Iceland's success is a melding of planning and perseverance

The smallest country at the 2018 World Cup will have one of the largest followings, particularly among those who admire the underdog.

Iceland is a minnow in terms of size (about 40,000 square miles) and population (approximately 330,000). The country would fit snugly into the state of Colorado and small American cities such have Anaheim in Southern California have a few more people.

Yet few countries can match its romantic appeal. At a World Cup devoid of nations such as the Netherlands, Italy and yes, the United States, the saga of Iceland resonates. It is one of planning and perseverance, of overcoming obstacles, and maximizing its relatively meager resources.

“They have a systematic approach that they undertook and look where Iceland is now,” says U.S. Club Soccer CEO Kevin Payne. “They qualified for the [2016] Euros and had a nice run and now they’ve qualified early for the World Cup.

“This is a country of 330,000 people. And they would tell you that some of the players who are mainstays in their national team now are the very players who would have left the sport in the past, because they were late bloomers. They stayed with the sport because it was demonstrated to them that they mattered, that they were important.”

The game has always been important in Iceland, yet it for decades it has ranked behind team handball, a hybrid of basketball and water polo played on a hardwood floor by which points are scored by throwing the ball into a rectangular goal. Handball halls dot the landscape in Iceland and by emulating this model the soccer federation [KSI] spawned the growth and success of Iceland’s elite soccer players.

In 1996, KSI officials visited Bodo, home to professional club Bodø/Glimt and the Nordlandshallen, a huge indoor soccer facility that is part of the Bodø Spektrum sport complex. Situated at 67.3 degrees North Latitude, Bodø is tucked just inside the Arctic Circle. Training outside from November to March is not only ill-advised but dangerous. Despite the harsh climate, during the past few decades Norway has been able to produce dozens of players who were good enough to play in top European leagues as well as qualify for major competitions.

Iceland is a just a few degrees south. It too is blanketed by snow and ice for several months out of the year. By partnering with local municipalities to build indoor soccer halls throughout Iceland – the first one, in Keflavik, 25 miles from Reykjavik, opened in 2000 – while also upgrading its coaching programs the KSI has developed a strong generation of players.

In 2011, Iceland reached the finals of the European U-21 Championship for the first time with a squad that included U.S. international Aron Johannsson, who enraged many Icelandic fans and officials by switching his allegiance two years later. Iceland didn’t advance out of the group stage at the U-21 Euros that year, yet many of those same players have helped transform the senior team.

That same year the KSI hired as national-team manager Lars Lagerback, the architect of Sweden’s impressive run of five straight major competitions from 2000 to 2008. A few months before the 2016 Euros Johansson spoke to about the Icelandic national team and its success.

“Everyone on the team knows their role, where they are supposed to be and when,” he said. “They are very well coached. Their style of play depends on their opponent, but because these players want to prove themselves, they will be very aggressive.”

Iceland narrowly missed qualification for the 2014 World Cup when it lost a playoff to Croatia but stayed the course to reach its first European Championship in 2016 and beat England in the round of 16, 2-1, before losing to France (5-2) in the quarterfinals. After guiding the team to its success at the 2016 Euros, Lagerback turned the team over to his former assistant, Heimer Halgrimsson.

In the World Cup qualifiers it rolled through a group that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey while sweeping all five of its home games. During qualification it scored 16 goals and conceded just seven in 10 matches.

The team’s leading scorers -- Gylfi Sigurdsson of Everton (four goals) and Alfred Finnbogason of FC Augsburg (three) – came through the youth system of Breidablik, which unveiled its indoor facility in 2002. The club is a typical case of how several forces converged to create a national soccer program far stronger than anyone thought possible.

“I've traveled a lot, and nowhere in the world do kids get as much training, with as little money, with such educated coaches, in as good facilities, for as long,” director of coaching Dadi Rafnsson told “You can come and play here, be part of the club and represent Breidablik, whatever your ability. It's like training and playing for Liverpool even if you aren't ever going to reach the first team."

Finnbogason is an example of the all-inclusive policy. He was omitted from the club’s primary U-16 team but did enough with the ‘B’ team to merit a regular place at the higher levels, including the first team. In 2009, he scored 13 goals in 18 games and helped the club win its first trophy, the Icelandic Cup.  Playing for Dutch club Heerenveen, he led the Eredivisie by scoring 29 goals during the 2013-14 season.

Sigurdsson left Iceland for Reading in 2005 when he was 16 and hit a roadblock four years later when then-manager Steve Coppell moved him to centerback. Fortunately, Coppell was soon replaced by Brendan Rodgers, and with Sigurdsson as a flank midfielder both the player and the manager flourished. They did so again when reunited at Swansea City in 2012 when he was on loan.

The Iceland roster is dotted by such stories of individual setback and triumph. The nation’s most famous and highest-scoring player, Eidur Gudjohnsen (26 goals in 88 caps), retired after making his final appearance as a sub in the quarterfinal loss to France that was watched on television by an incredible 99.8 percent of the nation.

Approximately 27,000 fans attended at least one Euro 2016 match in person. Several thousand are expected to be in Russia to cheer on their heroes and liven up the environment with the now-famous ‘Viking clap’ that has been copied by entities as prestigious as the NFL Vikings.

Iceland finishes World Cup preparations in early June with games against Norway and Ghana in Reykjavik, and kicks off the tournament June 16 in Moscow against Argentina. That daunting opener is followed by matches against Nigeria and former group opponent Croatia, which thumped Greece, 4-1 on aggregate, in the UEFA playoffs.

It cannot match those nations in tradition and talent, and its game is one of organization instead of imagination. Yet it has succeeded through determination and self-awareness and has shown for the past few years it fears no foe.

“We have to be realistic,” said Halgrimsson in March after a 3-0 friendly loss to Mexico “We are not the best possession team in the world. When taking a long time in the box, playing the ball, dribbling the ball, and losing it, we are vulnerable at the back.

“Maybe this is one of the questions for the game against Argentina is that we cannot be something else than what we are. We know exactly what we are about, what our identity is, and we should play according to that. And that is the question we are asking: can all the players we are taking play according to our identity?”
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