A goalless draw at home with bottom-seeded opposition is hardly something worth celebrating, but it turned out to be enough. Having caused shock after shock, beating traditional European heavyweights, including current World Cup semifinalists and two former continental champions, a point versus Kazakhstan was all Iceland needed to create history, and that was exactly what they got.
Icelandic football hit the headlines worldwide two years earlier. After a shocking comeback versus Switzerland (from 1-4 to 4-4), in the game dubbed The Second Miracle of Bern (the first one was, of course, 1954 World Cup final), Lars Lagerback’s team made it to World Cup qualifying play offs, only to lose to an experienced Croatian team.
Never had such a small country, just short of 320,000 inhabitants, made it that far in any competition, so it was only natural that everyone was immediately after their winning formula. In fact, it was easy one, all down to hard work and a good strategy. At the very end of the last century a wholesale change was set in motion: in order to significantly improve their players’ quality over time, the Icelanders created a two-fold plan.
They would vastly improve the infrastructure, by building numerous covered artificial 5-a-side pitches, usually adjacent to schools, where youngsters would be able to play football even during the long North Atlantic winters. At nearly a dozen locations across the country, a full-sized or half-sized indoor pitch would be made, for clubs to train year-long.
At the same time, an unusually large amount of people took up football education, in order to get UEFA certified badges.
By the time Iceland took on Croatia in the 2013 play offs, nearly 750 people had UEFA A- or UEFA B-licenses. Compared to Iceland’s total population, it means that approximately every one in a hundred males of working age in Iceland was a qualified football coach.
Even Spain and Germany, with more than 20 thousand qualified coaches each, aren’t even close to that ratio.
As you might have expected, better infrastructure and better coaching quickly led to fast improvement, which meant that Iceland started producing wonderful attacking-minded and creative players, and lots of them. Combining newly-acquired technical and tactical ability with their natural strength, stamina, work rate and grit, these players quickly outgrew their domestic semi-pro league and one by one moved abroad at a very early age, most often to Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The Iceland national team first tasted success at the U17 level back in 2007, when they made it to Europe’s top 8. It was achieved by boys mostly born in 1990, who were 9 years old when the transformation began. The team led by striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson was unable to win a single point against the likes of Christian Benteke, Eden Hazard, Danny Welbeck, Victor Moses, Dalye Blind or Georginio Vijnaldum, but the mark has been set.
Within three years, Iceland’s U21 team (born between 1988 and 1990) even managed to win a game at Euro’s, ending at number five overall. They beat the Danish side lead by Christian Eriksen, and finished above the Ukrainians (with Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko) and the English side with Henderson, Jones, Smalling, Sturridge and Bertrand, to name a few.
That generation, which included the likes of Birkir Bjarnason, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Alfreð Finnbogason, now serves as the backbone of senior national side.
Now let’s put those results at youth level in context. Unlike senior football, where 24 teams go to the European championships, only eight sides qualify for any youth tournament, with one berth usually given in advance to the hosts.
There are roughly 2000 boys per generation in Iceland, meaning that the entire pool of players for one age group is about 4000. There are nine different national associations in Europe that can choose from between 500 thousand and 1.2 million boys. Still the Icelanders manage to make it to Top 8.
And now, just a sneak preview of the things to come: Another wonderful generation of U17’s (born in 1995) got to the Euros in 2012. They managed to take a point off Martial-led France, before narrowly losing to Germany (Goretzka, Brandt, Meyer) and Georgia. The following autumn, they beat France at the U19 level and just last weekend they once again beat the French 3:2, now at the U21 level.
But let’s get back to the senior side. By now we are well aware of Iceland’s power in attack, but the key to their success in 2015 was their defense. Last time around, Strákarnir okkar made the play-offs even though they conceded 15 goals in 10 games. Since last September they have played eight competitive games and conceded only three goals, all of them to the Czech Republic.
The answer was obvious – Lars Lagerback only needed to introduce a different approach to his team’s defense, so now, instead of letting the opposition get all the way up the pitch and taking advantage of Iceland’s weakest point, they opted for a modern possession-based game with pressing throughout the pitch. Thus the ball stays far from their penalty area and well within reach of their best players. No wonder they got a clean sheet twice against the Dutch and once versus Turkey.
It might be a bit unfair to single out players in a team that distinctly works as a unit, but there’s little doubt that Iceland’s key player nowadays is Gylfi Sigurdsson. Swansea City’s assist king is by now a proven high-class playmaker on both club and international level, able to pose as a multiple threat. Apart from creating chances for his teammates, he is a dependable taker of set-pieces and his scoring rate since 2013 is a goal every two games, good enough even for a striker.
The Swede Lars Lagerback is the first Iceland team manager with more wins than losses since the turn of the century, and only the second ever, counting only those who spent more than a single game on the bench.
It should also be noted that Lagerback took over the reins of the national team when Iceland was below Liechtenstein (150) on FIFA’s world rankings. They are currently 23rd, one spot ahead of France.
Ever since he came to Iceland, back in 2011, the Lagerback has been working with Heimir Hallgrimsson. It has already been decided that the 48-year old from the extreme south of Iceland would take over after next summer’s tournament.
By now, even the club coaches from Iceland have started to catch the attention of clubs in bigger leagues. Ólafur Helgi Kristjánsson is one of the first to have hit it relatively big-time, landing a job in the Danish Superliga, by far the strongest of the Nordic leagues. Last summer he got the opportunity to manage Nordsjaelland, where his predecessor was the highly respected Kasper Hjulmand, who in turn took the job at German FSV Mainz 05, vacated by current Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel. It is still too early for Icelanders to dream of managing teams in Europe’s Top 5 leagues, but that time will surely come.
Another interesting aspect of Iceland’s success story will be Eidur Smari Gudjohnsen’s maiden appearance in a big tournament. Gudjohnsen’s international career will be 20 years and 2 months old by the time Euros begin.
While he was still 17, he made his senior Iceland debut in a game that featured his father Arnor, making them the first father-son combo in international football.
Eidur Smari has long been the small nation’s superstar, having won the Champions League with Barcelona, as well as league titles in Spain, England (twice with Chelsea) and Netherlands (PSV).
This latest chapter of his exciting story bares resemblance to another former Premier League legend’s latter days. Dwight Yorke was 35 when his Soca Warriors team made it to 2006 World Cup. With a population of 1.2million, Trinidad and Tobago still holds the record for the smallest nation ever to have appeared in a World Cup. Iceland’s population is barely over a quarter of that number.
Barring a major injury, Gudjohnsen would surely be in the 23-strong team no matter what, but he would be further down the pecking order had Aron Johannsson decided to remain with the country of his ancestry. The Werder Bremen striker was born in Alabama to Icelandic parents, who were attending college at the time. The whole family returned to the North Atlantic island when Aron was three, and he grew up there, spending his formative footballing years at local clubs.
Johannsson was regular for Iceland youth teams and even got a senior call up, only to miss the debut due to an injury. Then all of a sudden, after Jurgen Klinsmann’s call, he changed his mind and opted to play for the USMNT. Soon enough, he was thrown into action and his late goal in added time in the previous qualifiers eliminated Panama and enabled Mexico to get to the World Cup (where they would knock out Croatia, Iceland’s conquerors in the play offs). By September 2015, Aron has scored 4 goals in 23 games for Team USA.
At the end, there is another thing that deserves your attention. For a long time this small and remote country was sports-wise, known for decent handball teams and chess players. Hard work and strategic development started paying dividends all over the place – their male handball team won Olympic silver in 2008, and this summer their basketball team made more than a decent debut at Euros, taking traditional powers Italy and Turkey to overtime.