A seismic shift has occurred in Icelandic football over the past decade. The tiny volcanic rock which is more synonymous for its fishing industry and the Aurora than football, has gone from European nobodies to qualifying for their first major tournament in style after finishing second in Group A – one which contained the likes of the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey to qualify for Euro 2016 with two games to spare.
That historic moment came when Iceland secured a 0-0 draw at home to Kazakhstan on a cold September night in Reykjavík in front of 9,767 adoring fans. It is a remarkable achievement for a nation of just 325,000 people and one that lost 3-0 to European minnows Liechtenstein in a European qualifier less than 10 years ago.
The change in fortunes has been phenomenal so in light of what has happened over the past decade or so, we decided to catch up with Tryggvi Kristjánsson, an Icelandic football writer to see if could shed some light on what has caused such a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Scandinavian island in the North Atlantic Ocean.
*Note: As is the custom in Iceland, individuals will often be referred to by their first names only in the following Q&A session.
Iceland had a superb qualifying campaign to reach their maiden finals with huge results against the Netherlands, Turkey and Czech. Republic – What was the reason for such an upturn in form?
This is quite a difficult question to answer. There are so many factors, and identifying just one is impossible, but i’ll try to explain as best as possible…
The recent improvement has been a long time coming. In 2011, Iceland qualified for the U21 European Championships. This was, at the time, the biggest competition that any Icelandic men’s national teams had qualified for. The fact that we qualified ahead of Germany made the whole event even more special. We drew 2-2 in Magdeburg in 2010, before comprehensively thrashing them 4-1 at home. Germany had players like Benedikt Höwedes, Mats Hummels, Lars Bender and Kevin Großkreutz in the team so it obviously drew a lot of attention from fans.
What really intrigued the Icelandic fans was the performance of the whole team. Players like Gylfi Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson had obviously caught the eye by then, but we had never really had a whole group of players with such technical and tactical ability, as well as confidence and flair. We were extremely excited to watch them as they performed admirably in Denmark, even beating the hosts 3-1. Many of these players have since moved to the senior set-up which has been really beneficial. It is often an underrated factor that these players have been playing together for quite some time, and have experienced ‘success’ together.
On a structural level, Icelandic football benefits from three major institutional qualities. Firstly, the coaching of younger players is given the utmost importance in Icelandic football. In many countries it is the norm that a parent will coach a youth football team, at least until the teenage years. In Iceland, it is the aim of the FA that all coaching must be done by a licensed coach. At all levels. This means that you often get an ex-pro or the manager of the senior side ‘slumming it’ with the kids, which is hugely beneficial for their development.
Secondly, is free-access to sports. This is not limited to football, but it means that any kid under the age of 19 can join any football club in the country. It is obviously better for the development of players to be training with a club from an early age, but not limiting our player pool is very important, especially in a country of around 320,000 people. Alfreð Finnbogason, now playing with Augsburg, is the major success story of this policy, starting his career as a fifteen year-old.
The final, and perhaps most quoted reason for our success, is our abundance of indoor-playing halls. While Iceland is not a frigid tundra, and indeed the weather never serves up the kind of frostbite temperatures of mainland Europe, winter in Iceland is pretty horrible. It’s always windy, and when you add sleet and ice to that equation, you’d be forgiven to want to stay indoors. Unfortunately, the weather is almost always like that, so the indoor halls are a fantastic refuge from the weather, as well as serving the players with an excellent playing surface, not always available outside. This has certainly been a major factor in increasing the amount of football being played throughout the year, which can only be good.
I’ve written about it previously in more detail with an article for TFT should you be interested!
It would also be downright foolish to talk about the rise of Icelandic football without mentioning our two co-managers. Swede Lars Lagerbäck was a godsend. When he was hired in 2011, their was a strange sense of optimism around the Icelandic national team after having witnessed the U21 boys in Denmark.
The national team had been under-performing for years, and with the new generation coming through, the need for change was evident. In the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, Iceland had finished bottom of their group, well-below Macedonia and Norway. It was widely accepted that the next manager would most likely be a foreign one, but things may have developed very differently if the other candidate for the job had taken over in 2011 – Roy Keane.
Instead, Lagerbäck has instilled a level of defensive competency rarely seen on Laugardalsvöllur (Icelandic national team stadium), all without stifling the creative talents of Iceland’s forward players. Heimir Hallgrímsson, his co-manager, has equally played a big part in our revival, and is set to take over the helm when the 67-year-old Lagerbäck retires.
It is hard to quantify exactly what Lars has brought to the national team set-up, but certainly organisation and a level of professionalism were two things sorely missing before the arrival of the Swedish magician. Many players considered national team duty something of a vacation before – just an excuse to meet some friends and do some light training. This has all changed, thankfully, and the results are there for everyone to see.
How did the Icelandic people react when they secured their qualification for Euro 2016?
Thanks to other results going our way, we didn’t have to wait until the final day. Our match against Kazakhstan where we secured our progress, was extremely nervy and tight, with the players and fans mostly just looking to not mess up! It was a huge relief. After a few seconds, however, we realised the magnitude of what had just happened and chaos ensued!
Who are the key players to look out for at this summer’s finals?
We have a few key players that need to perform for us, if we’re going to do anything at all. We finally have a solid goalkeeper in Hannes Þór Halldórsson, and he’ll need to keep performing like he did in qualifying. There will be a lot of pressure on us when we play Portugal for example, so he’ll be busy.
The defence is quite solid and the key to that solidity is Ragnar Sigurðsson. Not always a mainstay at club-level in Russia, he is nevertheless our best defender by quite a distance. Especially as Kári Árnason might be starting to show his age, with iffy performances already in the beginning of his season in Sweden. Ragnar has played in the Champions League, a rare trait in our squad, so his experience and cool head will be vital.
Our midfield is obviously dominated by Gylfi Sigurðsson, and recent matches have shown that we have no real replacement for him. Equally important is Aron Gunnarsson. He hasn’t had his best season with Cardiff City but our whole game-plan depends on how his form is on the day. His protection of the back four needs to be on point.
Our attack has recently become a bit of an issue. Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, our dependable goal-machine, has fallen off a little since his move to France. His form in qualifying was what got us through sometimes, and if he isn’t scoring by June, we’ll be in trouble. This is especially since his normal partner, Jón Daði Böðvarsson, is not really that prolific, so we will struggle for goals if Kolbeinn doesn’t lead the way.
Besides those guys, players like Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Emil Hallfreðsson and Alfreð Finnbogason all have the potential to contribute heavily to Iceland’s campaign this summer.
Are there any up and coming players that we should be made aware of?
Most of our players are in their mid-to-late-20s and we won’t be taking any teenagers to the Euro’s, unless Heimir and Lars go absolutely crazy. The two younger players who will surely play some part this summer are Jón Daði Böðvarsson and Arnór Ingvi Traustason. Jón Daði, as I mentioned, has often started alongside Kolbeinn up front, and his move to Kaiserslauten this year will only improve what is already a very talented player. He only has one goal for Iceland so far, but maybe he can get at least one more this summer.
Arnór Ingvi is a relatively new addition to the squad. Heimir and Lars don’t rotate or change too much, so when someone breaks into the team, he will have really earned it. Arnór has played excellently in Sweden, winning the league title with Norrköping last season. His recent form with the national team has almost definitely secured his spot on the plane. His two goals in the most recent friendlies will make him a player to watch. He is destined for bigger things.
What is the state of domestic football like nowadays?
Domestic in Iceland is not exempt from this upturn in form. That’s evident from the improved performances in European competitions over the last few years, with wins over Scottish and Polish sides propelling Icelandic teams closer to their goal of the group stages of a European competition. Perhaps in recent years Stjarnan will be remembered for their 2014 Europa League Cup run when they were eventually knocked out by Italians Internazionale.
One ‘problem’ holding back the game in Iceland is that most, if not all, of the talented youngsters are now being snapped up by foreign clubs. Scouting has become much more advanced, and players are leaving at an earlier stage than sometimes before.
This is not always the case of course, and some players play in Iceland until their early-20’s, managing to have a few good seasons in Pepsí-deildin. Others, like Hannes Þór, are not discovered until much later.
Because of this, very few players play domestically and in the national team. This is not because of a bias, but rather because if you’re good enough for the national team, you are most likely good enough to play abroad. It also reflects the general make-up of the league as being made up of talented youngsters (who will most likely move abroad), players in their mid-to-late 20’s who aren’t good enough to play regularly abroad, and then the old heads, some of whom have tried their luck across the ocean and have now returned home.
Occasionally this model is broken, and recently Icelandic clubs have been bringing in more foreign players. Some of these have been burnt-out ‘stars’ like Nigel Quashie, Lee Sharpe and David James. These deals are rarely too successful, although there are exceptions of course. The foreigners that do tend to succeed these days are Scandinavian players who are looking to get regular first team football and the attention of bigger clubs in their home countries.
Being drawn in Group F alongside Portugal, Austria and Hungary, Iceland have a real chance of qualifying for the next round – what do you make of their chances in France and how far can they go?
It’s certainly going to be tough. I think some people are getting very confident and maybe underestimating our opponents, which is dangerous and a very Icelandic thing to do. So I really hope that Lars and Heimir are keeping the boys grounded.
We start off with Portugal (I’m attending) and it’s going to be amazing! I’m glad we’re playing a big team for our first ever game in a major competition. That being said, I’m getting more and more worried about this match. Yes, Portugal haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire over recent years, but they still have some very good players. Just glossing over ‘Him’, their midfield and attack have the potential to do plenty of harm, so this game is definitely not a given.
Austria and Hungary are more unknowns, at least against us. Hungary are often considered the weakest team in the group, but we have often struggled against ‘weaker’ teams in the past, so we need to be very careful going into this game. We’ll almost certainly need three points from this game, if we want to progress. While Austria could go either way. They steam-rolled through qualifying, and the fact that they have several players who can score goals, will put a lot of pressure on our sometimes limited defence.
I am very excited. I think that if we play like we did in qualifying, we stand every chance of making it through. We have some concerns (right-back, Kári, centre of midfield) but hopefully all of the players will give it their all. That’s all we can really ask of them. (And make ‘Him’ cry in St.Etienne!).
What has happened to Alfred Finnbogason since leaving Holland – he is now in his second loan spell away from Real Sociedad – is he still the focal point of the Icelandic attack?
This season has been a little mixed for our players. Aron, our captain, has struggled with injuries and playing time at Cardiff, and his form on the day will be decisive. Meanwhile in another Championship club, Jóhann Berg has been a key player at Charlton, although the team as a whole has been really struggling.
Our strike-force has also had a mixed season. Kolbeinn is playing fairly regularly in Nantes, but he’s simply not scoring, and that was quite evident in the two latest friendlies. There is a chance that his place could be under threat from Alfreð Finnbogason, who’s finally back on the pitch after a rough few months with Real Sociedad and Olympiakos. His form at Augsburg has been very impressive, showcasing what a deadly poacher he is, but it is unlikely that Lars and Heimir will change their formula too much.
Will we see Eidur Gudjohnsen this time?
Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen is one of, if no the, greatest players in Icelandic football history. He has struggled with injuries and finding a club where he can get regular action at his age, but now he seems to have settled in very nicely at Molde in Norway, under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and is going to be very important this summer. He might be old, but his experience is vital, and he still has a very good touch and skill, which is why he has mostly played deeper with the national team. He did manage a goal in qualifying and don’t bet against him scoring the winner in the final (or group stages, depending on how far we get)!
A huge thanks goes out to Tryggvi Kristjánsson for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. You’ll be happy to know that Tryggvi has escaped the Icelandic winters and can now be found in Denmark where he follows football in his homeland from afar.