Iceland, a country with a population 300,000, has stormed into Euro 2016. Their commitment to youth football and an immense passion for the game explains this miracle.
Text by Axel Torres / @axeltorresPhotos from Edu Ferrer Alcover
The miracle of Icelandic football, like so many other issues on this volcanic and enigmatic island, can also be explained by its landscape. This may not seem obvious, especially when listening to Björk, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, FM Belfast or Múm, album after album, while touring these roads on which several hours can pass between inhabited areas. But beneath all of this, where lava has been melting motionless glaciers for centuries, nature is present.
Icelandic enthusiasm, that uncomplicated way of playing that reconciles us with the recreational and amateur football spirit, that rebelliousness that allowed them to beat the Dutch twice and qualify for Euro 2016 despite starting from the toughest group, is probably related to the joy that children show when going out to play football in the fields during the summer months, when snow only stays in the mountains and glaciers, leaving small towns green and cheerful. There are kids everywhere. Children define the phenomenon of football in Iceland. If you see a match of any division there will be children in the stands. Many children, all of whom are part of their local club. And children are everywhere: they help in the makeshift bar that is mounted in a kind of cubicle, fill in as ball boy although some of them are smaller than the balls themselves, and come out to play themselves when the grown men’s match breaks for halftime. Iceland grows because children love to play football and that desire can easily be satisfied. All facilities are open to whomever wants to use them. Their new indoor fields, which host tournaments in the winter months, represent another one of the secrets of this evolution.
Heimir Hallgrímsson was the town dentist in the Westman Islands, where he was born 48 years ago. Now he only takes care of some friends and his practice is run by a couple of employees. He is Iceland’s National Team manager. Lars Lagerbäck joined him as an assistant after his successes with the club of his small archipelago, which he promoted to the first division (2008) and then qualified third in consecutive seasons (2010 and 2011). His friends say that when he finishes a dental session, he goes into his lab to watch match film and to study even the smallest detail. Even Lagerbäck, who coached Sweden, was shocked and asked him to simplify the analysis. When they signed their last contract, they agreed that the lead-up to to Euro 2016 would be a transitionary period: Lagerbäck would begin as a coach and eventually set the stage for Heimir, who would take on the role heading into France. Yet despite all this, nothing moves him from the Westman Islands, where 5,000 people live and must come and go by ferry to the south of Iceland.
The day that he received us, Heimir came from Norway, where he had gone to watch Icelandic players whom he was considering for national team. He flew to Reykyavik, took the car and embarked near Selfoss towards his house. He went through the office, greeted his wife after having been away for a few days and went to see the training session at IBV, his former club…his lifelong club.
"Heimir has no problem hosting you," said the clerk of the hostel Selfoss, who knew the coach because they had been training together in the Westman Islands, but had lost contact and had to look for him in the phone book - and there it appeared, under that of a professional dentist, the number of Iceland national team coach. "He'll be watching the IBV training next to the village doctor, who trains the other team on the island, which is in fourth division." And indeed, they were both spending a summer afternoon lying on the grass watching the team that carries the island’s name train all across the country.
But if anyone was expecting a low profile guy, a modest dentist who still lives in his hometown, they were wrong. And actually, it was logical to be wrong. Iceland has progressed because it believes. Because it has been fearless. Because it thinks it's as good as the others, or almost better. Heimir, with modern sunglasses, a fashionable hairstyle and dressed like a twenty-something-year-old, really likes himself. "You’ve come to ask what our secret is, right? I have been asked this question a million times." He speaks without, for a single moment, losing sight of what’s happening on the field, only granting you a look if the ball goes out. He’s accessible while keeping his distance. There is a certain condescension in that conversation. He has a bit of Jose Mourinho in him.
Heimir, like all the inhabitants of the Westman Islands, will repeat that the best players from the dawn of Iceland football came from here. You will hear about Ásgeir Sigurvinsson, who joined Bayern Munich in the early 80s, played in the IBV before triumphing at Standard Liege. And when you ask how can so much talent come out of a tiny place, he’ll point to the impressive cliff nestled right next to the stadium. "Have you not seen this? You have to be born here. We are special people."
Occasionally, Heimir leaves that tone in which you can’t tell if he’s messing with you or really believes what he says, and tells you why Iceland has improved so much. "Here any coach, even those for the youngsters should have the maximum license. They must all have studied and have tactical concepts. It's not like in Norway, where the youngest team might be coached by a 60-years-old PE instructor. Here all coaches must have proper training". And in Iceland, women's football is at very similar levels to those of the men’s game. Heimir himself coached the female ÍBV squad several times before taking over the boys team."And then there are the pavilions. This has been very important. It allows us to work all year. And for children, when they leave school, to go play football all afternoon, even though the street is dark and there is lots of snow. That investment has been decisive."
Heimir said goodbye with three or four humorous comments and said he had to talk to the coach of ÍBV, who was fighting off relegation, and was always willing to lend a hand. Then he would go to a humbler pitch, to watch the doctor’s team training. And this is how the Iceland national team manager spends his summer afternoons - the dentist from the Westman Islands. That’s how he spends his summer afternoons in summers that are not 2016. Because this year, against all odds, he’ll spend his summer in France.