Marc BoalComment

FORWARD THINKING IN THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE : THE INSIDE STORY OF ICELAND'S ADVANCE

Marc BoalComment
FORWARD THINKING IN THE LAND OF FIRE AND ICE : THE INSIDE STORY OF ICELAND'S ADVANCE

The recent success of the Icelandic national team has caught the attention of the football world, for a country whose main exports are raw aluminium, fishing and to a lesser extent Bjork and Sigur Ros. How can this remote windswept Atlantic Island produce an overabundance of football riches?

The decision to set up a network of artificial turf pitches was made in the late 1990’s following an “investigative field trip” by the Icelandic FA (KSI) to Norway. The Norwegian FA had invested in a number of full-size indoor artificial pitches, in the north of the country, where the climate offered similar challenges to those experienced in Iceland.

Upon the return of the KSI delegation, a commitment was made to adopt and expand the Norwegian concept. A plan was put in place to build heated indoor “football houses” (knattspyrnuhús in Icelandic) in every town across Iceland and to support them with a network of heated, outdoor, full-size pitches. A third strand to the strategy was to establish mini-size artificial pitches at schools – to ensure anyone, who wants to play, has a facility to use from a young age.

The Icelandic FA started a revolutionary process of improving the facilities available for the nation’s footballers. From 2000, seven full-size indoor football halls have been built around the country (roughly one pitch per 50,000 inhabitants; 1200 pitches would need to be built in the UK for a comparable figure), as well as over 20 artificial pitches and more than 150 mini-pitches for schools and communities, allowing football to become a year-round sport. The first football house was built in the town of Keflavik in 2000, and since then 13 indoor arenas have opened – seven with full-sized pitches and six with half-size playing fields, with more proposed indoor arenas being built in Isafjordur, Akureyri and Selfoss. KR Reykjavik, Valur and Stjarnan have plans in the pipeline for future indoor halls to improve their clubs development.

Since the turn of the millennium, the football infrastructure in Iceland has taken giant steps and the facilities football players (young and old) can now train and compete in are top class all year round and give shelter from the unforgiving Arctic weather. Artificial pitches are in high numbers, many with undersoil heating and floodlights, which mean the days of frozen gravel pitches of the past are long gone. In total, there are 179 full-size pitches in Iceland (natural grass, artificial turf, outdoor and indoor and that number is growing significantly) which means that there are 1,800 people in the country for each full-size pitch. In terms of registered players (23,000), there is one full-size pitch in the country for every 128 registered players.

The societal benefits of sport, which have been extensively researched in Iceland, have convinced the municipalities for the need for such projects in the community. This was illustrated in the KSI’s drive for the mini pitches at schools, which was again fuelled by the demand by communities as the benefits became clear. A golden generation, however, does not simply “happen” in any sport. And nor did it in Iceland’s case. The country has gradually built a footballing infrastructure and grassroots legacy which is now being closely examined by countries with far greater resources and talent pools. The “Icelandic system” has been built on two main foundations – providing first-class coaching to players from a very young age and building a network of high quality artificial turf pitches.

Each indoor arena is slightly different in configuration – the only thing they have in common is that they have a full-size pitch: 105m by 68m. Two of the football houses have a 20m high clearance so are quite a lot bigger than the other five houses, which only have a 12m clearance. Some have spectator areas and others don’t. The biggest one can accommodate 1,500 spectators. The funding for the pitches has been provided mainly by the local councils – with help from the KSI and grants from UEFA and FIFA. The councils then hand over the operations to clubs, who also get to keep any revenues the pitches create such as player membership fees.

This development owes a lot to the demands of the KSI licensing system, as clubs undergoing the system will face sanctions if they do not meet the requirements for coach education, from the senior teams down to the very youngest kids. Today, all clubs playing in the top two divisions, and even the lower league clubs, have qualified coaches with UEFA-A or UEFA-B badges for working in all youth categories, from children of 5 – 6 years old and up into youth level.

Icelandic clubs and the coaches are the beating heart for this development. They have genuinely embraced the demands placed on them by the Icelandic FA’s club licensing system. That means that children just starting their football education at 5 – 6 years old are already in the hands of people who are well educated and professional in their approach – this is paramount. Coaches at Icelandic clubs are more or less all paid coaches, i.e. club staff members, in contrast to other countries where the people coaching the younger children are volunteers. This has of course helped with the transformation and there is also an element of professional rivalry. No club wants to be left behind when it comes to the education of their coaches. Thus, football is the number one sport of choice by many parents. In the past the Icelandic FA would rarely see one generation bringing through a high number of talented players, like the generation at present who play a key role for the national team. A major part of the group of players in the current national squad were around the age of 10 when the youth development started around 15 years ago. Iceland has proved that investing money into grassroots football is certainly reaping its rewards.

I asked Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, Technical Director and Head of Education at the KSI, At what age do the FA start to actively get youth players involved in the national set-up? “At Under 13 level the FA travels around the country and organises training sessions for the best players. Each club is allowed to send as many players as they want during the first trials. However, at the second trial there are fewer players, this means that the FA can hand pick the best players, and that they don’t miss out in any potential talent slipping through the net, but when the players reach the Under 16 age group, they are selected to train for 6 weekends from October – March, and then play their first match in a UEFA development tournament in April.”

There seems to be such a laid back, positive, attitude with Icelandic people in general, they like to do things in a way that they feel comfortable with, which many people outside the country are not accustomed to, and National team Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson is no different, he will go to the Olver pub before every home match and talk to the Tolfan fans (Iceland supporters club) which seems pretty surreal for most football fans around the world.

Heimir explains “It has definitely brought more harmony between players and fans. This could only happen in a country like Iceland where we all know each other. This habit seems unreal for most foreigners and I can understand why, but this is a sweet tradition that makes us a little bit different from others and gives a special and unique bond between the players, managers and the supporters. I always feel safe when I go there and the fans have shown a great respect and appreciation in me going to the Olver pub.”

The KSI’s hard work behind the scenes, over the past 20 years, has proved pivotal to the success of the National Squad in recent years. Dagur Sveinn Dagbjartsson, Coach Education Coordinator and Grassroots Manager of the KSI, kindly invited me to their headquarters deep within the bowels of the National stadium, one thing became evident straight away, the Icelandic FA offices are very modest, compared to the more ornate surroundings of their European counterparts, and in a way epitomises what the Icelandic mindset is all about: why spend money decking out fancy offices with luxurious carpets and oak tables when the money can be spent on youth development? Dagur explained to me “Money we made from the Euros has been invested to pay for national youth coaches on a full-time basis who were previously part-time.” And it doesn’t stop there, after the Euros the KSI split a chunk of the windfall money – (453,000.000 ISK. approximately £3.3M) for “football matters” amongst 47 clubs around the country. The Icelandic FA also annually distributes £882,000 to clubs for grassroots projects. 

It became apparent to me that the staff working behind the scenes within the Icelandic Football Association won’t rest on their laurels despite their much-maligned success, there is a professional work ethic that oozes from them, as they strive to improve the concept of grassroots football on this North Atlantic outpost.

The gravel/shale surface at Melavollur, the original national stadium, was deemed unsuitable by FIFA to host international matches so the Icelandic FA looked at sites across Reykjavik to build a new national stadium with a grass pitch. Laugardalur Valley was chosen as the location where the new stadium would be built and the ground was opened on 8th July 1957 as Iceland entertained their Nordic counterparts Norway, who comfortably beat the hosts 3-0. In early days Laugardalsvollur was very basic, to say the least, in essence it was just an oval shaped ground with standing terracing and open to the elements. President Asgeir Asgeirsson officially ordained the ground in 1959, construction work commenced on the main stand in 1961, which was very minimal, and it wasn’t until 1965 that major work took place extending the main stand on the western side of the ground with bench seating being the preferred option. By 1970 the construction of the new stand was finished, complete with a roof to give fans respite from the driving rain and Arctic winds that this part of the world is accustomed too. 

The stadium didn’t change much for the next two decades as quite simply there wasn’t any money available to improve the infrastructure. The Icelandic national team at the time suffered heavy defeats on a regular basis so there was no need to expand the capacity. In 1992 a new 8 lane, 400 metre, running track was laid on the outside of the pitch, and floodlights were switched on for the first time when Iceland played host to Greece. One of the main reasons for the floodlights being installed was many of the Icelandic club side’s stadiums failed to make the necessary UEFA criteria to host European matches, and games were often played at the national stadium with kick off usually being in the afternoon, due to the lack of light, and with many of the fans still at work, poor attendances were the norm for the club’s showpiece event of the season.

Laugardalsvollur was starting to fall way behind the stadium standards – the concrete scoreboard looks like a relic from the Soviet era! The stadium still had one seated main stand and three sides of narrow open terracing which was starting to crack and become unstable, something had to be done immediately. In 1997 the new east stand was built, complete with a roof and seating for 3,500, although it has to be said the stand is very basic and there is no facilities within it. On match days portaloos have to be brought in, and make shift food stalls are erected behind the seating area.

The main western side stand was modernised in 2005. A new roof and 6,300 seats were installed, as well as new media press boxes which are situated above the seating area at the back of the stand. The FA moved their offices into the main stand once work was completed. The construction work for this project took two years to fully complete and the stadium met the standards of the governing body UEFA. There has been many great memories which this little ground has witnessed – Iceland sent shockwaves throughout Europe in 1991 as they dumped Spain 2-0. The Spanish side included the likes of Zubizarreta, Goicoechea and Butragueno. A crowd of 8,900 at the national stadium witnessed goals from Toddy Orlygsson and Eyjolfur Sverrisson that dismantled the Spanish rearguard. The highest attendance for a match at Laugardalsvollur came in 2004 when Iceland entertained Italy, an incredible 20,204 squeezed into the stadium to watch the home side stun Marcello Lippi’s star studded side 2-0 with Eidur Gudjohnsen and Gylfi Einarsson bagging the goals.

The old ground is about to get its most extensive revamp. The Icelandic FA and Reykjavik City Council have had high level talks about how the new ground is going to benefit the city for years to come, as they have a tricky task of not turning the nations showpiece arena into a white elephant. The stadium would have to benefit other sports and be able to host large concerts, the athletics track will be removed from the new development as the FA and other investors hope to recoup as much money possible back from this multi-million pound venture. The case study for the new national stadium has also looked at population growth, international seminars and the tourism sector – there is also talk of having hotels built into the structure itself. The new look Laugardalsvollur will have seating for around 20,000 spectators, with a retractable roof so that football (or other sports) can be played in the harsh winter months. The KSI have confirmed they have been in talks with UEFA about hosting the showpiece Super Cup which would be the biggest ever football event to take place in the country. Talks are still ongoing with all the relevant parties who are all involved in this ambitious project and if all the contracts and agreements are in place this year then Reykjavik could have a brand new stadium constructed by 2020. But will the national stadium retain its Laugardalsvollur name? I doubt it very much as corporate money will be a big pawn in the naming rights.

I have been travelling to Iceland for over 25 years and the transformation in the infrastructure and development has been nothing short of astonishing. There is a deep rooted, and complex, winning attitude that seems to be ingrained into the players from a young age, which is also a factor in how this football mad nation can compete against the more traditional football countries around Europe. And the positives start seeping through the pores from the fans to the players. I witnessed this first hand, from my mates “Big” Pete and Arni “Thor” Gunnarsson, who are members of the Icelandic Supporters group (Tolfan), as we sat outside a Paris pub on the Champs Elysees, discussing football, the day before Iceland locked horns with France at the Euros. We were speaking about Iceland’s World Cup qualification chances, and these two lads said in all honesty that “Iceland could win the group or finish at least in second spot.” I was thinking to myself that Big Pete and Arni had consumed too much beer, but 12 months further down the line they were spot on the money!

On the field, the Icelandic team are very well drilled on what they have to do during a match, the shifts that each individual player puts in over 90 minutes is truly inspiring to watch. The defence will often soak up large spells of pressure from the more accomplished sides, but Iceland are devastatingly quick on the counter-attack. They also have the uncanny ability to pressure teams into making errors and dragging players out of position to create space for their own attacking options. The players’ unique mentality and ‘never say die’ attitude is facilitating success. Manager Heimir Hallgrimsson ‘The Master Tactician’ has taken this small tightly knit squad, filled them with self belief and turned them into a force to be reckoned with. There is a wealth of experience in the current crop of players but the World Cup could signal the final farewell for as many as 8 players from the squad who are now aged 30 or over. However, there is a new nucleus of players coming through the ranks at under 21 level as Iceland continue to churn out a plethora of talent for the future. How far can Iceland go in the World Cup? Your guess is as good as mine, I will ask Big Pete and Arni to look into their crystal ball, but if they get a favourable draw there is no reason whatsoever to see them progress to the knock-out stages.

In my native Scotland, a country that has produced some of the best players in the world, albeit in the 70’s and 80’s, football is in disarray and it doesn’t look as if anything is going to change in the near future. The SFA are lacking in vision, are distant and out of touch with fans. There are some talented 15 – 16 year olds in Scotland but there seems to be a breakdown in their development somewhere before they make the step up to first team football. Maybe an investigative trip to Iceland by the SFA would finally open their eyes to what can be achieved by focusing on grassroots football instead of pound signs! 

Destiny awaits for the Icelandic National Team as they dine at the ‘top table’ at the greatest show on Earth!    

More information about Icelandic Football can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Icelandicfootballuk/

Picture credit to Helgi Halldórsson.