Iceland has a population of just over 3 lakh. The island country located in the Atlantic ocean is the smallest nation ever to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. The Icelandic soccer team beat Kosovo 2-0, booking their ticket to Russia 2018 and continuing one of soccer’s greatest stories.
Iceland is placed in Group D along with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. But don’t be fooled by this light-hearted suggestion that Iceland, and their bearded captain, might seem out of place among the game’s greats on the global stage. For all the focus on their record-breaking population, they were also the smallest country ever to qualify for the UEFA European Championship.
‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ seems to be the motto of a team that, over the past couple of years, has beaten the likes of Croatia, the Netherlands, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece and, most famously of all, England. These feats have earned them the tag ‘Giant killers’.
The football project
So how have they done it? They began with a plan. And with what surely seemed like ludicrous ambition.
Around the turn of the century, the project commenced. It required money, which Iceland had. It required patience and determination, which, we would soon find out, Iceland had in droves.
Iceland wasn’t exactly a soccer hotbed, in part because its climate isn’t exactly conducive to the beautiful game. The lowest temperature on record is almost -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
So Iceland poured money into heated indoor complexes, which began popping up around the country, in major cities and minor ones. It also built heated outdoor fields, especially next to schools. Kids flocked to them to learn the game.
But the island nation was still operating at a fundamental numbers deficit. Three-hundred thousand-plus people shouldn’t be enough to build a World Cup-caliber soccer team. Iceland, though, had a solution.
If it didn’t have as many kids playing the game as the Netherlands or Turkey or Ukraine – all of whom are set to miss out on the 2018 World Cup – it would make sure its kids were, on average, better educated. It dedicated resources to youth development by investing in coaching. Currently Iceland has around 600 qualified coaches.
Inside those indoor soccer halls, and under those over-qualified coaches, Iceland built something special. It built a team that, two decades later, is going to the World Cup. Against all odds.
That same team, at one point during the last qualification cycle, was ranked 133rd in the FIFA Rankings. But the grassroots project finally started to yield results at the senior level.
All the best Iceland!