Iceland's most famous dentist knows the drill

Iceland's concerted effort to keep Lionel Messi at bay in the 1-1 draw on Saturday. They are making waves under head coach and dentist Heimar Hallgrimsson's guidance.
Iceland's concerted effort to keep Lionel Messi at bay in the 1-1 draw on Saturday. They are making waves under head coach and dentist Heimar Hallgrimsson's guidance. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

REYKJAVIK • As the coach of the most successful national football team in Icelandic history, Heimir Hallgrimsson has had to make some sacrifices.

This year, for instance, he was abroad with the team and could not dress up as his favourite mythological character, Gryla the child-snatching troll, at the Christmas party in his hometown, Heimaey, a volcanic island off Iceland's south coast that is home to 4,300 people.

Coaching a team bound for the World Cup has also left less time for Hallgrimsson's original job, his dental practice.

Football necessarily takes priority these days. Under Hallgrimsson's leadership, this tiny nation at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans have finally become contenders.

Two years ago, Iceland reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship by defeating England, a country with more than 150 times as many people. Last summer, they dispatched their long-time nemesis, Croatia, and went on to become the smallest nation (population of about 334,000) ever to qualify for the World Cup.

But the road to Iceland's success started, in some ways, when a man walked into a pub.

It was 2013, and Hallgrimsson had just become the assistant coach of the national team.

Under the head coach at the time, Swedish veteran Lars Lagerback, the team were beginning to find their feet.

Still, Iceland had been an amateur team until the 1990s and had never qualified for a major international tournament. They had never beaten Croatia, although they seemed to play them all the time.

One of the problems, Hallgrimsson believed, was the near-dearth of fan support. Although supporters came to the games, there was virtually no fan culture.

So he did something that would be unheard of pretty much anywhere else: He invited fans to meet him at a pub before the next match, against the Faroe Islands.

Only about a dozen supporters came. Hallgrimsson unveiled the starting line-up before releasing it to the media, walked the fans through the opponents' strengths and weaknesses, and showed them the same motivational video he had shown his players.

He has kept up the tradition, even after becoming head coach two years ago. Now hundreds of people come to the meetings.

"I would like to give them ownership (of) what we are doing," Hallgrimsson said.

"It's one of the benefits of being a small country, that you can have that sort of closeness.

"And if we believed that it's down to one or two players, we would be losing before we played the game. A small nation can't make it with just one guy."

Few thought Iceland would qualify for Euro 2016, and almost no one predicted they would reach the quarter-finals.

Although Iceland crashed out in their subsequent match, humbled by France, the team returned home to find close to 100,000 people waiting to welcome them.

The fan base grew, thanks in part to Hallgrimsson, as his dental patients also did not forget to praise his charming chairside manner.

"He's always smiling, really professional and really good at what he does. And nobody looks at him like he's this big-shot coach," said Vedis Gudmundsdottir, who has been a patient since she was a girl.

Dealing with patients, Hallgrimsson said, is perfect preparation for dealing with football players.

"You know how it is in the dental chair," he said. "Some are really afraid of going to the dentist. Others don't mind one way or the other. The third group are sleeping.

"You have to approach each client in a different way and it's the same with football players. You can shout at one, but you have to be careful with how you approach another."

Iceland face an uphill battle in Russia. They were drawn into one of the tougher first-round groups, with Nigeria, Argentina and Croatia (again) but they got off to a good start with a 1-1 draw against the Argentinians on Saturday.

Hallgrimsson is encouraging the team to look ahead regardless of the results.

"You always have to be prepared to stop and restart again," he said.

"The rise and fall of Icelandic football is not connected to what happens in Russia in three games."

"It's a continuous journey," he added. "It's not just this game or the next tournament. That's the only way you can think when you're an underdog."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline Iceland's most famous dentist knows the drill. Subscribe