In many ways, Iceland have no right to feed at the top table of world football. A nation of just 325,000 people marooned on a volcanic island in the North Atlantic, miles away from the bright lights of the Champions League, had barely left a mark on the sport until a few years ago.
Fishing and agriculture had for some time provided Icelanders with a living, and with a previous unsurprising dearth of full-size natural football pitches, it was barely surprising that as recently as seven years ago the country’s national team sat outside the top 100 in FIFA’s rankings.
One European Championship quarter-final appearance and a maiden World Cup qualification later, however, and they are no longer living off crumbs. These Football Times sat down with Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, Technical Director of the Icelandic FA (KSÍ), just days after they had secured their passage to Russia 2018.
Some of his thoughts on his side’s historic rise were to be expected, others a little surprising, but one thing that shone through: his pride that comes with being part of this organisation and a country of 325,000 that has held the best sides in the world to account.
Progressing from a qualification group where four of the six teams had been at Euro 2016 presented a significant task. Following a successful campaign of tremendous football during which Iceland conceded just one goal, Arnar Bill explained the emotions that the nation and he himself hold after the historic win earlier this month.
“What we mostly feel is pride, pride and enjoyment. The group was so strong; Ukraine, Croatia, Turkey, all were in the Euros, then Finland and Kosovo are also very strong. First and foremost we are proud of winning the group. Had we finished second we would have been faced with meeting Italy or another strong nation.”
Perhaps the players could have been forgiven for considering the job done. After all, they are a quarter the size of the previous smallest nation to reach the finals – Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 – and can hardly be expected to be targeting the latter stages of the tournament itself. “Yes, they were relieved. We were in the position of many teams playing Iceland; we were supposed to win. It is difficult to go into a match you are supposed to win, like the match against Kosovo. The players have not finished their ambitions, we are not going to Russia as tourists. No way.”
An emphatic point made. He also mentioned the Three Lions jacket I was wearing, noting that it is the “heaviest shirt in football” as they are “expected to win every match”. The victorious thunderclap following Iceland’s historic knockout stage win over England last summer echoed this very point, and hinted to the shifting sands beneath their feet.
Four years ago, Iceland narrowly missed making their World Cup bow even earlier, having to go to a playoff against Croatia which they lost 2-0 on aggregate. In hindsight, it might be simple to be philosophical about the ramifications of suffering such heartbreak, but Arnar Bill pointed to another key factor. ”That [was] crucial, we would have been ranked in a lower bracket and had to have faced an Italy or teams like them and it would have been very, very tricky. It’s so much better to be playing friendlies and relax instead.”
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Before the current crop of players, the luminaries of Icelandic football were few and far between. Arnór Gudjohnsen spent a fruitful 14 years in France and Belgium before winding down his career in Sweden and his homeland, while his son Eidur shone at Chelsea and Barcelona amongst many European clubs. Today’s undoubted superstar is Gylfi Sigurdsson, who moved from Swansea to Everton in a mammoth £50m move to become the most expensive Icelandic footballer of all time.
“He is very important. He is one of only a few players who went right the top. He is definitely a role model on the team. He runs the most metres and sets a great example for the younger players. Gylfi doesn’t drink or smoke, he sets a fantastic example for everyone. He is polite. Our captain Aron Gunnarsson is more vocal maybe, but there are five or six players who are captains on the field. It is that strong a squad.”
Personal qualities such as these are a critical part of what makes Iceland punch so far above their weight, and not only from the players’ perspectives. In a tournament that was marked by everything from Northern Ireland’s infectious Will Grigg chant to the awful violence in Marseille, the Viking hordes that swept through France drew widespread praise for the manner of their passionate support. It helped, of course, that they had so much to be proud of on the pitch itself.
“We cannot just sit back and enjoy it. We have taken the money that came in from the Euros and made all the national youth coaches who were previously part time and made them full time. We can do a lot of things better here at the FA, we are only 17 people here at the FA. If you look at Malta, for example, they have 60 full-time people. But we have no idea what kind of team will come through, what kind of players, how they will play together. We have a certain style of play that fits the players, but you never know.”
This ability to learn from previous years has been a significant factor in Iceland’s incredible success. The disparity in wealth, even despite the added funding from last summer’s head-spinning tour of France that Arnar Bill mentions, is something that will never be closed in all reality. When the English FA spends in the region of £1bn on the new Wembley and the lavishly-designed St George’s Park, one realises there are different stratospheres within the footballing universe. At the same time, there is a wholesome satisfaction for the neutral to realise that money is not the single most decisive factor in building a stellar team.
As brightly as his star shines, Sigurdsson is far from the only recognisable name in the current generation. Former Ajax frontman Kolbeinn Sigthórsson is already just four goals behind Gudjohnsen in the all-time Iceland goalscoring charts, while Ragnar Sigurdsson currently plies his trade in the Russian Premier League with Rostov. Is this a golden generation? Are these a unique set of players, or can they be reproduced?
“I think this is a golden generation definitely, they went to the finals of the U17, to the elite U19, to the finals of the U21 [European Championships] … I think the players that are coming have similar talent, but they have to form a team. It is not enough to have the talent. They have to form that core. Look at Croatia, their players are fantastic, some of the best in the world. Some of their players had just won the Champions League, yet we beat them in Reykjavik just after that. It is much more than just having the ability to play football. There are so many mental elements, and social elements.”
So what was so special about 2017? Arnar Bill laughs. “I don’t know,” he said. “Football is such a strange game at times; sometimes things just fall into place,” he admitted. His modesty glosses over the quality of appointments the KSÍ has made under his tenure, and none more so than head coach Heimir Halgrímsson, who has been given sole command after co-manager and Swedish legend Lars Lagerbäck left to take the Norway top job. The Icelandic dentist is proving his worth.
“Lars was fantastic. He was not a dictator. Lars ran everything past Heimir. They were truly co-managers. What was so enjoyable was that we kept on winning games. After the Euros we just kept on winning matches. I think everyone looked at the team as purely Icelandic, even though Lars was the manager. Lars and Heimir had a clear understanding from the beginning; Heimir was in charge of the analysis of the tactics of the opposition. Lars has always used his assistants and co-coaches as equals.”
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We began to discuss the fan base of Iceland, which is notoriously fierce. During the Euros, an eye-watering 10 percent of Iceland’s entire population travelled to France just to be there. Very few of them were able to get into all of the matches, yet they took the world by storm with their now-legendary thunderclap and Viking spirit.
“We are just learning the ticketing system for the World Cup. A lot of people are calling our office to find out how to get tickets to the matches. We had our first meeting with FIFA and are just starting to figure it out. We will not be in charge of this, there will be tour companies that will book these. Going to Russia will be much heavier travel, and more expensive, so I do not expect the same amount of people. Obviously it depends on which cities we play in and which nations we meet in the tournament.”
However many Icelanders are able to make the journey to Russia, they will be witnessing the denouement of the legendary plan that Iceland was rumoured to have put together some 20 years ago to build a super team and build this great program. Or will they? Arnar Bill suggested it is an urban myth that never existed, although he did say there had been a strategy to build football pitches so the game could be played all year round. The rest of the plan has been a moving target since.
“I think we are definitely not behind schedule. The media is mistaken about there being a plan. The elite plan was to someday go to a big tournament – that’s it. We should make some plans like that! We need to hire a director of football to make big plans and interact with the clubs and youth teams. We need to become more professional.”
One might assume that the buildup of the national team success would spill over into the domestic league, but that is far from the case. “The Icelandic leagues are losing popularity actually, partly because there is so much football on television and the internet, and we play in the summer when so many people are on holiday in the countryside. Also now that our players are more recognised they are playing in Scandinavia; if they are good enough to play there, they are not playing here.
“There is definitely more interest from scouts and clubs abroad. It has not helped the league. We have certain scouts that take our players to Scandinavia, some to England like Norwich and Reading. England, Spain, Italy and Germany, they will take our players into their academies, but not into their first teams. It really depends on the scout. Many of our players are going out on trials now, many more than before.
“It is difficult in Iceland since every player is treated equally, no matter their skill level. It is important that we keep that. We need all players, even the ones that do not make it to the elite squads, because we are so few. Equality is a very important value in Iceland. Not everyone is good at football, but many love it. They should be treated the same; that is important to me. There are no clubs that are only for men, or only for women. All clubs are for both.”
To achieve equality on the global stage will take much more than a couple of eye-catching appearances at major tournaments. In the more immediate future, though, what does Arnar Bill expect Iceland to do at the World Cup, and what will he define as success? “I have no way of knowing. We do not even know the groups. But I do know we will try 100 percent. Our goal will be to get out of the group and then see what happens. Once you are in the knockout phase, then every match becomes a cup final. Even if we lose every match and play like we know we can, we will be successful.”
Arnar Bill is a tremendous leader and a gentleman. He possesses the Viking spirit and a fairness that comes across in a way you cannot ignore. If he could take a leadership role at the much-maligned world governing body of FIFA it would be a big move, but somehow it seems more likely his goals are all related to his native land. Iceland will inevitably shake some trees in Russia, and, thanks to their impeccable leadership, will one day no longer be seen as underdogs.
By Jim Hart @Catenacciari