The sky over Reykjiavik is bright the day Vikingur plays Fylkir in its first home match of the 2018 Urvalsdeild, the Icelandic premier league. There are 1,500 people in attendance, all seated in one single stand. Local fans sit on the right; their opponents on the left. There are no fences between them. A dozen children lead the chants for Vikingur by beating their hands on a Coca Cola billboard. Right before the end of the first half, left winger Madsen scores a header. The technical level is low and the rest of the match goes by with little to report.
In certain areas of the field the players struggle to stand still. “It’s too early to play outside,” says Vikingur managing director Haraldur V. Haraldsson, “Only a few days ago the field was still frozen.”
Due to the temperatures, the Icelandic national league usually takes place between mid-May and mid-October. This year, it started earlier to make time for the World Cup. After reaching the quarter finals of the 2016 European Championships, Iceland took the first spot in its World Cup qualifying group for 2018. With 330,000 inhabitants, it’s the least populous nation to ever compete in a World Cup. And with sponsors and broadcast money in short supply, Urvalsdeid remains a semi-professional league where you can still meet a goalkeeper who works as a videographer or a midfielder who runs a codfish exporting company.
Searching for A Warm Place
In the past decade KSI, the Icelandic football federation, has made a conscious investment in training its trainers. Today there are 800 of them with a UEFA license. That means that even a three-year-old kid coming from a remote village near the Arctic circle will likely learn football from someone qualified. “At the beginning of every training, we have them touch the ball three hundred times in six minutes,” explains Hákon Sverrisson, a coach at Breidablik, a renowned youth club that has produced most of the players in the Urvalsdeild. “We don’t focus on tactics or athletics until they turn twelve. There are no roles. If someone is inclined to play defense, we push them to play forward, and vice versa. We want them to experiment.”
If the technique of Iceland’s players has been improving, it’s also thanks to the proliferation of indoor fields, eight of which have been built over the last 15 years. Municipalities build them and clubs run them; the Breidablik field is a sort of community center, open around the clock and managed by locals. When school is over, young people flock to the stadium. The philosophy of the club is that everyone can play, regardless of their age, gender and actual skills. “About two of every three kids are not particularly interested in football. They only come because it’s warm inside,” Sverisson adds.
A Matter of Mindset
The KSI has also promoted the construction of dozens of artificial turf fields and over 120 outdoor futsal courts all across the island. One of the federation’s objectives for the next five years is getting more kids from the northern regions to try the sport, which is still relatively unpopular there because of the freezing temperatures and extremely short days of the winter months. “When I was young, fields were made of gravel,” recalls Gudmundur Benediktsson, a forward with Iceland’s team in the nineties, “In winter, we trained on the town’s commercial street, the only one that had underground heating that would melt ice and snow.”
Benediktsson today is a television commentator who achieved worldwide online notoriety for a one-minute scream after the European Championships win over England. “The risk with the indoor stadiums is that our players are going to get spoiled,” he continues. “Our main strength has always been our mentality. I hope the next generations can retain it.” The core of the current national team has been playing together since they were teenagers. There are no real stars and their style of play is unremarkable. Still, they’ve emerged as a force, winning seven out of ten matches in the qualifying round. Many date the beginning of this rise to 2012, when Lars Lagerback, who had a decade of experience with Sweden’s national team, took the reins. In 2016, Lagerback’s deputy coach Heimir Hallgrímsson took over. A kind but determined man, he comes from the remote Vestman, an archipelago of volcanic islands east of Reykjavik. Fewer than 4000 people live there and Hallgrímsson knows them all intimately. He is the islands’ dentist.
At the End of the World
It takes three hours on the ferry to reach the Vestman. In winter, no youth team from the main island will cross the stormy stretch of ocean. So once a week, the young players from local club IBV wake up early in the morning and walk to the same harbor that their families’ fishing boats have sailed from for centuries. The only difference is that they are going to play soccer. “Many feel sick during the crossing,” explains Richard Goffe, a 36-year-old coach of the IBV youth teams. “Then we often have to drive on a bus for a few more hours to reach the field of our opponents. When we win, it’s okay. But when we lose, the three hours back on the ferry are a terrible experience.”
Goffe was born and raised in London. He had been coaching in Shenzen, China, when he accepted an offer from IBV a few months ago. He’s not the only foreigner at IBV. The men’s senior team, which plays in the Urvalsdeild, includes players from Iran, Mexico, Argentina, France, England, El Salvador and the neighboring Faroe Islands. The club has no choice; when the local population is so small, shopping for players elsewhere in Iceland and abroad is necessary. In fact, every team in the Ursvaldeild has a few foreigners. They are often the only ones who get paid.
Goffe quickly got used to the culture of the Vestman islands. He points to how training sessions are run at IBV: “All players live nearby. It takes five to ten minutes for them to come to the field. So we can do many short sessions, instead of one long one. We try to focus a lot on the game, so that players can learn from each other, instead than from us.” This form of learning often happens across genders, a practice that is common across Iceland.
Playing for the Equalizer
In January 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to enforce equal pay by law. In soccer, the players from the women’s national team were already receiving the same daily pay as their male counterparts. Starting this year, they will also receive the same performance bonuses. “Until not so long ago, female players had to pose for a calendar in a bikini in order to get fans to come to their matches,” recalls Hallbera Gísladóttir, a 31-year-old left-back of the national team, “Now things are changing. I think it’s a good time to be a female soccer player in Iceland.”
The women’s national team qualified for the last three European Championships in a row. At the moment, they occupy the first spot in the qualifying rounds of the 2019 World Cup. Along the streets of Reykjavik, giant reproductions of players from the women’s national team stand side-by-side with those of the men currently playing in Russia. “When I took up soccer as a girl I didn’t even know who were the women playing for the national team,” Gísladóttir explains. “Today the girls who start playing have role models to aspire to.” It’s working. Today, one in every three children who begins playing soccer is a girl. And when the women’s national team plays, Icelanders go to the stadium or turn on the TV the same as they do when the men’s team is playing.
Until the early 2000’s, handball was the most popular sport in Iceland. Then, with the proliferation of satellite dishes, people began to watch the Premier League and other European leagues. In 2002, then 13-year-old Magnús Einarsson started a very simple website that published Urvalsdeild match reports so that people did not have to wait until the following day for the results. Today, fotbolti.net sports a network of photographers and journalists across the country and offers coverage of European soccer as well. “We all support at least one team in the Premier League,” explains Magnús, “Every weekend a few hundred Icelanders take a flight to England to go to see a match there.” Support for Icelandic teams is usually linked to the town or neighborhood in which people were born and raised.
“We were the ones who created the idea of soccer fan clubs in Iceland,” says David Svavarsson, one of the oldest members of the Silver Spoon, the fan base of Stjarnan, a club from Gardaber. Silver Spoon fans are considered the fiercest in Iceland, but they hardly do anything more serious than getting drunk at matches, throwing insults at the opponents, or invading the pitch after an important result. They have nothing on hooligans and ultras in other parts of the world. Svavarsson and the other Stjarnan fans also claim to be the ones who imported a chant from the supporters of Scottish team Clerkenwell, turning it into the “Viking clap” that has become the signature of Iceland’s supporters, known as the Tolfan, which means “twelfth man.”
The Tolfan are the fan base that every FIFA commissioner would like to have. They support both male and female teams. They encourage the team instead of insulting the opponents. They preach non-violence (unless provoked). There are no membership fees to pay and all activities are on a voluntary basis. T-shirts and drums are gently offered by clothing companies and music shops of the area. Two hours before every home match, coach and dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson goes to Olver, a pub in Reykjavik, and explains to around 500 Tolfan members who will start and what the coaching strategy will be. When he goes to the stadium, the Tolfan follow him, using the ten-minute walk to rehearse the Viking clap. The secret, says one of them, is the silence between one clap and the following one. It’s during that time that the Tolfan synchronize and become one.
In the Right Place
“There is no formula to our success”, says Benediktsson. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time.” The right place may actually be the secret to the Iceland phenomenon.
Geographically isolated from the rest of the world and constantly battered by rain and snow, Iceland seems to be cut off from so many problems with soccer today: hooligans, high-powered agents, gambling, and skyrocketing salaries. From the federation to the clubs, from the players to the fans, participants in the Icelandic soccer system behave more like the inhabitants of a small town, where everybody knows everybody else and nobody takes himself too seriously.
Standing on the hill that overlooks the training field of Hamar, the club from the town of Hreraverdi, is like tapping into the essence of soccer. Covered by a white dome, the indoor field lies in between snowy peaks. The grass around it is soft and green like moquette. Nothing moves, other than a stream of hot water that runs near it. It feels as if soccer is also a natural element, a feature of the landscape. But does this purity really exist? Or is it only a story that we like to tell ourselves? And if it does exist, does it pay off? And for how long will it last?
One thing is for certain: As the men’s national team battles to pass Russia 2018’s group stage, the landscape around Icelandic soccer is likely to change forever.
Originally published at Sportweek (in Italian) and at victoryjournal.com in June 2018.