ÁFRAM ÍSLAND! Photo/Vilhelm Gunnarsson / IcelandMag
One of the reasons soccer – or football as it is generally known world-wide – is so popular is its sheer unpredictability.
Who would ever have thought that Leicester City would win the English Premier League title? The EPL is the richest league in the world, prompting noted football journalist and novelist Brian Glanville to call it “The greed is good league”. And yet, Leicester did win it this year, against all the odds, and leaving rich clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal floundering in their wake in the process.
Today the world has seen another football fairy tale, another David-slaying-Goliath story, which went against most predictions. The football team of Iceland, a tiny nation with a population of just 323,000, beat the mighty England 2-1 in Nice to reach the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship, which is being contested among 24 nations in France.
Iceland are ranked 34th by FIFA, football’s world governing authority, while England are in 11th place. Four years ago, Iceland was ranked 131st, so they are doing something right. Iceland beat the mighty Netherlands home and away to qualify for these championships. Today’s win for Iceland ranks amongst the greatest upsets in football history and is akin to the 1-0 win by the United States over England at the 1950 World Cup played in Brazil.
How did Iceland achieve this feat? Well, football is the island nation’s number-one sport and they have an excellent coaching system. One person in every 825 of the population has qualified for a UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence. The equivalent in England is about one in every 11,000.
Football facilities have been improved dramatically in Iceland. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Icelanders played football on grass pitches. Before that, it was played on gravel. It was an amateur game until the 1990s.
Not one of the Iceland national team squad plays in Iceland. They all play professionally in other European countries. The situation in England is the reverse. England finds it difficult to produce good national team players because the EPL is full of imports and English youngsters find it difficult to break into club teams at the highest level.
Iceland has co-coaches for their national team, which says a lot about how they view football and how it is an integral part of Icelandic culture and society. There is the Swede, Lars Lagerback, a seasoned and successful professional coach with vast international experience, and there is the Icelandic dentist, Heimar Hallgrimsson, who coaches part-time.
One-tenth of the Icelandic population — 30,000 people — have travelled to France to follow their team. A couple of Icelandic businessmen attending a conference in Nice managed to obtain tickets to the game against England because they knew two of the players. It really is a closely knit island community.
In contrast to the English and Russian fans, the Iceland travelling supporters were well-behaved and law abiding. That’s how Icelanders are as a people. They are also generous. The Icelandic Government recently pledged to take in 50 Syrian refugees. The Government had clearly not counted on 11,000 offers of accommodation from Icelanders, which is what happened.
Iceland now comes up against France, the host nation, in the quarterfinals. This may well be the end of the road for them. But they have already far exceeded their expectations. They are unlikely to “do a Greece”. Greece stunned all the pundits by winning the 2004 European Championship at odds of 5,000 to one.
But, remember, part of the charm of football is its sheer unpredictability. Go Iceland!
Walter Pless writes from Hobart and is a world authority on Tasmanian soccer. He blogs on the sport at WalterPless.com.au.