TL;DR – Sigh… Never mind… We’re good at other things.
The World Cup Finals is happening now. The fairy tale story of this World Cup must be that of Iceland. With only a population of about 335,000 people, Iceland is the smallest nation to have ever qualified for the World Cup Finals.
(Interesting tidbit, Iceland’s the smallest country to ever feature in World Cup and they had some 99.6% of everybody watching TV tuning in.)
And not only did Iceland qualify, they held Argentina, one of the world’s greatest soccer nation with Lionel Messi, who is arguably the world’s best player, to a 1-1 draw in their opening match.
So, how did Iceland do it?
1. Building facilities
They certainly didn’t get help from the climate of their country. For about half the year, the average temperature is just a bit above freezing.
In order to develop professional soccer in Iceland, the Iceland Football Association (KSI) built its first football house in 2000. It is a full indoor facility that allowed youths to train all year round, sheltered from the brutal elements.
Since then, seven full-sized and four half-sized indoor pitches were built. Twenty-two full-sized outdoor pitches and 111 smaller pitches were also built all over the country. All facilities are paid for with taxpayer money, and young players share the same facilities as the top-level players.
2. Investing in coaching
After investing in the facilities, Iceland invested in top-quality coaching. Coaching became a paid part-time job with required qualifications, instead of a volunteer role given to any involved parent.
Iceland has about 800 coaches, out of whom 460 hae a UEFA B license for training children up to the age of 16. That means that there is one coach with a UEFA B licence per 740 people. To put that number in context, in England, there is 1 coach with a UEFA B licence per 11,000 people. The emphasis on coaching has resulted in Iceland having more top-level coaches per capita than any footballing country.
Children in Iceland are provided with equal opportunities to learn the game. Iceland President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson said:
“The kids here, they learn their game and are encouraged to pass the ball to the next player instead of just kicking it as far as you can – tiny things like that give them an understanding of the game”
Every player in Iceland’s Euro 2016 squad was coached in their teenage years in this new system.
But all that investment was still not enough. As recent as 2011, Iceland was still languishing at 133 in the world rankings. That was when they hired veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerback.
This man changed the mentality, professionalism, and philosophy of the team. He taught the players to have faith in the system and imported a winning culture to a squad not accustomed to one.
3. Being united
Lagerback helped the team realise that their biggest advantage is because of the country’s tiny population, not in spite of it. The team soon realised that although they are relatively few, they can achieve great things individually and collectively if they put their minds together. They believed that no matter how small they are, they can beat the giants if they stick together. Their small size also drives them to continually want to be better so that they can defy the odds.
KSI president Guðni Bergsson who played professionally in England from 1988 to 2003 and is a national hero explained:
“There’s a strong emphasis on unity. I like to think we’re a strong group together, from the stands onto the field and to management and coaches”
Iceland’s success in soccer show that a small nation can punch way above its weight if they pull together. It puts to rest the idea that you can only succeed if you are a big country.
But Singapore not that committed to soccer…
But to beat the odds as Iceland did, you have to be committed. Alas, it seems like Singapore just isn’t that committed to becoming a great soccer nation.
Despite what then-PM Goh said in 1998 about qualifying for the World Cup Finals, I think we never really got serious about it. That’s why our national team is in such a pathetic state.
But… I guess we can draw comfort from the fact that in many other areas, we are punching way above our weight. So I suppose this mirrors how in life, you win some, you lose some.
Maybe… if one day we really decide to put our hearts, mind, and soul into soccer, we might do what Iceland did and be one of the fairy tales of a future World Cup Finals. Until then, I’ll be cheering for Iceland.
(Featured image via)