Football Islands – Iceland

Iceland or Ísland is a large mountainous rocky island nation that sits in the North Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America. The name of the country itself is somewhat confusing as this is not a place covered in ice – only 10% of Iceland is actually covered by glaciers.  

While lacking in warm summers there is a surprisingly mild climate and there are countless geothermal hot-spots, Sulphur beds, lava fields, waterfalls, black sand beaches and canyons.

Volcanoes, hot springs and a northern strategic location make this a unique place that attracts tourists from both sides of the Atlantic.

Human occupation of Iceland dates back to the late ninth century AD when Norwegian Vikings began settling.  Since then Iceland has submitted to both Norwegian and Danish rule before in 1918 Iceland was granted its independence – but still with an allegiance to the Danish monarchy.  

It was not until 1944 that the country voted to became a Republic.

Iceland can be a barren and desolate place, but is especially attractive if you seek solitude and some quiet contemplation. The island has very little by way of arable land apart from in the north where there are extensive grasslands where cattle and sheep graze.

For the outdoor lovers there are numerous landscapes that are stunningly beautiful and enjoyable.

The capital of course is Reykjavik, a place that is home to the majority of the population, media, banking and tourism. Some of the city runs on geothermal power and in recent years it has become known for its nightlife scene.

Hit badly by the financial crash of 2008 Iceland has made a good recovery thanks to a positive response from the government. Investment Bank bosses were jailed and financial houses were allowed to collapse unlike in many nations where they were bailed out by millions from the public purse.

Building positively for the future has moved Iceland into a far stronger economic position than many countries.

Likewise, the same has happened in football with Iceland building grassroots football structures carefully resulting in qualification for the 2016 UEFA European Championships in France. The Icelandic side overcame the Dutch, the Turks and the Czech Republic to perform superbly in a hugely competitive group – beating the Dutch both at home and in the Netherlands.

Despite boasting a population of just 330,000 the last time Iceland sent a seismic shock through Europe was when a volcanic eruption occurred under the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. This incident was notable because the associated volcanic ash plume disrupted air travel in northern Europe for several weeks playing havoc with tourism.

Out of the clouds has emerged a new generation of footballers with the majority of the squad progressing through the youth and successful Icelandic under-21 teams.

Experience meanwhile comes from 37 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen who provides the squad with his deep lying center forward unique technical abilities.  However, the legs have gone on this Icelandic legend – and this tournament in France will be his last playing football.

The key to success has been giving a generation of footballers the chance to train on an assortment of indoor artificial pitches.

For years the harsh Icelandic winters had made it impossible for youngsters to train and develop with football played for only six months a year. However, while many stadiums remain small and often consist of only a single stand, some clubs are sponsored by well known business brands and have developed adjoining full size indoor facilities thanks to stable club finances.

But the key to success has not simply been the growth of accessible indoor facilities.

The KSI Knattspyrnusamband Ísland or the Icelandic FA took the decision to appoint the experienced former Sweden manager Lagerback as coach of the national team. Lagerbeck has used his experience of qualification and tournament football with Sweden and Nigeria to tie together a group of promising and experienced players with a well developed coaching structure.

Traditional Icelandic characteristics such as physical strength and sporting athleticism have been matched with character and skill to produce a side well worthy of qualification.

More than 90% of the Icelandic population live in towns and cities that surround the Icelandic coast, mainly in the south west capital region near Reykjavik. Given this population concentration the top division of Icelandic football, the Úrvalsdeild Karla, is dominated by club’s that are either from Reykjavik or located in its immediate surrounding municipalities.

Imagine the Faroe Islands – but just that little bit bigger, and you get some idea of what club football is like here.

Vikingur, THÓR, Valur – just three club names that stir up all sorts of thoughts about Icelandic passion, heraldry and folklore.

Iceland is a young football nation and it was not until after independence that it played its first international football match against the Danes.  The Laugardalsvöllur stadium, now home of both the men’s and women’s national teams, was inaugurated in 1957.  Once upon a time many of the clubs sides played league football at the national venue but these days they all have small stadiums that they can call home for both domestic and UEFA club football.