With the 2018 World Cup just around the corner, Joel Rabinowitz spoke to five Icelandic football supporters to get the inside track on their country’s remarkable rise from international minnows to the smallest nation ever to compete in the tournament.
It’s 9 October 2017. Burnley’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson had converted from close range after collecting a pass from Iceland’s talisman, Gylfi Sigurðsson, to wrap up a 2-0 win over Kosovo, which secured the country’s first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup, topping a qualification group that featured the likes of Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey.
Conceding just seven goals in their 10 games, while also finishing as top scorers in the group with 16 goals, Iceland became the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, with a total population of around 337,000. In fact, they’re the first country to qualify for the tournament with a population of less than a million.
Given Iceland only played their first FIFA-recognised international fixture in 1946 – a 3-0 defeat to Denmark in Reykjavík – it’s an incredibly young country in a footballing sense, competing in World Cup qualifying for the first time in 1958, in which they finished bottom of their group with zero wins and 28 goals against.
For Iceland to even reach the World Cup finals is a remarkable achievement in itself – a country which languished at 112th in the FIFA world rankings at the start of this decade – capping off a meteoric rise that now sees them arrive in Russia in 22nd in the world rankings, off the back of a memorable Euro 2016 campaign in which they saw off England before bowing out gallantly against France in the quarter-finals, having captured the imagination of the continent.
Iceland arrive in Russia under new leadership, with Heimir Hallgrímsson – also a part-time dentist – taking on the manager’s position after having previously worked alongside his Swedish counterpart Lars Lagerbäck, whom many credit as having pioneered Iceland’s sensational footballing revolution.
Speaking of Lagerbäck’s impact, Icelandic supporter Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson is effusive in his praise: “He was to Icelandic football what Arsène Wenger was for Arsenal. He was completely different to anything we had ever experienced before. He took not just the whole team but our entire footballing culture up to another level.”
Since Lagerbäck’s departure – who is now the manager of Norway – Hallgrímsson has maintained the team’s upward trajectory, with Iceland’s win percentage rising from 40 under the co-coaching set up to 52 under the new management structure. During his time as assistant coach, Liverpool fan and Iceland supporter, Oli Juliusson, recalls how Hallgrímsson was known to frequently spend time in a pub nearby the national team stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, in Reykjavík, speaking enthusiastically to locals about the team and encapsulating that special connection with supporters that so few national teams have to the same degree.
Despite the substantial influence of these two prominent figures, however, Iceland’s success cannot be distilled down to a select few individuals. A wide-scale infrastructure project has seen over 30 full-size, all-weather pitches installed across the country, including seven large indoor arenas that facilitate playing football all year round amid the inherent challenges of variable terrain, harsh climate, and, of course, the three months of near-total darkness during winter.
These indoor football halls, the largest of which saw the emergence of Sigurðsson and FC Augsburg forward Alfreð Finnbogason, are community owned and provide high-quality facilities where children can begin playing football from the age of six, receiving excellent training from qualified coaches for a small annual fee, which is subsidised by local councils.
With around 800 UEFA-licensed coaches, of which around 180 hold the UEFA A license – all of whom are paid – there is around one coach for every 400 people in Iceland, a staggering ratio when compared to England where there is one UEFA-licensed coach for every 10,000 people. Despite having such a small talent pool to select from, the opportunity for young people to receive quality training minimises the chances of potential stars falling through the net.
While elite-level football across much of Europe is awash with absurd sums of money, the average annual wage in the Icelandic Premier Division – the Úrvalsdeild – is only around £23,000, with the vast majority of players only at semi-professional level, and only one member of the World Cup squad – defender Birkir Saevarsson – plying his trade in his homeland.
To forge a full-time career out of football is, therefore, an enormous challenge, and unlike in England, where Premier League players are paid astronomical wages from a young age, Icelandic football doesn’t offer such financial security. Players take nothing for granted and for those select few that have the honour of representing Iceland in Russia this summer, there is a powerful sense of unity emanating from this unlikely success story, one that few other national teams are able to match.
The difficulties Iceland have overcome to reach this tournament breeds a strong bond between the national team and its supporters, as demonstrated by the fact that 66,000 people – nearly 20 percent of the entire population – applied for World Cup tickets.
The sense of apathy, anger and frustration that has pervaded much of the supporter culture and media coverage around the England side in recent tournaments – a sentiment which is particularly prevalent among Liverpool supporters, given the city’s historically insular character and cultural distinctiveness from the rest of the country – is in stark contrast to the sheer sense of pride and togetherness felt by Icelanders as they prepare to see their team take on Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.
As Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson explains: “One of the things you never knew you were missing out on, growing up on an isolated island in the North Atlantic, is the element of how football can take over an entire country. It’s quite an indescribable experience to have the sort of pride you feel when everyone you meet has nothing but nice things to say about your fans and your team.”
And as Hörður Óskarsson puts it: “Iceland is a very proud nation and this national team is its crown jewel.”
For Gudmundur Magnusson, meanwhile, owner of the popular archival website LFCHistory, there is a unique sense of closeness and community that comes with a national team of such a small population: “The whole nation is in this together and we try to support our team as well as possible. Many of us have got a connection to the team. In my case, I used to work as a volunteer for one the football clubs here in Iceland and met Hannes [Halldórsson] our goalkeeper quite a few times. All these things make it extra special; you are supporting your national team but also some of your friends or colleagues who’ve you known for years. Maybe you went to school with someone etc.”
In fact, Halldórsson, still Iceland’s number one goalkeeper at 34, who plays club football for Randers FC in the Danish Superliga, is a former filmmaker and has gone so far as to direct a Coca-Cola-sponsored Iceland World Cup promotion video on YouTube ahead of this summer’s tournament.
In terms of what spectators can expect from Iceland in Russia, the team’s playing style is built upon cohesion, organisation and a relentless work ethic rather than individual skill and flair – but it’s a recipe that, while not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye, has underpinned their achievements in recent years.
“I think the most flattering way to describe how we play is honest and industrial. This team is almost dogmatically realistic and we’re fully aware that we can’t match or outplay other teams in most of the aspects of the game. But what we do well, we can do better than them,” explains Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson. “Tight, compact, and aggressive – playing to our strengths on set pieces and counter-attacks. It’s simple, but it works.”
Hörður Óskarsson, meanwhile, elaborates: “We’ll be very organised, dangerous in counter-attack and absolutely lethal in set-pieces. Heimir [Hallgrímsson] is more attack-minded than Lars [Lagerbäck] was, but we won’t see much of the ball in the first game [against Argentina] and this team has no problem with defending for 90 minutes and still creating three to five chances.”
Tactically speaking, a traditional 4-4-2 has been the default system for Iceland in recent times, although Hallgrímsson has experimented with a more pragmatic 4-5-1 shape, which could be deployed against Argentina and Croatia. The system is primarily built around Sigurðsson, whose importance to Iceland is arguably unparalleled by any individual for other competing nations in Russia.
“Sigurðsson is arguably the most important player to any team in this tournament, and I’m including Mohamed Salah for Egypt in that. He is the playmaker, the set piece taker, the most prominent goalscorer and following his move to Everton, the most expensive Icelandic player in history,” Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson explains.
The Everton playmaker’s return to fitness following a serious knee ligament injury, which prematurely ended his season in March, is of paramount significance. Yet it would be inaccurate to suggest that Iceland are simply a one-man team, with Premier League winger Guðmundsson having played a pivotal role in Sean Dyche’s side that secured European football for Burnley for the first time in 51 years.
The tried and tested centre-back duo, comprised of Rostov’s Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kári Árnason, who currently plays for Víkingur in the Faroe Islands, were the defensive bedrock of Iceland’s Euro 2016 campaign, and with a combined 140 caps between them, their experience will be instrumental in Iceland’s chances of progressing.
The 20-year-old PSV Eindhoven winger, Albert Guðmundsson, is one to keep an eye on having come off the bench to score a hat-trick against Indonesia in a friendly in January this year. The youngster is unlikely to start but with both his parents having played for the national team, and with his grandfather holding the prestigious status of being Iceland’s first-ever professional footballer, there are great hopes for Guðmundsson, who has been widely touted as their most exciting up and coming talent.
Regarding Iceland’s prospects for the tournament, there is a feeling of cautious optimism among supporters, who believe that to be taking part in the World Cup is a success story worthy of celebration, no matter the outcome, and one that should be relished.
“I don’t see us getting into the next round – we might get a point or two against Nigeria or Croatia, but I expect Argentina and Croatia to be the ones to qualify. A successful tournament for us would be scoring some goals, at least get a point or three, and most importantly, enjoy it. Bring back some good memories,” explains Gudmundur Magnusson.
Some, however, feel there is a genuine chance for Iceland to upset the odds, and while they might be 200/1 outsiders to go all the way, progression to the knockout rounds is by no means beyond the realms of possibility for this team, as Haraldur Þórir Hugosson suggests: “At this point, everyone in Iceland is happy with how far we’ve gotten. We’re in a difficult group but anyone who underestimates the team will be in for a surprise. I’m optimistic that we can make it out of the group, and that would be an amazing achievement.”
By Joel Rabinowitz @joel_archie
Many thanks to Anton Ingi Sveinbjörnsson, Hörður Óskarsson, Gudmundur Magnusson, Haraldur Þórir Hugosson and Oli Juliusson for their contributions to this article.