The Dance of the Icelanders

WITH the group stage now completed at the Euro 2016 8 teams have gone back and the usual suspects are through while there were some scary moments and new players thrown in the mix. But one team I would like to concentrate my energy on, whether you’re a staunch sports fan or not, is a small nation that goes by the name of Iceland. Yes, Iceland, known to produce strongmen, a silver medal winning volleyball team and very lately “The Mountain from the HBO drama series Game of Thrones. Iceland currently sits at No. 34 in the FIFA rankings, which is astonishing for a nation that sees 9 months of torrid snowy weather. The total population of Iceland, about 330,000; which is equivalent to the total population of Dadar on a Ganpati night of festival. Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for a major football tournament, with the exception of Tahiti, which took Oceania’s spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Tahiti lost its three games by a combined score of 24-1, and that single goal set off celebrations in the stands in Brazil if you remember, it was a viral sensation when the goal rolled into the back of the net. Iceland have been tested with the best, it’s not a fluke the way they earned that Euro spot. The Strákarnir Okkar beat World Cup semi finalists the Netherlands home and away and took the maximum six points from home games against Turkey and the Czech Republic in their qualifier group. As you know this year, Euro will expand to a 24 team format, so in certain cases three teams from the group will go on to the next round. Iceland therefore avoided the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. If you remember in 2004, Greece was ranked at 36th in the world that went on to win the Euro title.

Icelandic players dawn the national flag

Like I said earlier just go the terrace hoist the KSI flag because the country has earned it. The sport’s governing body, the Knattspyrnusamband Íslands or KSÍ, has willed the national team up from No. 112 in the world rankings just six years ago thanks to a series of intelligent investments in instruction and infrastructure. Iceland’s national stadium is called the Laugardalsvollur. A low-rise bowl nestled in the western fronds of the Reykjavik coastline. If you look at the pitch, it is very dry with the grass looks grainy due to the harsh winters of Iceland. Yet you will find a healthy number of supporters flock to watch their national side battle the intruders. The love for the sport has always been there. You would find a lot of kids trying to idolise their heroes home and foreign with the flicks and kicks. Recently, FIFA declared Reykjavik coaching education to boost their chances of representing the country in football. The percentage of UEFA A and B licenses are higher than that in entire of Britain. There’s a UEFA-qualified coach for every 500 Icelanders. In England, that number is closer to 1 for every 10,000 people. But with the harsh weather that Iceland face, the KSI built a number of indoor climate controlled astro-turf spaces for kids and professionals to train. The first of these indoor pitches was built in 2000. Sixteen years later, the first group of players to come of age with the new facilities and the new coaches has qualified for the nation’s first-ever major tournament. With just more than 20,000 registered soccer players in the whole country, there’s no place for a real athlete to hide.

The Icelandic team celebrating

In the early 1970s and 80s, athletes whichever was their discipline used to travel to other cooler climate countries just to train and be ready for their respective tournaments. If you follow the EPL since early 1996, Eiður Guðjohnsen, who saw time for Chelsea and Barcelona last decade and made the Euro 2016 roster as a 37-year-old elder statesman. Most recently, there has been another star emerging from their ranks and goes by the name of Gylfi Sigudsson who first burst on the scene at Reading who came through the youth ranks. A couple of good loan spell performances he was then sold to Hoffenheim where he plied his trade their in a youthful setup under Ralf Rangnick. He was undoubtedly talented with his freekick and simple yet clean defence splitting passes. Currently, he plays for Swansea in the Premier League scoring nine goals in Swansea’s last 17 games to keep them safely in the Premier League and led Iceland with six goals in qualifying. You will find most of the starting XI of Iceland has their successful careers as professional footballers in England, captain Aron Gunnarsson plays with Cardiff City. Forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, who spent time at Ajax before moving to Nantes in France, is at age 26 already his country’s second-leading all-time scorer. If you go through the Icelandic squad, every player has a secondary source of income even today. The goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson is a film director, who even shot a pre-Euro movie to inspire the Icelanders. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson comes from Selfoss, a town of only 6,500 who recently suffered from the earthquake in 2008, Sigthorrsson used to help his father with banana exports in his free time.

Vikings cheering

I AGAIN want to stress on the fact to root for Iceland because its success offers a valuable lesson for the rest of the world, developing or developed nation. Practically, it’s not possible for most countries to duplicate Iceland’s revamp. You have to find investment ventures, see if there is a future in the sport. Whether the development is possible with their social and economic backgrounds and most of all willing to do the best they can with the right attitude and grit. But Iceland is a one off kinda story. Before the US became a force to be reckoned with, they had to create their very own idols. They had the infrastructure (and just FYI, I love how the schools and universities push the kids to taking up a sport and representing the country from the beginning, but that’s another story), all they had to do was create a buzz and a liking for the “beautiful game”. They started to lure the “real athletes” that had flair, guile and who were quick on their feet. Most Americans used to end up playing in the NFL, NBA often an unsubtle code for black Americans—away from football and basketball. Keep in mind the population of Iceland is at a meagre 330,000 and with that they have over 20,000 registered football players in the whole country so everyone gets a shot to showcase their talent. This massive project is lead by Swedish hero Lars Lagerback, who is accepted as one of them in Iceland. The coaching is split between him and Heimir Hallgrímsson who is a part time dentist. It is extraordinary to see how the team gel so well, it is as if they were playing together for years. Lagerback stated, “The system is very good. You can see they are really pushing on the development of talented players at the clubs. Our squad for the Euros is a balanced mix of younger players and seasoned heads. Exciting times for Iceland I assure you.” I STILL FEEL you should root for Iceland. This project had smaller success stories following up to the Euros. Neil Lennon began his managerial career in Iceland, has spent four years in Icelandic football, two with Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjarda, then moved on to Norway and ended up at Celtic later in his career. Every game the national team played, it was more experience gained rather than sulking in their loss. Other teams showed respect as the years passed and were happy to contribute to this fascinating story. This story is not yet over. You can play a part, just keep rooting for this cold nation. It has created heroes, obsession to be the best and known in the world and a never give up attitude for the beautiful game. Go right now, hoist that flag, sing in full voice the national anthem and even better yet build a blue wall at the stadium and back them. They need you and your spirit to guide them. Root for Iceland!

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