Thursday 22 February 2018

Iceland's qualification has more to do with proper planning than good fortune

Iceland's emergence is based on a rational and intelligent plan which saw them invest massively in coaching since 2000. Photo: Koen van Weel
Iceland's emergence is based on a rational and intelligent plan which saw them invest massively in coaching since 2000. Photo: Koen van Weel

Eamonn Sweeney

The Republic of Ireland's qualification for the Euros has led to plenty of talk about the fine achievement this represents considering the size of the country. Fair enough, any time we make a major finals we are punching above our weight.

However, five countries with smaller populations than ours will be lining up in France and the achievement of the smallest of those puts ours in the ha'penny place. Iceland has got there despite having a population of under 350,000, considerably less than the population of Cork, Antrim and Down and a shade more than that of Galway.

Not only does this render it miraculous that they'll be slugging it out with the elite of European soccer, there's a lot of people who'd think it would be unfair to expect them to challenge Dublin in the All-Ireland football championship.

Yet here they are, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Ari Freyr Skulasson, Hannes Halldorsson and the rest of the most evocatively named squad ever to compete in a major finals.

While Northern Ireland struck it lucky by having the crumbling Greeks as top seed in their group and Albania probably wouldn't be there at all if they hadn't been awarded all the points after a bit of ethnic banter turned sour in their match away to Serbia, Iceland got to France the hard way.

Thrown in with Holland, the Czech Republic and Turkey in what was your classic group of death, the Icelanders led right up to the end when they lost 1-0 away to Turkey with automatic qualification already secured. They eliminated the Dutch by beating them home and away, hammered the Turks 3-0 in Reykjavik and beat the Czechs 2-1 there.

The miracle undoubtedly owed something to the nous of Lars Lagerback, who got Sweden to five major finals in a row between 2000 and 2008 and his co-manager Heimer Hallgrimsson. It says something about the different way things are done in Iceland that Hallgrimsson spent his first decade in management coaching women's teams and has combined his role with the national team with his career as a dentist.

The mend-and-make-do approach necessary when you draw from such a small well is apparent too in the presence of 37-year-old Eidur Gudjohnsen in the squad. As is the fact that Gudjohnsen is the only player in football history to have played in the same international match as his father, togging out along with dad Arnor in a 1996 friendly against Estonia. Eidur's 10-year-old son Daniel is currently playing for the Barcelona schoolboy side so who knows?

Gudjohnsen senior will be on the bench in France with the striking duties falling to the guy who's second to him on the all-time international scoring list, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Yes Sigthorsson has suffered a couple of patchy seasons with Ajax and Nantes but he has certainly risen to the occasion for his country.

So have most of his team-mates. This is a side whose players ply their trade with the likes of Bodo Glimt, Hammerby, Odense, Malmo and Charlton Athletic. Even their best-known player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, is at distinctly unglamorous Swansea City.

So how do they do it? Well, I could rattle off a few clichés about small nation pluck and native warrior spirit culled from watching that terrible Viking series with Gabriel Byrne in it. But the truth is that Iceland's emergence is based on a rational and intelligent plan which saw them invest massively in coaching since 2000, building 11 'Football Houses' containing full-sized pitches and state-of-the-art coaching centres housed indoors, 22 new full-sized artificial pitches and 100 outdoor mini-pitches. There are 778 UEFA-qualified coaches in the country, 10 times more on a per capita basis than there are in England and more than we have in Ireland though our population is more than 10 times that of Iceland.

In fact, population-wise Iceland stands in the same relation to Ireland that we do to Spain. Yet they've got a decent chance of making the second stages. Their group isn't any harder than the one they qualified from and if Portugal look certain to top the table, Iceland will fancy their chances of beating Hungary and getting a point from their meeting with Austria.

The other teams with smaller populations than ours to have made the finals? Northern Ireland, Wales, Albania and, wait for it, Croatia, whose goals at this championship will be considerably more ambitious than ours.

There's punching above your weight and then there's punching several divisions above it. If we want to do that, we could do worse than to learn from the Icelandic soccer saga.

Sunday Independent

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