In 2012, for 3 months, Iceland achieved their lowest ever international ranking. From April until June of that year, they were placed 131st in the FIFA rankings. This put them with the distinguished company of Lichtenstein (two spots behind), Tajikistan (one spot ahead) and the Faroe Islands (thirteen spots ahead). There might not be a more perfect example of global soccer irrelevance than trailing the Faroe Islands in any kind of ranking, even one as dubious as the FIFA standings. However, just four short years later, the Icelandic national soccer team is not only debuting in their first ever international tournament, they are doing so deservedly. How did this even happen? How did a country whose top domestic league is semi-professional, wrestle one of the competition’s most talented teams in Portugal, led by arguably the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo, into a draw?
Before qualifying for Euro 2016 and before the “shocking” tie with Portugal, Iceland’s most famous international moment occurred twenty years ago. In 1996, Iceland became the first team in international soccer history to have a father-son duo play in the same match. That day, a 17 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen replaced his 34 year old father Arnór Guðjohnsen in a friendly match against Estonia, thus giving the tiny nation a taste of international recognition. It was, for years afterwards, seemingly destined to be Iceland’s crowning achievement. Despite the younger Guðjohnsen growing into Iceland’s most famous footballer, with title-winning stints in England with Chelsea and Spain with Barcelona, the national team failed to gain any kind of traction and continued to be a punching bag for more competitive teams in the cutthroat gauntlet that is European qualification. Interestingly, Eiður Guðjohnsen is now the senior member of this Iceland team at 37, and it remains to be seen if he will be given the chance to do more than offer sage advice from the bench.
Iceland’s soccer revolution began around 15 years ago, and it did not happen by chance. This is not necessarily a “Golden Generation” of Iceland in the way that many other countries have been able to produce them. Instead, it is the result of a concerted effort on the part of the KSI, Iceland’s national football association. The strategy has essentially been two-fold: build pitches and create quality coaching. By the end of 2015, KSI had built 179 full-sized pitches, many of which are indoors, in addition to the 166 mini or small pitches they had constructed; this means that there is now one full-sized soccer field for every 128 registered players in the country. That is astounding. And it means that an entire generation of Icelandic kids have been able to play with each other year-round, which is extremely important when you consider that Iceland does not see the sun for around six months of the year. Most fields were built after 2000, which means that there is absolutely no doubt that this current Iceland team at Euro 2016 benefited tremendously from the easy access to top-notch training facilities no matter their age or relative isolation (many of the players on the squad come from very small and remote fishing villages, which despite the lack of population, each have their own indoor soccer field).
The other half of the KSI equation for success, which they undoubtedly could not have imagined would flourish so quickly, was to produce as many quality youth coaches as they possibly could. The decision by the KSI to hire Sigurdur Ragnar Eyjolfsson as head of coach education in 2002 is regarded as the true turning point for Icelandic soccer. Eyjolfsson made it his, and by extension KSI’s, mission to produce a legion of top-quality, UEFA-licensed coaches and his approach has paid off. By the end of 2013, the county had more licensed coaches per capita than any country in the world, even more than European powerhouses like England and Germany. This means that in any village, no matter the size, there is at least one (and likely more) coach that has at least a UEFA-B license, which requires at least 120 hours of training to obtain. As if that weren’t enough, many of these coaches work as physical educators, or have at least been trained as such, which gives Icelandic kids as young as 5 an opportunity to learn how to train their bodies in the right way. And despite the skill level, Icelandic youngsters can train as much as they like until they are 19 years old, meaning they can train with professional coaches on perfect pitches up to 6 days a week for free. It’s a system that frankly has no equal in the world today.
When Iceland took the field yesterday against A Selecção das Quinas (The Team of Shields), they did so with 23 of the 90 players currently plying their trade as full-time professionals outside of Iceland. They did so representing a country that is so small it is almost exactly the size of the English city of Leicester, which before this year practically no one outside of the UK had ever heard of. And despite the fact that their goalkeeper is a part-time filmmaker, and that their captain plays in the English Championship (the division below the Premier League), they proved something to everyone who witnessed it. To their fans, they proved that they can continue to dream, and that the 30,000 or so who travelled to France (which is almost 10% of their entire population) would at least see them score a goal and secure a point. To Portugal, and the rest of Group F, they proved that they would not be a pushover and each team would have to scrap and claw for the points. To everyone in France and around the world looking for an underdog to rally behind, they staked their claim and urged us to root for them. But perhaps most importantly, they showed everyone something that only four years ago would have seemed impossible–that Iceland belongs.