The Vikings are back…!

” Soccer from Iceland… where did you say? ”
A lady in the local Spanish bar, goes on with her questions: ”So do they play with snow balls then, when they play soccer up there in Iceland.?” The Spanish they smile and find it both amusing and very amazing. They cannot believe that Iceland has just around 330.000 inhabitants – and yet be able to put together a soccer team, that is now on its way to the quarter finals in the Eurocup. The Spanish think – just like most of us – that it is great fun when the little one teases the big one. When David beats Goliath.

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Actually, I think that most of us don´t get it either. It is quite difficult to believe. How can such a microscopic nation have a national team, that not only has been able to qualify to participate in the European Championship for the first time in history, but now also beat the old and experienced teams? I wonder what is going on?

Just 5 years ago, you could find Iceland as number 124 on the world rank list of national soccer teams. Nations like North Corea, Liechtenstein and Haiti had better teams. Iceland was not even considered a soccer ‘nation’ at all, and had only (until recently) a handfull of grassy soccer fields up there on that volcanic North Atlantic island.

_89979617_gettyimages-51188527Well, now – all of a sudden – they are number 36 on that list, and is about to meet France in the quarter finals. And there are more facts, that are almost harder to believe: eg. the number of registered players. A country like England has about 4 million players. Germany has roughly 6 million. Brazil has more than 13 million players. Well, Island … has about 20.000. They are one of the world’s absolute smallest soccer nations – and they are about to make a sensation.

But what is going on? Are the vikings on their way back? How can such a small nation achieve so much? Does it have something to do with that famous hammer of Thor? Is the Nordic mythology starting to turn into reality?

Well, there is actually a quite down to earth explanation. And basicly is it all about a concept called ‘hard work’.
You see, around the year 2000, the Icelandic economy was growing fast and things were looking good on the little island nation. So some people decided to something about a problem, that had long been bothering the Icelanders: The lack of soccer fields. The ones that were there, were outdoor fields, that could only be used a few summer months each year – basicly because of the rough climate on Iceland. So they decided to build indoor, syntethic football fields. And lots of them. Effecient and skilled craftsmen with names like ‘Haldur’ and ‘Grimur’ went to work, and soon every village, every club and every school – had their own indoor football facilities. Now players, school kids and youngsters could play all year around, and that changed Icelandic football quite radically.

160628_-_iceland_6_-_0629_356279994d5cc93ac185f4677d5d246c.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000And then they did one more thing in Iceland. They introduced a new coaching education and made courses accessible for everyone. So, within a very short time, the country started to educate alot of new coaches. Actually, there were soon more than 700 new educated coaches – which is more than any other country can produce, if you compare to the number of inhabitants.

And all these new coaches, started to work and train all over the country. Even the remotest village had a good coach and a lot of young people coming in to play football. A lot of technique was required to play on the small indoor fields, but the coaches were there, to train the kids and youngsters. And this, had a tremendous effect on Icelandic soccer.

Little by little, results started to show. New players appeared showing off talent, new teams were built and the national youth team started to get good results. Some Icelandic players began to make their way to bigger clubs outside the island, eg. Eidur Gudjohnson, who made a great career in big clubs like Tottenham, PSV, Chelsea and Barcelona. He became one of the biggest heroes for all the Icelandic youngsters – and still is today.

Iceland_Czech_Repub_964048kIn 2011 the Swede Lars Lagerbäck was brought in for the job as the national team coach. Lagerbäck had showed good training skills in his time as national coach in Sweden, as well as for the Nigerian national team. He is said to work with his new team in a laid back and yet very professional manner, causing amazing results. ”He is the reason for Iceland’s success”, alot of people agree. He works the team with a second coach, the Icelandic Heimir Hallgrimsson – who, actually combines his job as a national coach, with a part time job as a dentist. Something that illustrates quite well, how unprofessional the Icelandic team is.

But neither Lagerbäck or Hallgrimsson are willing to accept the honour of being the reason for the team’s success: ”This is all about the mentality of the Icelandic players”, they both agree. ”Times have been very tough here in Iceland, and people – in general – are used to work very hard to make things work. If you want to ‘be someone’ and ‘get somewhere’, you need to work extremely hard – and the people know that. It takes a very unique winner mentality, and the people have that up here. Many of the players you see on the national team today, are the ones that kept on training, when the other guys left early for the showers”, says Hallgrimsson.

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And coach Lagerbäck agrees: ”I have never seen such determination, willpower and strength in a team. This is really people that know what they want – and are willing to fight for it. And it shows all the way down to the youngest teams”, says the former Swedish coach.

So after all, the reason for the Icelandic success is quite easy to see. It is all about a ‘steely’ determination, hard work, a whole lot of talent – and the will to explore it.

vikingo8But still… I´m not completely convinced. It´s like there is something else present, like a feeling of something much older. Qualities of a more ancient nature. Words like ‘fierceness’, ‘courage’ and ‘fearlessness’ comes to mind. But hold on, aren´t those actually ‘viking qualities’…? Maybe there is some viking spirits that are on their way back to life? Maybe they do drink mead at half time in the locker room. Yes, I believe the vikings are back to ravage, to rob and to conquer…there is no doubt it.

It´s just not on the battle field – it´s on the soccer field…

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