As we all know, last weekend, Iceland booked their ticket for Euro 2016. This will be their first participation in a major tournament and, with only 323,000 inhabitants, they will become the most depopulated country to participate in one of the three most important tournaments in the world (World Cup, Euro and Copa America).
The mighty Icelanders will also finish the qualifiers above two European powers, the Netherlands and Turkey, which they beat every time they met in the group. For reference, before last year, Iceland had faced “The Clockwork Orange” 11 times, managing only a draw, against 10 losses, scoring 3 goals and letting 32 in.
It is, in short, one of the biggest surprises in the history of world football and, of course, it can’t be attributed (only) to chance. What the hell is, then, what has caused the inevitable ascent of the Icelanders?
It is worth remembering that the ascent has been gradual. Two years ago, Iceland were left at the gates of Brazil 2014 after losing a playoff against Croatia. Since then, and in the following months, several articles have been published that attempt to explain the phenomenon. In general, it is considered that the main reason was the construction of synthetic grass courts at the turn of the century, allowing them to lengthen their football season, previously only played in the summer months.
But that can’t explain the whole story. Especially since all the other European teams also dispute their games throughout the year. If anything, the Icelanders eliminated a disadvantage, but didn’t transform it into advantage.
So I started to investigate possible reasons. And I found in an old 2006 document published by Siggi Eyjolfsson, then coach of the women's national team, called "Why Iceland produce so many professional football players?" It is a valuable text because it is written in the era when the Icelandic takeoff began, and it contains some data that allow us to understand it.
The first, which I consider most important, is the work done by the Icelandic FA with their coaches. Among the Nordic countries in 2006, Iceland was by far the one with most UEFA B coaches proportionally. The small country had one every 69 players, more than Sweden (one per 231), Denmark (1 in 765) and Norway (1 in 113).
Moreover, they professionalized coaches at all levels. The FA organized periodical training courses and therefore almost all of the country's youth teams had a qualified coach at the time of the study.
I do not want this text to be too long, so I invite you to consult the full study, but overall I was left with the impression that the purpose of the Icelandic FA was to transform the country’s greatest weakness into a strength. A small country limits the number of potential players but maximizes the possibility to follow them carefully and train them almost individually. After all, on a football pitch there are only 11 players, not 200.
There is also another factor. A few months ago, in this article (in Spanish), I analyzed how, with the exception of Argentina and Brazil, all successful countries in football have two essential characteristics: A high GDP per capita and an established football tradition.
Iceland meets and exceeds both. In the same study mentioned above, Theitur Tordarsson, a Norwegian coach working in Iceland at the time was quoted saying. "What surprised me the most when I came to Iceland was how many young players you have with great potential... it can't be explained except through the tremendous interest the nation has for football."
Regarding GDP per capita, Iceland is in the 14th place worldwide, allowing the players to be well nourished and educated, and also to allocate more revenue to professionalize and train personnel and build facilities at the highest level.
Of course, one can’t neglect the role of luck, and perhaps we are just witnessing a one-off Golden Generation, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude that there has been a strong and professional work that has paid off.
On a personal note, this is my first text in BigSoccer in more than two years. I'm very happy to be back and I hope to be hanging around here for a long time. Thanks to Andy Robinowitz for having me back and to Jesse Hertzberg for all he did for the site. See you around soon!