Football: How Iceland's Reykjaviktory happened

Iceland players celebrate after becoming the smallest nation to progress to a World Cup Finals, beating Kosovo 2-0 on Monday in Reykjavik. Johann Berg Gudmundsson, on his knees after scoring, is joined in his moment of glory by Birkir Bjarnason and G
Iceland players celebrate after becoming the smallest nation to progress to a World Cup Finals, beating Kosovo 2-0 on Monday in Reykjavik. Johann Berg Gudmundsson, on his knees after scoring, is joined in his moment of glory by Birkir Bjarnason and Gylfi Sigurdsson.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

REYKJAVIK • Iceland's football supporters were in raptures on Monday as they celebrated in the capital and across the country after the national team qualified for their first World Cup.

Iceland, the smallest country ever to reach the Finals, booked their ticket to Russia by beating Kosovo 2-0 at the Laugardalsvollur national stadium to top Group I.

Crowds waited at Ingolfstorg in downtown Reykjavik and when their heroes appeared, there was a deafening roar.

"The smallest country to get to the World Cup by far, this is surreal," supporter Gunnar Atli Thorodssen said, after goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Gudmundsson secured the victory.

Earlier, team captain Aron Gunnarsson could be seen joining in with the stadium crowd's now-famous traditional Viking clap.

The primal chant is sure to be a feature next year, as it was at the European Championship in France last year where Iceland beat Austria and England to reach the last eight.

  • 350,000 

    Iceland's population. The previous smallest country to have reached the World Cup was Trinidad and Tobago, in 2006, which had 1.3 million people then.

That in itself was already a remarkable feat for a team that was ranked 133rd just five years ago and rose more than 100 places under Lars Lagerback from 2011 to 2016.

The achievements of Iceland, now ranked 22nd, were lauded as a fairy tale last year, and progress was largely due to the money and care poured into the grassroots.

Such has been Iceland's relationship with football in the last 15 years. It is an institutional obsession, seeded from the top down through the government, the football association, schools and individuals.

"It is actually an advantage (that) this is a very small country," said Lagerback, a long-time coach of his native Sweden who is now in charge of Norway. "You can find things and make them work in a country like that...

"Part of the real success here is they have very educated coaches starting (to teach players) at five or six years of age.

"The system is very good. You can see they are really pushing on the development of talented players at the clubs."

But how have Iceland done it? For once there is a fairly easy answer. There are three clear strands managed from the top down. The first of these is coaching.

Former Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi famously suggested elite coaching should be open to people from any walk of life, from elevator operators to stockbrokers. At the end of the last century, the Icelandic FA put this into practice. Bolstered by the TV money pouring into every Uefa country, Iceland set up an open, hugely popular training scheme.

Currently this nation of about 350,000 has around 600 qualified coaches, 400 with Uefa B licences, or one per 825 people.

The result is a spread of expertise right down to the lowest level.

The second strand is brilliant facilities. With TV money in its pockets, Iceland decided to do something useful with this bonus.

Clubs and local authorities went into partnership, building vast indoor pitches up and down the country. The halls are heated, open to all and staffed by qualified coaches.

Finally, Iceland did something great with school football.

The FA has been buying land next to schools and building pitches, paid for with money that might otherwise have ended up in some familiar dead end such as unnecessarily showy mega-stadiums and executive salaries.

This is, of course, an unfinished story. There is no reason that its football factory cannot continue to function beyond next year.

There is a sense of hope in Iceland's managed miracle, a saga of halls, heroism and meticulous small-island obsession.

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Tiny Iceland make history, but Reykjaviktory is no fluke'. Print Edition | Subscribe