Unless you have a rooting interest for France today, it is safe to assume that most in the world will be cheering on Iceland in their Euro 2016 quarterfinal.
In a tournament that has been expanded this year to 24 teams for the first time, providing many countries their first taste of a major competition, Iceland is primed to face the hosts in a knockout game that is by far the biggest match in the country’s history.
Their development has been amazing to watch over the last few decades. They have turned the corner from one of Europe’s minnows to a national team that feels like it can play with anyone in the world. These two quotes from Howler in January show the attitude that has carried them this far.
National team co-manager Heimir Hallgrímsson:
“It doesn’t matter who we play or what the score line is, we try to never change our priorities. We do not think of ourselves as a small country in these moments. We know we don’t have the individual players of Holland or Turkey. We win on unity and hard work and organization, and we have to be better than everyone else in these areas.”
Dadi Rafnsson, the director of youth coaching at Breidablik:
“If you meet somebody from Iceland, they’re almost delusional about their ability,” says Dadi Rafnsson. When [the national team] lines up against Holland, we’re not thinking, we’ll try not to lose so bad. We’re thinking, we’re going to beat them.”
Davis Harper’s piece about the team is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about the underdogs. Indoor facilities allowed Iceland’s promising young players more training time than ever before. The KSI, Iceland’s football federation, had resources to build these in various parts of the country and invested in them in the early 2000’s.
In addition to facilities, Iceland invested in coaching education at a rate never seen before. For every 500 Icelanders, there is a UEFA licensed coach available. Large clubs even have these UEFA A and B license holders coaching youth as young as six years old. In the US, the six year olds are not taught by coaches with that level of training.
Iceland has it right, the best coaches need to be with the youngest players. If young players are taught well in the beginning, developing technical skills, then they have a better chance to become stronger players later.
What is impressive is that Iceland knows what their players are capable of and they construct a game plan to match it. They focus on playing as a cohesive unit, they work extremely hard, they remain organized. They know these areas are what will give them opportunities to win.
Any leader in the sport, at a club or a national federation, should look long and hard at what Iceland has achieved and how they did it. The lessons are there for how to develop a generation of players and a culture of success. Iceland has managed to do this without the resources that many clubs and federations have. Learn from Iceland, adapt it to the local culture and resources, and watch the game grow.
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