Iceland's journey: From sharing facilities with horses to Euro 2016
REYKJAVIK -- "As recently as 1998, we would train in a hall used for horse shows. We were playing on gravel, in horse s---, all that. It was just once or twice a week. And when we weren't there, the horses would come in."
As Iceland prepares for Euro 2016 -- the national team's first appearance at a major championship -- Gunnleifur Gunnleifsson, a 40-year-old goalkeeper who plays for top-flight club Breidablik, looks back at a time when it was impossible to treat football as a 12-month pursuit in the country.
Indeed, he stopped playing between the ages of 17 and 19, instead concentrating on a promising handball career that had taken him to the national Under-21 side. That seemed easier, playing in purpose-built halls insulated from the bitter conditions that prevail in Iceland from November through March, and it was only when his local club HK required an emergency goalkeeper for three matches that the football bug bit Gunnleifsson once more.
Yet change was happening behind the scenes. While Gunnleifsson flung himself amid the muck and the dirt, Icelandic football officials, in association with local municipalities, were putting together a plan that would alter the game's landscape in the country.
In 1996, the infrastructural committee of the KSI, Iceland's football association, had travelled to the Norwegian city of Bodo, situated just inside the Arctic Circle. Their purpose was to visit Nordlandshallen, a cavernous football hall that had opened five years previously and was used by local side Bodo/Glimt to train when outdoor sport was more or less impossible.
"We went over, looked at it and said that should be the future for Iceland," says Geir Thorsteinsson, the KSI's president, sitting at his desk inside Laugardalsvollur, the national stadium. "We sent companies, clubs and municipalities around Iceland a manifesto -- 'Football all the year round: The construction of football halls' -- for how we could adopt that model, and gave presentations with technical instructions and estimated costs. Everyone bought into it, so we could extend our season by two month and train in perfect conditions. It's the outstanding factor in our development; anywhere you go, even to the smallest town, you have access to one of these halls now."
A walk downstairs to visit the pitchside office of Kristinn Johannsson, the head groundsman at Laugardalsvollur, yields evidence of exactly what Thorsteinsson and company were keen to overcome. It is mid-April and the pitch is largely covered, with the new season to start in a fortnight's time.
There is much to be done but Johannsson would be forgiven for simply being glad the hard work is actually over. He keeps a scrapbook charting every single day of his work on the Laugardalsvollur pitch, and zeroes straight in on a photograph from February 2014. There is a translucent sheet of white where the pitch should be.
"See that ice? It's between eight and 14 centimetres thick," he says. "This year, it was between four and eight centimetres. That's what we are dealing with year in, year out."
When Dadi Rafnsson, Breidablik's director of coaching, looks out onto the indoor pitch situated behind his office, he sees 10 different games and training sessions taking place. The club is a shining example of everything that has happened since 2000, when the first of Iceland's Bodo-styled indoor halls was opened in Keflavik, 25 miles from Reykjavik.
Breidablik's followed two years later as part of a huge nationwide investment and three fundamental members of the squad that Iceland will take to Euro 2016 were educated here: Gylfi Sigurdsson, Johan Berg Gudmundsson and Alfred Finnbogason are arguably the team's main attacking threats and were produced in an environment designed to give everybody a chance to thrive.
"We have 1,400 players here; starting at three and going all the way up to the first-team," Rafnsson explains. "It's the same for boys and girls. I've travelled a lot, and nowhere in the world do kids get as much training, with as little money, with such educated coaches, in as good facilities, for as long. You can come and play here, be part of the club and represent Breidablik, whatever your ability. It's like training and playing for Liverpool even if you aren't ever going to reach the first team."
What Breidablik and other clubs can offer is enough to stir envy across countries that, in the last decade and a half, Iceland has outstripped spectacularly. Thanks in part to a subsidy from the local municipality, a child under 10 can train between two and four times a week for between €300-500 a year. A youngster older than that practices between three and seven times for no more than €600.
Of 29 coaches employed by the club, 16 hold the UEFA A Licence and 13 possess the B Licence. Throughout the 323,000-population Iceland as a whole, there are around 850 coaches who hold one of the top two UEFA licences. With 22,000 registered players, it works out at one coach per 15; by way of comparison the ratio in England stands at one in 35.
"It's down to good people and happy coincidences," Rafnsson says of Breidablik's success, the latest example of which will be a place in next season's Europa League. The club takes almost all of its players from the town of Kopavogur, in which it is situated; children rarely play outside their own locality -- Sigurdsson, who joined Breidablik from rivals FH, is a rare exception -- while poaching and scouting young players is almost unheard of.
"Our first team used to be known as a yo-yo team," says Rafnsson. "The joke in Iceland would be 'What's green and falls in the autumn? The leaves in Breidablik!' In 2007, the team had six or seven foreign players but the economic crisis hit and they had to be let go. We had to play the kids and the coach at the time, Olafur Kristjansson, brought a number of them through. They won us our first cup in 2009 and the league a year later. Sixteen of the squad's 18 players were homegrown and most were under 22, so it showed that we were doing something right. We have sold 19 players to European clubs in the last nine years."
The confluence of that economic meltdown, which began in 2008 and led to a two-year depression, and the ability to train footballers year-round led to an influx of coaches after many in office-based jobs found themselves unemployed.
Rafnsson himself joined Breidablik full-time after working for a bank and then, as the crisis struck, a local Apple provider. For some, football became both a safety net and a shining example of a society that stretches to offer second chances.
"It's very easy to come back if you fail in Iceland," says Rafnsson. "People catch you and you can go again, which means you won't slip through the net if you're talented and just develop a bit later. Because we are a small country I think everyone has the feeling that they matter in some way."
Finnbogason is a further example of the unwillingness to write off talent. The striker, who had an excellent spell in the Bundesliga with Augsburg last season, could not get into Breidablik's main Under-16 team when he was coming through but worked with the 'B' team before eventually securing a first-team spot at the relatively late age of 19.
Sigurdsson left Iceland for Reading in 2005, whereupon he also faced challenges before establishing himself as a professional. Four years later, when Rafnsson and a group of his colleagues visited the then-Championship club, they were surprised to see Sigurdsson playing at centre-back in a training session.
The manager at the time was Steve Coppell, who explained that Sigurdsson was not quick enough to be a midfielder in England and that his future could be in defence. It was only when Coppell left the club and was replaced by Brendan Rodgers, who immediately understood where the youngster's gifts lay, that things changed. Sigurdsson was given a place in midfield, coming off the flank, and thrived to spectacular effect.
On the international stage, Breidablik's star trio was heavily involved when, in 2011, Iceland qualified for the UEFA Under-21 Championship for the first time. Also playing was Aron Johansson, another Breidablik product, who has since become a full international with his country of birth, the United States; alongside them were two others who expect to start in France this summer: Basel midfielder Birkir Bjarnason and Nantes striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Although Iceland were edged out at the group stage, this was a tangible, mould-breaking success.
Five years later, the senior team co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson is getting ready to face Portugal, Hungary and Austria at Euro 2016. As well as what KSI technical director Arnar Bill Gunnarsson calls "a golden generation," Iceland's squad also features Eidur Gudjohnsen, hitherto the country's best-known player.
The 37-year-old made his international debut in 1996 while Gunnleifsson, who narrowly missed out on selection for the Euro squad, has been around the senior setup himself since 2000, winning 26 caps in the process. He is perfectly placed to describe the transformation in feeling around the country's players.
"The best example is Holland," he says. "In 2008 we played them in Rotterdam, and I'm not going to criticise former players or coaches because the mindset was just a certain way back then. In the team meeting before the game, the managers said 'We're going to try and keep the score at 0-0 for as long as we can and then go from there'. It didn't happen and we lost 2-0. Eighteen months ago we played them at home and the pre-match talk was 'This is how we're going to beat Holland'. This time it was us who won 2-0. The change in mentality is also cited back at Laugardalsvollur by Gunnarsson, who adds that there is more work to do by explaining that cause and effect do not necessarily go together.
"Everyone is obviously hoping that this level of success will continue but maybe this is just a one-off crop of talent and we won't come close to qualifying for a major finals again," says Gunnarsson. "If you look at the last few years, this group has always progressed the furthest, reaching UEFA's elite rounds at Under-17 and Under-19 levels before the Under-21 finals and what they've done now."
The job, then, is to make sure that the development does not finish here and the feeling within the KSI is that this must involve making sure the attitude that has brought Iceland this far does not diminish. Other countries have shiny facilities too, after all.
The generation of Sigurdsson, Finnbogason & Co. all had at least something of the more old-fashioned Icelandic football upbringing in their earlier years, moving between sports according to the seasons. Today there is the nagging concern that things might become too comfortable.
"Without our mentality we are useless," says Gunnarsson. "It's really, really important for us if we are to achieve anything and whenever you speak to a foreign coach who works with one of our players it's the first thing they say sets them apart. An Icelander is never satisfied -- he wants more and won't ever give up. That's how we are conditioned. Somehow, it's engrained in the culture and it's not something you can coach, whatever facilities you build."
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.