For a country bordering the arctic circle, you’d be forgiven for thinking Iceland’s most popular sport would feature either skis or skates. However, you’d be mistaken. Football is the most played sport in Iceland and one that everyone living on the island nation seems to have an interest in. When the national team plays, everyone tunes into watch.
Last year, when the country – with its population of just 320,000 – became the smallest (and possibly coldest) nation ever to play at a major football tournament with its qualification for the European Championships, 30,000 Icelanders travelled to support the team when they played in France.
What makes this tiny island so football mad? “It’s a good question,” says Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, technical director of the Icelandic Football Association (KSÍ). “We haven’t really had any success in football internationally until recently, so that has nothing to do with its popularity. Despite us having one of world’s best handball teams (the handball team won silver at the Beijing 2008 Games) and a few other decent teams, nothing could never rival football as the country’s number one sport.”
When the country earned its place in Euro 2016, few people outside Iceland gave them any hope of making it past the group stages. The team, however – led by captain Aron Gunnarsson and midfield dynamo Gylfi Sigurðsson – had other ideas.
Some inspired performances saw Iceland make it all the way to the quarter finals. On the way there, they were responsible for delivering one of the biggest upsets in the history of the competition. On a balmy June night in Nice, the vikings from the north beat England in a game which neither set of fans are likely to forget in a hurry.
The result cost England coach Roy Hodgson his job and solidified the status of the 23 Icelandic players as national heroes. While Iceland fans were able to enjoy the thrill of being cast into the footballing limelight, in England, the predictable soul-searching began. How had a team from an isolated, volcanic outpost in the north Atlantic – with a population roughly the size of Wigan – been able to get the better of a star-studded England national team?
Gunnarsson has the answer. “It’s not a big secret,” he says. ”It’s a golden generation of players we have at the moment. Most of the players at the Euro 2016 tournament played at the finals of the UEFA Under-17 and Under-21 tournaments when they were younger. They’ve played together for a long time – and been successful all the way up to becoming the full national team.”
A golden generation, however, does not simply “happen” in any sport. And nor did it in Iceland’s case. The country has gradually built a footballing infrastructure and grassroots system which is now being closely examined by countries with far greater resources and talent pools – including England. The “Icelandic system”, has been built on two main foundations – providing first-class coaching to players from a very young age and building a network of high-quality artificial turf pitches.
What makes Iceland’s coaching system remarkable is that coaches at all levels of the game – even those coaching the youngest children who are just starting out in grassroots (“especially them”, Gunnarsson emphasises) – are required to have a UEFA-accredited coaching qualification. No dads, mums or well-meaning volunteers allowed, unless they have qualifications. Each coach also gets paid for their efforts.
“Seventy per cent of the 600 active football coaches in Iceland have a UEFA B licence and the other 30 per cent have a UEFA A licence,” Gunnarsson says.
This means that there is a UEFA A-graded football coach available for every 1,800 Icelanders. For England, with around 1,300 UEFA A coaches, the “people per badge” ratio is more than 45,000.
“It’s not that our coach education system is somehow better than other countries,” says Gunnarsson. ”We follow the UEFA convention just like other countries and we do the same things as them on our courses.”
“The difference is that we simply have more highly-qualified coaches than others. We train so many that even the youngest have high quality coaches.
“In other countries, you can find UEFA B coaches only at academies or at a similarly high level. Here, when my four-year-old son goes to football training, he will get someone with a B badge.”
Another huge factor in Iceland’s success has been the large investment made by local authorities and the football association in artificial pitches. Iceland’s harsh climate makes growing and maintaining grass a complicated process and grass pitches can only be played on for a very limited time through Iceland’s extremely short summer.
The decision to set up a network of artificial turf pitches was made in the late 1990s, following an “investigative field trip” by the KSÍ to Norway. The Norwegian FA had invested in a number of full-size, indoor artificial pitches in the north of the country, where the climate offered similar challenges to those experienced in Iceland.
Upon the return of the KSÍ delegation, a commitment was made to adopt and expand the Norwegian concept. A plan was hatched to build heated indoor “football houses” (knattspyrnuhús in Icelandic) in every town across Iceland and to support them with a network of heated, outdoor full-size pitches at clubs. A third strand to the strategy was to establish mini-size artificial pitches at schools – to ensure anyone who wants to play has a facility to use from a young age.
The first football house was built in the town of Keflavik in 2000 and since then 13 indoor arenas have opened – seven with full-sized pitches and six with half-size playing fields. As well as the 13 indoor centres, a number of clubs have invested – with the help of KSÍ and local authorities – in their own heated, outdoor pitches.
The investment in small-sized pitches also plays a big role in the strategy – nearly every school now has a mini-sized pitch. “The pitches at the schools are used by kids during breaks and after school – they are in constant use,” explains Gunnarsson.
Páll Halldórsson, CEO of Reykjavik-based Metatron – an artificial turf specialist that has installed a number of the pitches over the past 15 years – agrees. “The pitches next to the schools get huge usage,” he says. “I know because I’m called to maintain some.”
Today, as a result of the “artificial revolution”, there are around 200 artificial pitches serving Iceland’s growing and passionate number of footballers – from grassroots to elite players. At the centre of it all are the “football houses”, which, according to Gunnarsson, have been designed to cater to the needs of their individual surroundings.
“Each indoor centre is slightly different in configuration – the only thing they have in common is that they have a full-size pitch: 105m by 68m,” he says. “Two of the football houses have a 20m high clearance so are quite a lot bigger than the other five houses, which only have a 12m clearance.
“Some have spectator areas and others don’t. The biggest one can accommodate 1,500 spectators. Five have heated pitches.”
The funding for the pitches has been provided mainly by the local councils – with help from the KSÍ and grants from UEFA and FIFA. The councils then hand over the operations to clubs, who also get to keep any revenues the pitches create, such as player membership fees and hiring the pitches out to smaller clubs.
Alex Stead, UK and Scandinavia sales manager for Tarkett Sports – a company that has delivered a number of its 3G FieldTurf pitches to Iceland – says that the success and sustainability of the pitches is partly down to Iceland’s dedication to produce and set up quality facilities. “They are building some excellent projects,” he says. “We recently supplied one of our top level systems to a club called FC Grotta. It isn’t a leading club – the team currently plays in the third tier – but they invested in both a match pitch and training facilities. So it’s not a case of low quality going in.”
Halldórsson adds that the high ratio of artificial, indoor pitches has been crucial in the development of players. “It’s no coincidence that there has been an increase in the number of exceptional players the country has been able to produce. We’re now seeing what happens when young players have the opportunity to spend hours and hours practicing and playing football.”
While the results achieved by the national team have exceeded KSÍ’s wildest dreams, there is no sign of complacency. The plan is to widen the network and increase the number of artificial pitches.
“We need more halls, definitely,” Gunnarsson admits. “For example, in the Reykjavik area there is really only one hall. Each club only gets very few hours per week in the hall. We need maybe three or four more halls so we reach a satisfactory level. Many of our clubs are wanting to build and operate them, but the costs are high so we’d need a bit of help from local authorities.”
And is there a plan to convince the local authorities to do so? “Well, lets hope our success at Euro 2016 will help convince them that football is worth it!”