Wednesday, 29 June 2016
How did Iceland become Europe’s giant-slayers?
Atongue-in-cheek but tragically believable image did the rounds on social media during England’s defeat to Iceland. It shows a breakdown of the country’s population to reveal how unlikely the island’s victory was, notwithstanding the opposition’s total crapness. Starting with 334,000 people (a Wakefield or Ealing – take your pick), it discounts the cohorts not eligible for the men’s national team. By the time we rule out women, fat men, sheep shearers, jailed bankers and amputees, there are 23 men left: the Iceland squad.
We get it – Iceland is a small country. And now they’ll take on France in the quarter-finals after a crazy, unbeaten run through the legs of giants. After their draw with Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo petulantly dismissed Iceland’s “small mentality” and defensive play, adding: “They are not going to do anything in the competition.”
Yet there are many reasons why their victory isn’t totally inexplicable, even if Iceland does have a dentist as head coach. For 16 years, the island has invested in a player development system that puts England’s vanishing playing fields to shame.
Football clubs and local authorities exploited access to Uefa TV cash and pre-crash riches not by gilding the top flight but by starting at the bottom. From the age of three, any child can access Iceland’s army of 600 top coaches, or one for every 825 Icelanders (England has about one per 11,000 people). They train on a vast network of heated indoor pitches, often plonked next to schools. Sure enough, after 15 years (and in spite of ash clouds and economic storms), the system has produced some really good players.
But what else might explain Iceland’s triumph? John Rogers, a 39-year-old Geordie, has lived on the island for three years and never wants to come home. He works at the Reykjavik Grapevine, an English-language magazine, and runs itsTwitter account during games, offering such punditry as: “Óðinn’s breath propelled our heroic goalie to swat away that weak-ass header. #Euro2016.” (Óðinn is a Norse god.) “We started thinking of this as David v Goliath, but it has become David v all the Goliaths,” he says. “Iceland is generally an over-performing country and it’s hard to say why.”
“We’re impulsive and have this go-for-it attitude that goes for everything,” explains Rogers’s boss, Helga Thórey Jónsdóttir. Both also believe the island’s very smallness forges not only confidence, but also a winning, familial spirit. “Just look at how the team celebrated with the fans last night,” Rogers says. “They are playing for the people because they are the people – they drink in the same bars. There is no millionaire class but a real sense of kinship.”
Before the tournament started, Rogers predicted his adopted team’s path in France, including a 19-0 “rout of the meek Portuguese”. He guessed that Iceland would then meet England, and while his 100-0 prediction was out by a few, he otherwise nailed it: “The monied man-boys of England will be reduced to a quivering, teary spectacle after a volcanic bombardment of unstoppable shots.” So: bon chance, France – you may need it.