Iceland, more than virtually any other nation on earth, is football crazy:
Yet for decades, it was a game denied to them for most of the year. The Arctic cold and scarce daylight made outdoor turf football impossible for eight months of the year. Most coaches were enthusiastic parents, and most pitches were rough gravel tracks that would take all the skin off your legs if you went down. Hallgrimsson shows us the pitch he grew up on in Heimaey. Goals with no nets. No markings on the pitch. It is the most basic footballing infrastructure imaginable.
In the early 1990s, Norway started building full-size indoor football pitches in the north of the country. The Icelandic FA sent a delegation there to investigate, and returned with its grand idea: a heated indoor “football house” in every town in Iceland.
The timing was fortunate. The economic boom had fuelled massive bank lending. Huge loans were available for infrastructure projects. The first football house was built near the airport at Keflavik in 2000, and over the next few years seven full-sized indoor arenas and hundreds of smaller all-weather pitches sprung up. There is an artificial pitch next to every school in the country.
One of the clubs to benefit was Breidablik, in the southern suburbs of Reykjavik. They built the country’s second football house in 2002, and now it has the most comprehensive youth setup in Iceland. A constant stream of taxpayer-funded minibuses rolls up at the entrance to bring kids – some as young as three – to training. They train 11 months of the year, up to six times a week.
“The accessibility is what sets us apart,” says Dadi Rafnsson, the club’s head of youth development. “You don’t have to drive far to find a good facility. It doesn’t cost very much to train. And everyone can play. We don’t pick kids out at 10 or 12. This is the problem with big academies. They choose too early.”
Multiply the success of Breidablik by seven or eight, and you have yourself a golden generation: a group of players who are not only the best technical footballers the country has ever produced, but who have all come through the same system. Four of Iceland’s Euro 2016 squad came from Breidablik, including Charlton’s Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, the team’s best player.
Along with the new facilities came new coaches. Breidablik alone has 31. There is one Uefa-qualified coach for every 500 people; in England, it is one in 5000. “Because we don’t have to pay for the facilities, we can spend the money on coaching,” says Rafnsson. “And coaching has now become a viable second profession. Also, when a player like Gudmundsson or Alfie Finnbogason does well abroad, we often get a fee.”
Thorsteinsson is quick to point out the role that Uefa and Fifa have played in the development of smaller nations. “This is overlooked by many when they speak negatively about them,” he says. “Sharing the wealth of football to the smaller countries has given us the financial support to grow.”
The current generation is the only one to have experienced both worlds: the character-building gravel pitches and the indoor greenhouses. Sigurdsson developed his toughness on frozen pitches in sub-zero temperatures and only spent a couple of years in the indoor halls before moving to Reading. The question is what happens when you get the first batch of kids who have known nothing of the old ways.
(Hat tip to Doug Lemov.)