(By Rahul Pandey)
The past one month has seen the world’s second largest population to shift their personal affairs from ‘ The Gentlemen’s game ‘ to ‘ The Beautiful game ‘ . The FIFA U-17 World Cup has surely created, a much needed ambience for football throughout the country, regardless of the fact that India couldn’t make it through to the second round. And as the whole world had their opinions on how India should gain from this momentum for a better future in football, the game itself came up with the most beautiful and inspiring instances of all.
Iceland, a nordic island nation located in the North Atlantic ocean, with an area of 40,000 sq mi with a per capita GDP of $ 52,500 alongside an HDI of 0.921 which is 9TH in the world. The photographic heaven on earth has the population of around 3,35,000 and recently Iceland made the headlines for becoming the smallest country ever, to have qualified for the FIFA World Cup.
Many would remember them as the darlings of Euro 2016, where they rose above the imagination of all to reach the quarter-finals and on their way they held the would-be champions Portugal and defeated England in the Round of 16. But make no mistake, this success that they have enjoyed in world football is no fluke, it is a carefully orchestrated master plan that transformed a tiny island near the Artic into one of world’s biggest football youth development centre.
It all started in the late 1990’s. Football was then, a seasonal hobby. But with Europe becoming the hub of modern day sports, the Icelandish FA, KSI decided to make a name of their own on the world map. The first ever football indoor training facility in the country was opened in 2000. The approach was simple, shelter the youth from all the brutal societal and political elements of the country, to pave way for their’s as well as the country’s future. The things began to gain pace with a little help from football’s head governing body. FIFA gave KSI, 200 million euros in the first decade of the 21ST century. 101 smaller outdoor pitches were construted for the Divison-A, Division-B and the national team training. And within five years, football in Iceland had turned into an year long sport.
The development of national coaches was given equal importance. The hugely popular open training sessions by KSI got them with over 800 qualified coaches, half of them having UEFA B-licenses. On the present day, Iceland have 1 qualified football coach per 825 people which is more than any other football playing nation. In 2011, with the football team languishing at 133 in world rankings, KSI decided to hire the Swedish origin Lars Lagerback as the head coach. He brought the much needed professionalism and winning culture into young Iceland team that had nearly all its players from the youth development programmes of the late 1990’s.
In 2013, they came agonizingly close to making history, after being defeated 2-0 by the Croatians in a must win qualifier that would have taken them to Brazil 2014. This was the 23RD consecutive attempt that the country had failed to make it into a major tournament. But the football association made a decision that would change the entire complexion of the team. Instead of firing head coach, Lagerback, they promoted Heimir Hallgrimsson, who had been the assistant coach for the team. Iceland no longer had one, but two senior national team coaches. In professional sports, this was seen by many pundits as a joke to laugh your brains out. But as explained by Kristinn Hallur Jonsson, an arduous Iceland football fan, ” There was nothing to worried about at all. ”
” Heimir and Lars had it all sorted. With Lagerback’s professionalism, Hallgrimsson added the vital charisma to our side’s gameplay and their combination is exactly why what took the team from minnows to a ruthless opposition ” , added Jonsson. In 2016, with European Cup qualifications, Iceland introduced a fearless attacking prowess that hadn’t been seen before. Pure agression helped them become a more standard football side. Although they were thrashed 5-2 by the hosts France in the quarter-final round but the Iceland had earned plaudits for their class act especially, for their football passionate fans and the all important traditional, Viking thunderclap celebrations. The national media even came up with a mind boggling survey, that 60% of the nation’s population watched their games together on the big screen in the capital, Reykjavik.
Post the success of 2016, Lagerback decided that for further run in top gear, the coaching needed to have a more concised approach and he handed over the complete reign to Hallgrimsson. And to no one’s surprise, he took it with perfection. In the World Cup 2018 qualification campaign the Vikings topped their group in the European contingent with 22 points, leaving behind the likes of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. In 10 games, they registered 7 wins, 1 draw and 2 defeats. The goal that Iceland had set up in 2000, had finally been achieved. From 133 in 2011, Iceland have now become 22 in the FIFA rankings.
To all those people who thought that qualifying in a major sports event, is only for the developed and high economy nationalities, Iceland’s qualification would always remain a major exception. But if we look closely, what it took was the will and collective courage of 3,35,000 people. So now, i guess we all have got an inspiration of our own to make it to the pinaccle of world football.