Academy Manager Eric Ramsay talks to Shrewsbury Town about Icelandic football after his recent visit to the Nordic Island.
I recently spent four days on a study visit to Iceland as a component of the UEFA Pro’ Licence. It has been well documented that Iceland are the smallest nation to have ever qualified for a World Cup - with a population of little over 300,000 - and I was fascinated to get a feel for the country and find out exactly what is in place that has allowed the country to be so successful on the international stage.
For perspective, Iceland’s population is comparable to a single borough of London. In-spite of this, their men’s national team have qualified for, and been competitive at, two successive major tournaments, their women’s team are ranked 18th in the world and their junior national teams regularly qualify for the elite round of UEFA tournaments.
I spent time with Arnar Bill Gunnarson, the Icelandic FA’s Technical Director, the country’s strongest youth developers Breidablik FC and the U19 national team during my visit. This is what I found out:
‘The kids from the halls’
Two macro factors are always talked about in the same breath as Icelandic football success. The first is the spike in investment in huge indoor football facilities (often placed next to schools) in the year 2000 following an injection of money from UEFA. I visited one of these ‘halls' - at a club called Breidablik (Glyfi Sigurdsson’s club as a youth player) - and they are a hive of activity. They are in constant use and provide the perfect conditions in which to rack up thousands of hours of practice sheltered from the extremely harsh weather conditions. There are also a large number of outdoor artificial pitches that have been developed with under-turf heating generated from the earth’s natural geo-thermal energy.
The second is the 2008 financial crash. This saw foreign importation of players into the national league decline significantly and provided the platform for a number of young, promising Icelandic players develop rapidly at senior domestic level and then move on to bigger things in Scandinavia.
Qualified, studious coaches in large numbers
There is one UEFA B Licence coach per 800 people in Iceland. Each community-owned, volunteer-ran club in Iceland employs a large number of UEFA B and A Licence coaches to provide high quality coaching to all ‘the kids in the halls’. Equality of opportunity in accessing training is such that every child up to the age of 18, regardless of ability level, can train up to five times per week. There are no academies. Each age group at a particular club may include up to 100 players, all of whom train with the same regularity. They are grouped according to ability level, however, the principle of frequent access to rigorous training is the basis of every child’s involvement. Each player pays a subscription fee in order to be a member of a club, however, this is subsidised to the tune of 50% as a part of a wider government agenda to promote healthy lifestyles.
‘We don’t miss a talent’
It is almost impossible to do so. Given the size of the population and the close-knit feel of the Icelandic footballing community, the best players are involved with the junior national teams in a way that has a ‘club feel’. The exception to this rule are those talented individuals that leave the country in their mid and late teens to join European Academies.
Everyone knows everyone in the Icelandic footballing community and the elite youth players will encounter one another on almost a weekly basis in-season. This has the effect of ensuring that, when players meet up for international duty, they are familiar with one another, have much common ground and the national team atmosphere becomes club-like. Players do not move clubs in Iceland. They remain loyal to their local clubs and grow up playing with their friends. This concept is easily translatable to the national scene.
Every player is immensely proud of their involvement with the national team and it is regarded as a huge honour. In relation to the Icelandic defeat of England at the European Championships, it was said that ‘it is easy for David to beat Goliath when Goliath has other things to think about’.
Strength of Mentality
They say that the typical Icelandic psyche - determined and resilient - can be attributed to harsh weather conditions on the island and the way in which it breeds a ‘backs to the wall’ mentality. It is perhaps why so many of the Icelandic players that play in mainland Europe have leadership roles in their clubs.
They are an intellectual population. More books are sold per square capita in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. Their education system is highly regarded; there is a 100% literacy rate in Iceland. The junior national team coaches I spoke to suggested that this translates into tactical flexibility and the ability to carry-out a game-plan. They told of how the U17 and U19 teams often use up to five different playing systems during over a three game UEFA European Championship tournament.
There is no ‘Icelandic footballing DNA’. There is no documented playing philosophy nor ‘Icelandic way’. The coaches at international level are given the freedom to work with what they have and play in a way that best suits the limited resources at their disposal. Winning is important at junior international level because it leads to qualifying for latter rounds of tournaments and more competitive games. This is vital given the expense of arranging international friendlies. More games equal more development opportunities and this is prioritised ahead of playing what some might describe as ‘the right way’. Iceland’s national team at the world cup were, on average, the tallest at the competition. Therefore, they defended deep in a very organised way, conceded possession, had a ‘direct style’ and they were very effective in set-piece situations. They made the best of what they had. The Icelandic FA is keen not to get complacent. They are adamant that they should not get ideas above their stations. They must play in a way that best suits their particular set of conditions.
All-in-all, it was an incredibly interesting experience and one that allowed me to get a real feel for some of the unique challenges that those working in player and coach development at a national level face. In recent years the success of Iceland’s ‘golden generation’ has, in relative terms, been phenomenal. What is interesting from this point onward is it’s level of sustainability.