Life as Struggle: How Iceland Became the World’s Best Pound-for-Pound Soccer Team

The population of Iceland is the same as as Riverside, California. How did it get so damn good at soccer?

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Dec 17 2014, 2:25pm

Photo by Andreas Tille via Creative Commons

What country has the world's best soccer team? Currently, according to FIFA's official rankings, it's Germany. That makes sense. Germany won the last World Cup. But I'm here to tell you that FIFA is wrong. The world's best team has never even played in the World Cup. It's never even qualified for a major tournament. With a population of about 317,000, it comes from a country roughly the size of St. Louis. I'm talking about Iceland.

As of this writing, Iceland's men's national team is ranked thirty-third out of 209 FIFA-recognized countries. That alone is pretty amazing. It's by far the smallest country in FIFA's top 50. If you adjust the top 50 by population, however, Iceland isn't thirty-third: it's the number one country by a wide margin, with 417 people for every FIFA point. (By this measure, Germany would be thirty-ninth out of 50, with 46,955 people per point; the USA would be last.)

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In qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Iceland fell at the last hurdle, in a playoff against Croatia. "We would have been the smallest nation ever to go to the World Cup final," Heimir Hallgrímsson, one of Iceland's two joint head coaches, told me by phone. He didn't sound disappointed as much as he did optimistic. The team's next chance at a major tournament isn't far off.

Iceland is currently second in its qualifying group for the 2016 European Championship, which includes Turkey, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, among others. Iceland has already beaten Turkey and the Netherlands. (The Dutch, remember, went to the World Cup semi-finals.) So far, Iceland has lost just once, away to the Czechs.

If you're a fan of underdog stories, pay attention. Watching the team play is like watching a mouse roar. It leaves you with one question: How?

Photo via WikiMedia Commons

On a spring day in 1996, Logi Olafsson, then head coach of the Icelandic national team, signaled for a blond, 17 year old from Reykjavík to get off the bench and warm up. The match was a friendly against Estonia. The kid would be going in for Arnór Guðjohnsen, an Icelandic legend who played for Anderlecht in Belgium and Bordeaux in France, among others, in an era when few Icelanders made it to that level. Guðjohnsen is the seventh most-capped player in Icelandic national team history and the fourth highest goalscorer. The kid who replaced him that day would go on to surpass Arnór in both categories. It was his son, Eiður Guðjohnsen.

Eiður, who in his prime played for Chelsea and Barcelona, winning a trailer-full of trophies along the way—the Premier League, the FA Cup, La Liga, the Champions League—is Iceland's Michael Jordan.

"[The kids today have] always had Eiður Guðjohnsen as a role model, as an icon," said Magnus Magnusson, an Icelandic agent whose Total Football agency represents a number of the country's players, including both Eiður and Icelandic-American forward Aron Johannsson. (Today, Arnór is an agent at Total Football.) "That has helped them tremendously. It gives [the players] the belief that it's possible."

At the time he was coming up, Eiður had something other kids in Iceland didn't, a dad, who knew the game inside and out, as a mentor and a coach. But that has changed. Today in Iceland, finding a top coach is about as easy as going to the next village.

"I don't think anywhere else in the world has as many qualified coaches from UEFA A and UEFA B per player," said coach Heimir. In short, the UEFA A and B licenses are required to work in professional club and youth coaching, respectively, across Europe. The licensing structure has done a great deal to standardize the level of instruction players receive, and in general, the more qualified coaches a country has the better that country is at soccer. An official at the Icelandic Football Association told VICE Sports the country had 563 UEFA B- and 165 UEFA A-licensed coaches "at the end of 2013." That doesn't sound like much, but it's more coaches per capita than either Spain or Germany.

"Here it doesn't matter how big or small the village, they have qualified coaches, equally good coaches [as] clubs in the [Icelandic] Premier League," said Heimir. "They have the same development no matter where they live. I think that's such a huge benefit for Icelandic football. It's kind of an ambition for every village to have a good coach, to have good facilities for training the kids. So every village is proud to have produced good football players."

Coaching is only one aspect of the country's sporting evolution. In the mid-90s, Iceland's soccer facilities were fairly poor. In the winter, playing was difficult if not altogether impossible.

"[Today,] the facilities are really much better than they were for instance, when I was playing," said Heimir, who played first-division soccer in the Icelandic league beginning in the late 80s. In the last decade, Iceland has built seven full-sized and four half-sized indoor soccer fields, and "we have 5-a-side artificial pitches on the school premises at every children's school in Iceland. Probably every club in the country has some kind of an artificial pitch, so we can use that 12 months a year."

As a result, Iceland has produced a lot more talented young players over the last decade than it ever has before—something that is likely to continue. The infrastructure and coaching boom didn't really take hold until most of the current national team players were teenagers. There are five-year-olds out there making use of it all now. Because the Icelandic Premier League is semi-pro, top Icelandic players are inexpensive for European teams to sign. But it's a two-way street. For a player with ambition, the only way to achieve your dream is to go abroad. The country has 58 senior professionals playing in Europe with another 23 in youth divisions on the continent.

This is where, as I reported this story, all my conversations took a philosophical turn: In Iceland, you have to go abroad. Iceland can produce top young players, but to test yourself as a professional you have to leave, you have to sacrifice. If you're 17, you have to be willing to live alone in a foreign country.

This gets to questions about the "Icelandic character," for lack of a better term, and what it means to live on a tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic. It boils down to this: Icelandic people long ago came to terms with life as struggle. Iceland, a desolate island, was one of the last bits of Europe settled by humans. Before World War II, Iceland was one of Europe's poorest countries. Today, it's one of the most developed, but that spirit of struggle—against the elements, against the geographic isolation—has remained.

According to Magnus, Iceland's players have a reputation for enduring and fighting. They're known for being patient and working hard. Olafur Helgi Kristjánsson, head coach of Denmark's FC Nordsjælland, is one of a first wave of Icelandic coaches recently given top-level jobs abroad. He said this spirit goes way beyond soccer—to business, to just about anything. It's a kind of shared Icelandic ambition:

"The inner desire, or hunger, whatever we call it. I think that's a quite important part of it. It's the same for me as a coach. I could have stayed in Iceland and been a big fish in a small pond. But I wanted to achieve something more. I wanted to challenge myself professionally, when I got the opportunity [at FC Nordsjælland]. It's important to have some desire to grow as a person, grow as a professional. And then you have to be willing to sacrifice something moving on."

That's part of the reality of coming from a geographically isolated place: Go abroad. Struggle. Test yourself. Olafur expressed a little worry that perhaps the young players will lose this sense of the struggle, because things are becoming too easy for them. "The kids in Iceland have a good opportunity to play the sport," he said. "But going from nothing to something and then going from something to something bigger? It demands a lot of work."

But for now, at least, this mentality has made for a fiercely united national team. The infrastructure and the coaching provide the launchpad. Eiður proved it's possible. It also helps that many of the players grew up together and have played with one another for years. "The national team doesn't train that much together, so to have that understanding is always beneficial," said Heimir.

"We're willing to work hard and go the extra mile," continued Heimir. "And I think that's the strength of the individual here. We're used to bad weather. We're used to walking to school when it's windy and tough. So I think we're kind of used to a strong headwind in life, in general. We're willing to go the extra mile to get the result. I think that's our advantage."