Meet Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland's co-manager and practicing dentist
HEIMAEY, Iceland -- If Heimaey's 4,135 inhabitants bunched together they could probably all fit inside the island's football hall. This lunchtime, though, there are only three or four children having a kick-around and, as Heimir Hallgrimsson makes to leave, one of them skews an attempted corner kick into the side netting of the goal by the exit.
That is perfectly excusable: The boy can only be 7 or 8 years old and Iceland's co-manager addresses him familiarly, consoling him with a ruffle of the hair and a teasing word or two. Finding connections between people on the mainland is easy enough but, on this 5.2 square mile protrusion of volcanic rock, which is part of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, they are around every turn. "Of course I know him," Hallgrimsson says as he heads back out into the wind. "I'm the dentist, after all."
From Hallgrimsson's sitting room in his home on the fringe of the town, you can see two-thirds of the island in panorama. There are large windows on three of the four sides: To the right, a view of the rocky outcrop where his family has a barely accessible summer cabin; to the centre, the tiny harbour; to the left, the dramatic peak of Blatindur, beyond which tiny 19-seater aircraft descend as they arrive from Reykjavik.
"This is where all the important decisions are made," he says with a smile, and there have been a few to ponder in the last half-decade. Hallgrimsson, once a successful coach with the men's and women's teams at local side IBV, has managed the national team on equal terms with veteran Swede Lars Lagerback for two and a half years following two as an assistant.
The combination of foreign experience and local knowledge has made a perfect whole: They have led Iceland to a once-implausible place at Euro 2016 and have done it their way which, in Hallgrimsson's case, means he has continued to run his dental practice, two stories below where we sit.
"I used to work in the practice from around 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. before coaching IBV at 5 p.m.," he says. "My whole day was work. When I started with the national team, I scaled it down and this year I'm hardly going to do any. I take a day here and there, maybe one a week or just a half to keep my hand in and my brain working, but I don't book appointments in advance. I'll just tell the girls in the office to fill the day, as there are a lot of people who will only have me working as their dentist."
Hallgrimsson's work will halt completely as Iceland's campaign in France approaches. There will certainly be no other dentists prowling the touchline at this summer's tournament and probably no coaches, either, who are based in such a remote community. While that gives a clue to the scale of the country's achievement, though, it should not be used to regard them as anything other than an intensely serious football setup.
Iceland had never come close to reaching a major tournament before Lagerback and Hallgrimsson took the reins and, with a population of 332,000, nor had anyone really expected them to. Their success, which followed a close-run defeat to Croatia in the World Cup qualifying playoffs, was the result of a change in the country's footballing mentality.
"We knew that we had a hell of a job," says Hallgrimsson. "I don't think anyone, even at the FA, expected us to come so far and I think previously perhaps the players didn't take it as seriously as the current guys. But Lars had a clear vision of how everything should be done and that had probably been lacking in the Icelandic setup. He had a model of how we should work, train, play, speak and behave and we hadn't really had that before.
"For example, if I had taken over previously and Eidur Gudjohnsen had said to me: 'This is how we do it at Barcelona," I'd have said: 'Yeah, you're probably right, let's change and do that'. The same with any of our other players at big clubs. But I learned from Lars that, when you deal with different characters who are all coached differently and all like to affect what should be done, you must have a strict rule: 'This is how we do it here'. We needed that. An amateur coach from Iceland probably would not have earned the respect necessary from all the squad in the past."
He admits it was a process that took time -- not everybody jumped onboard -- but Iceland now have a team in which everybody leads by example and the results, which include a second-place finish in Euro 2016 qualifying Group A after wins home and away against Netherlands, have been astonishing.
"Team-building is a must for a country like ours; we can only beat the big teams by working as one," Hallgrimsson says. "If you look at our team, we have guys like Gylfi Sigurdsson at Swansea, who is probably our highest-profile player, but he's the hardest worker on the pitch. If that guy works the hardest, who in the team can be lazy? We have a guy like Eidur, who has won the Champions League and played for Barcelona and Chelsea. He's more or less been a substitute for the last three years, but if he can be a supportive guy on the bench, then who cannot behave in the same way? It just shows how good the mentality is that these guys have."
Lessons have been taken from every step. Hallgrimsson is still frustrated by the buildup to that Croatia tie, which was eventually lost 2-0 on aggregate. He believes Iceland "went overboard with the excitement" and their preparation became "silly"; there was an impromptu lunch with the country's president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson before the first leg and media were given relatively free rein in the buildup. Those mistakes cost them but, even then, Iceland had come far enough to inspire confidence that they would soon go one better.
"One thing we took from the Croatia games was that we had been so close to the World Cup that we believed we would go to the Euros," says Hallgrimsson. "We could not hide behind anything as we had lost to a good team, but the guys were really, really sure that we would go all the way this time. It was easy to tell them, at the beginning of the qualifiers, that we would reach the finals."
It was even easier to repeat that information midway through their Group A campaign.
"I don't know if it's OK to say this, but I will anyway," Hallgrimsson says. "We'd started so well and after five games the French FA sent out a list of 70 possible base camps for the tournament. Lars and I looked over it, picked 10 we thought might suit us, sent three guys to France to check them out and selected a shortlist of three. We then gave the players the choice and said: 'Where do you want to stay when we go to the finals?'
"If we hadn't made it, perhaps I'd look back and say it had backfired, that we'd been overconfident. But for me it was more a case of saying: 'We have so much belief in you that we would like to finish this thing and make sure we have a good place to stay in when we qualify.' And you know what, they picked that I think is the best-suited base camp for Iceland."
It is estimated that 10 percent of the Icelandic population will travel to support the team this summer, but there is the need to be cocooned from the hype, the buzz and the expectation. As such, Iceland's squad will be tucked away in the quiet of Annecy-le-Vieux, a lakeside town in the east of France.
There is still a balance to be struck, though. One of Hallgrimsson's first acts upon joining the national setup was to engage with fans who had drifted away. His solution gives another insight into the boldness and innovation beyond the graphs and statistics that are taken for granted nowadays.
"When we started, there was no support from the fans," he says. "So I went to the supporters' club, Tolfan -- a fantastic group of guys and girls -- and we decided to restart it. They have a pub in Reykjavik. I told them that, before every home game, I would go in there two, two-and-a-half hours before kickoff and give them a report into what we were going to do. They would be the first to know the starting XI. For the first game, a friendly against the Faroes, maybe 10 or 12 people came. I told them the team, described how we would play, showed them the motivational video we had made for the players and made sure they were watching it at the same time as the team.
"These days I go there at the same time, whatever the fixture, and there are around 400 fans. The culture has changed; in the past, Icelanders would not show up until kickoff or even afterwards. Now they are out with their shirts, hats, flags and they'll watch my presentation. I think I've had a big part in restarting things; it's really unusual that a national coach would turn up before a game like this, perhaps sweet in a way and silly too because there could always be a drunk guy who knocks me cold or whatever. But this is Iceland -- we dare to be a little bit different."
Those who travel to France will probably have to content themselves with a video specially made by Hallgrimsson and colleagues before the tournament. Touches like these succeed in disarming people but are also made self-consciously.
Those who know Hallgrimsson describe a fierce, driven intellect who is constantly seeking to learn and make marginal gains. Often this is sought through his mastery of computer and video analysis, much of which he carries out himself in the absence of a large staff. He and the wily Lagerback, 19 years his senior at 67, mesh nicely. There is a pause before Hallgrimsson describes his colleague as "really conservative" but it is hardly intended pejoratively.
"That's both because I'm a bit younger but also because of the way I'm more open to new ideas," Hallgrimsson says. "[Lagerback is] much more experienced and I don't think there's a situation on or off the pitch he hasn't dealt with. It's fantastic to have worked with him for four years and because we communicate so well it doesn't matter if we are a bit different in the way we act or think. In the end we always agree on the important thing: 'This is the way we do it today.' I think we equal each other out and make quite a good coach."
There has been plenty to learn from Lagerback, whom Hallgrimsson first met when studying for his UEFA 'A' Licence course in England, but the largely part-time status of Icelandic football has also served the younger man well. By working in his practice, he believes he has nurtured skills that are transferable into coaching.
"Working as a dentist has helped me a lot as you're always working one-on-one," Hallgrimsson says. "Some people are really afraid of going to the dentist, so you have to find the right way to talk to each individual client. You might have to relax one, be funny to the next one, be serious to the third, but you have to be quick to adapt. It is the same with footballer."
Hallgrimsson is, quite plainly, an excellent communicator and listener and at one point, he reflects that our extended conversation has provided a chance to work through questions he might not have previously asked himself.
Perhaps it is impossible not to remain grounded in Heimaey, a community that could have been wiped out completely had lava from Eldfell, the active volcano to the east of the island, encroached any closer to the town when it erupted in January 1973. Hallgrimsson will probably spend most of his time in Reykjavik after Euro 2016, when he will manage the national team after Lagerback retires, but says his success in football will never consume him.
"I hope, and I try, not to change, because I quite like the way I am," he says. "I think that's one of the reasons why it's really good to come back here to Vestmannaeyjar after games, especially big ones when all the media want to talk to you, because I am just one of the people here. Their opinion of me doesn't change, because they know who I am as a person. I would never consider myself more important than before."
In an afternoon with Hallgrimsson, you can see the mixture of humility and self-confidence that has taken Iceland so far on and off the pitch. They will tell you in Reykjavik's bars and cafes that this is a national characteristic: There is no reason that that cannot be borne out in Group I, with a quartet completed by Portugal, Austria and Hungary looking relatively kind if a top-three finish is the aim.
Iceland will not have the resources at many of their rivals' disposal -- they travelled to France with a retinue of just 20, while the biggest nations will bring a support staff of up to five times that number -- but Hallgrimsson, whose open laptop points to the fact he has been scouting the Hungarians on the day we meet, is setting their sights high once more.
"I really, from the bottom of my heart, believe that we are going to progress from the group," he says. "From there, our opponents will probably be one of the top teams and statistically, we don't have a big chance, but we've shown we can play our best games against those teams. Anything can happen, but at first we have a realistic chance of qualifying from the group and that would be fantastic for Iceland."
You suspect that those hoping patiently to be seen by their favourite dentist at the Heimaey surgery might just forgive him the extended wait.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.