THE MENTALITY OF ICELANDIC FOOTBALL PLAYERS is something that foreign managers have often addressed. The number of quotes are both varied and numerous in their existence, all praising the attitude and focus on players from the North Atlantic island.
There are even a few foreign managers who seem to have a preference for Icelandic players, and many of them have signed more players from the country than any other. But what is it about players from this small island that seems to resonate with them?
Henning Berg, manager of Legia Warsaw, has previously labelled Icelandic players as “very interesting”.
“Their mentality is the first thing you notice,” he said. “They are always trying their best, train very hard and are mentally strong. They handle stress very well and are extremely professional.”
This emphasis on the mentality of Icelandic players has not gone unnoticed by Freyr Alexandersson, manager of Leiknir in Iceland’s top flight and the women’s national team boss. He says he often gets phone calls from foreign clubs who are looking at youngsters in Iceland. “They tell me that the player is technically good and what not. But what they need to know is whether he has the Icelandic mentality.” The ‘Icelandic mentality’ – it’s becoming a buzz word in the European game, one that teams are looking for in Iceland and using to train their own youngsters around Europe.
Teams in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Belgium all have players that are as technically gifted as the Icelandic ones, Alexandersson says. “What teams are looking for are players that can get through the tough times. Clubs are really looking at this heavily, and I look at how they react to adversity and how they behave off the pitch,” he said.
Furthermore, these players are desperate to play at every chance they get. They watch the game – in particular the Premier League – study matches, visit stadiums if they can and learn from each other. The ultimate aim is to improve as a group for the betterment of their team. It’s this proud, small islander mentality that is shaping such a bright future.
Prominent Icelandic sociologist Dr. Viðar Halldórsson has done research into what makes the country’s footballers mentally strong and finds that there is no perfect answer.
“It is a complicated interplay between customs, culture, environment, groups and individuals,” said Halldórsson in 2013, adding the answer to this question is not to be found within the players’ genes, but has rather more to do with the social surroundings.
“Icelandic sports people are ruled more by intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic according to research,” Halldórsson says. That means that the sport itself has value for them and encourages factors such as the joy of playing and atmosphere, which in turn is good for team unity. Team spirit is exactly a factor that has been one of Iceland’s biggest strengths under Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrímsson.
Krasnodar defender, Ragnar Sigurðsson, in an interview with Icelandic football news website fotbolti.net, talked about this, adding many players are close friends off the pitch.
“When you are on the bench, you usually want players playing in your position to have a bad game so you get the chance in the next one. That is how a professional thinks in my opinion,” Sigurðsson said. “But in this team I would still want it to win if I would be substituted. You are so proud of what is happening. It is for the first time in my career that I feel this way.”
Another factor that can’t be discounted is that Icelandic players have to look to other countries to continue their professional careers.
“People are just thankful to get the chance to be professional players and able to devote their life to being a footballer. They are ready to do an awful lot just to stay there,” said Gunnlaugur Jónsson, manager of IA Akranes and a former national team defender in the late 1990s.
To that, Alexandersson added that the fact of how tough it is to get into the professional game from Iceland shapes how the players think. “No one wants to be found to be slacking or being lazy. The feeling you get from Icelandic players is that they look after themselves well, that they are great in a group and many of them are good leaders. They are the coaches’ dream,” Alexandersson said.
The Iceland mentality is certainly something that foreign managers and scouts look for when searching for new players from Scandinavia and further afield. There is no doubt within Iceland that this factor has played an enormous role in the development of players and their rise to the European Championships in 2016.
By Jóhann Ólafur Sigurðsson. Follow @johanno12