a short period of time, the key players played in Scandinavia, but today most players in those countries can’t get into the squad. This is clearly a sign of the increased quality of Icelandic players in the last four to five years.”
This increase in quality can easily be seen when the goalkeeper’s position is looked at. Hannes Halldorsson has made the position his own in recent years and has gone from playing for KR, in Iceland, to the Dutch Eredivisie with NEC Nijmegen, stopping in Norway on his way. He overall game has developed hugely during this time and he has been one of Iceland’s best players, forging a great partnership with the defence. Six clean sheets during qualifying is testament to that.
Iceland has often had a good goalkeeper, but now it boasts two or three that are capable of playing international football. Experienced stopper Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, at the ripe age of 40, probably had one of his best seasons ever this summer, keeping 12 clean sheets in 22 games and conceding only 13. The squad also boasts Ogmundur Kristinsson, who plays for Hammarby in Sweden. It looks like he is Iceland’s second choice, having played the recent qualifier in Turkey after Halldorsson dislocated his shoulder in training.
A convenient way to note the increase in quality is by looking at the key players, or those that have played the most, and seeing who they play for around Europe. Before the European Championships in 2012, there were 10 players who played between five and seven games. Over half of them played in Norway and Denmark, while the other half played in leagues around Europe. Only Gylfi Sigurðsson was a starter at a top club.
Looking at the players that have played in the current campaign, things have changed. Only five players are currently playing in Scandinavia, and one of them joins Kaiserslautern in January. Six players currently play in top flights around Europe, all of them starters at their clubs.
Gylfi Sigurðsson has been a key player for Swansea, Birkir Bjarnason recently signed for Basel and is a starter there, while the defensive line, and Hannes Þór Halldórsson in goal, have all been starters at their clubs. These are just a few examples of the consistency in playing time for Iceland’s starters at their clubs.
“This has been the case recently and the players come into games for Iceland fit and at the top of their games. It is very important that this continues, playing in stronger leagues makes the players better,” says Freyr Alexandersson, Leiknir and the women’s national team manager.
Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson have been able to generate consistency in their line-ups with those players all starters at their clubs, apart from Kolbeinn Sigþórsson who joined Nantes in the summer.
The fact that the current crop is playing regularly at their clubs is something that affects the performance of the national team, believes Alexandersson. Playing at higher quality clubs gives the players confidence and a better understanding of the game.
As players are playing consistently in more competitve leagues, the depth of the squad has in turn grown bigger. Iceland now has players on the bench that can easily slot in to the starting XI, without having a huge effect on the quality of the side. That holds true for pretty much every position on the pitch. Players like Emil Hallfreðsson of Hellas Verona, Alfreð Finnbogason of Olympiacos and Eiður Guðjohnsen of Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, can all make a difference.
This is something that Viðar Kjartansson, who plays for Jiangsu Sainty, agrees with. He moved to China from Norway, where he played for Valerenga. He told These Football Times that it is very important for Iceland to have players playing regularly in stronger leagues to have a better chance against their toughest opponents. “Players get better, stronger and there is an increasing fight for places in the national team,” said Kjartansson. He feels that his move to China has made him a better player. “The tempo here is quicker and the players are better, at least the foreign ones. The games are more equal and it’s been more difficult to score,” he added.
While a large majority of the team plays at high levels, most Icelandic fans would prefer them to play in the English Premier League. According to Hafliðason, there have only been 14 Icelandic players to set foot in the Premier League, with only one currently playing there today.
The aim is of course to see more national team players at the highest level, and that starts with youth teams. Scouts from around Europe are now coming to check on the progress of Iceland’s up and coming stars. With this openness to moving abroad and playing at the highest possible level, the future of the national team looks bright.
The world can learn a lot from this desire to broaden horizons.
By Jóhann Ólafur Sigurðsson. Follow @johanno12