Football: Singapore v Iceland, two islands with differing fortunes in the Beautiful Game

Iceland's players celebrate after the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iceland and Kosovo in Reykjavik, Iceland on Oct 9, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

On Monday (Oct 9), Iceland became the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup Finals. A day later, the Singapore national football team slumped to a 2-1 defeat in Turkmenistan in the Asian Cup qualifiers, having been knocked out of the Russia 2018 qualifiers as far back as March 2016.

For football-crazy Singapore, there are bound to be comparisons with the Nordic island-nation, who made it to the sport's greatest stage even though it is neither blessed with a huge talent pool nor abundant resources.

The countries

With a population of 350,000, slightly more than the whole of Jurong (about 340,300 residents), Iceland is dwarfed by Singapore's 5.61 million people, of which 3.43 million are citizens.

Without doubt, football is the No. 1 sport in the tiny South-east Asian island and it is gaining popularity in the small North Atlantic country, whose national sport is handball.

And while Singapore is a powerhouse in the financial world, its Marina Bay district packed with skyscrapers home to various top banks, Iceland, whose traditional industries are fishing and aluminium production, is still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008, where its three national banks collapsed.

Singapore's plan

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) once had Goal 2010, which aimed to reach the World Cup by that year. That dream was sparked by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said in the National Day Rally of 1998 that the country could naturalise foreign talent to reinforce the Lions, just like how France won the World Cup that year with players with foreign roots Zinedine Zidane (Algeria) and Marcel Desailly (Ghana).

Players like Egmar Goncalves (Brazil), Mirko Grabovac (Croatia), Daniel Bennett (England), Shi Jiayi, Qiu Li (both China), Agu Casmir, Itimi Dickson and Precious Emuejeraye (all Nigeria) were given red passports. Foreign talent played a key role in three regional triumphs in the Asean Football Federation Cup (2004, 2007 and 2012).

Goal 2010 also led to the formation of the National Football Academy (NFA) in 2000 and its pioneer batch of graduates (players born in 1984) was a bumper crop - Hassan Sunny, Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan, Ridhuan Muhammad and Hafiz Osman all went on to earn international caps and honours.

But moving up a notch, the Lions found it almost impossible to qualify for the World Cup and in the Asian Cup, they have played in the continental finals only once in 1984 after qualifying automatically as hosts.

The talent also started to dry up in the NFA, culminating in a series of losses at age-group levels. From 2014 to 2016, the Under-14s to U-23s posted a staggering record of 39 defeats and 10 wins in 62 games. This year has not been great too. In 19 matches, the U-15, U-18 and U-22 teams have won just five times, losing 14 , scoring 19 goals and conceding 58.

Iceland's plan

Just five years ago, Iceland were ranked 133rd in the world by Fifa, they are now 22nd. And from having never played in a major finals when Lars Lagerback took over as national coach in 2011, they finished Euro 2016 as quarter-finalists after holding champions Portugal 1-1 in the group stage and beating England 2-1 in the round of 16.

In the 1990s, Iceland began to invest in infrastructure for football instead of pumping money into building glittering stadiums, signing a marquee coach or spending wildly on salaries for officials.

Given the cold climate, every major town was to have its own full-sized indoor football pitch with heating. Smaller all-weather pitches have also sprung up all over the country. There are now 30 full-size all-weather pitches, seven of which are indoors, and almost 150 smaller artificial surfaces.

Buses, funded by public money, ferry youngsters to training and they play football six times a week, 11 months a year. Training starts from the age of three. And there are 600 qualified coaches in Iceland, ensuring that there are enough mentors to nurture the grassroots.

By way of comparison, the FAS announced in 2010 that it is planning to build a National Training Centre, a dedicated facility with three full-sized fields and sports science facilities. It is now 2017 and Singapore is still waiting to know where the future home of the Lions will be.

The results

The Iceland team recognise their strengths and more importantly, knows their limitations. They do not try to tiki-taka their way to the Euros and the World Cup simply because they are pragmatic and do not try anything too fancy.

When they qualified for Euro 2016, they defeated the mighty Netherlands 2-0 at home with just 26 per cent possession, hitting on the break and through set-pieces. Similarly, they stunned England at the Euros with their hard running. What they lack in style, they make up for it with fitness and fighting spirit.

In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Iceland topped Group I after winning all five home games, ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey - nations who had played in previous finals.

Under V. Sundram Moorthy, the Lions went through a tactical rethink. Although performances improved, the results did not.

Moving away from a defensive style based on direct balls, Singapore now play an adventurous 3-4-3 system, aiming to play their way out of the back with accurate passes. Goals began to come as the team scored in their last six games against Myanmar (1-1), Chinese Taipei (1-2), Hong Kong (1-1), Qatar (1-3) and Turkmenistan (1-1 and 1-2).

But since a 1-0 friendly win over Cambodia last November, the 162nd-ranked Lions have not won. They have also failed to score more than one goal in all 19 internationals since Sundram was appointed in May last year. Singapore have also yet to win a competitive game under Sundram.

Out on the pitch, it is no contest. Score one to the cod-fathers of Iceland against the ikan bilis of Singapore.

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