Football and Coach Development in Iceland

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With a population of only 329,000 and just 21,000 registered football players, Iceland recently managed the seemingly impossible by recently qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals.

How has such a small nation, with little previous notable success started to produce highly talented players good enough to beat Holland twice as well as Turkey and the Czech Republic?

Perhaps the key reason the standard of football in Iceland has risen dramatically is rooted in the level of baseline coaching education. For example, in the United States pay-to-play models, inconsistent and expensive coaching education prices out potential coaches while creating a fragmented educational standard of coaches within the system. Icelandic football regards coaching as a skilled position. Icelandic football follows a similar method Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands have employed regarding coaching education and qualification. For young players, the exposure to highly-qualified coaches produces players with a strong mentality. The approach is simple: to coach, one must be highly-proficient and licensed.


“The key is when the players start training at four or five years of age, they get a qualified, paid coach. Almost every coach in Iceland has a qualification. They have a UEFA B or UEFA A license. So when you are a four or five, or even three years old, you get a qualified and experienced coach. And, if kids get an experienced and qualified coach who is fun and entertaining the kids love the game. What happens when you learn to love the game, you go out on the training pitch and do something extra. You play football outside of organized training sessions. That is the mentality in Iceland. If you look at the other Scandinavian countries, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, in most cases there are parents coaching the kids until they are 12-years-old as volunteers.”


The commitment to a higher standard of coaching education works well for Iceland’s population size, but the absence of volunteer coaches also produces a higher pedigree of player in Iceland.


“If you compare that concept with a qualified, paid coach in Iceland who has gone through all the courses through the Icelandic FA with a parent in Norway or Sweden, it’s a win-win situation in Iceland,” says Arnar Bill. “That is why we are able to produce so many good players even though we are so few. Twenty years ago we didn’t do it regularly, so we didn’t qualify, but we are getting better. It’s not something that happened suddenly. The facilities are definitely helping us. No doubt about that. That’s one thing. But the coaches’ education is the other thing. We started with that system with the mandatory UEFA A and UEFA B license in 2002-2003 and now every coach goes through the same system and they’re qualified. The improved facilities and coaching education are better — these two aspects helped the most.”


The players from the 2002-03 group are members of the current talent-rich generation of Icelandic footballers. In Iceland, the responsibility of player development is balanced by the FA and the individual clubs. The dependence on individual clubs with qualified coaches to drive the bulk of a player’s development is further reinforced by the consistency of the national team training camps. The role of a club in a player’s footballing upbringing is tribal in nature in Iceland and mirrors the national identity of the nation’s football.


As the Director of Education for the KSÍ, Arnar Bill does not exalt on what Germany or the Netherlands do in terms of national playing identity. Players are taught to identify with their communities in both life and in football. There is little club-hopping in search of the delusions of grandeur for youth players in Iceland.  The country’s football league structure validates just how quality youth coaching pays dividends.


“I think the league structure is pretty good that way it is. The leagues are semi-professional. The players get paid, but they all do some job on the side and some do university. Many clubs are gambling too much with the money. They are paying too much with the salaries, so I don’t think there is room for making it fully professional. The best teams that always qualify for Europe and receive money from that can maybe afford to pay more with the salaries and bring in more foreign players, but there is no way a club can bring a full team of players making $100,000.  I don’t think anyone is interested in it, really. Unless there is a team that qualifies for the UEFA Champions League, they would have the money to do it, but other than that, who knows?”


Arnar Bill exudes an academic pragmatism. “I would say that Icelandic football has its own individual and national identity. We can’t copy what everyone else is doing. We are so few. If you spare me, I will tell you a story about why we are so successful. The main reason is the club culture, which I will explain. In Iceland there are no professional clubs. Every club is amateur.And when you are born into a neighborhood you go and play with your local team and that’s just how it is. And if your parents stay in that local neighborhood, you continue to play in that local neighborhood. You don’t change teams. Very few do. Everyone gets the same coach, everyone gets the same opportunity, and everyone gets the same amount of training sessions. The very best players might get to play with age group above to get better training opportunities. The girls are allowed to play with the boys to get more speed within a training session.”


The boldness of the Icelandic approach is the player-first philosophy and where football is not used as a way to eek money from parents and players. Rather, it is viewed a sporting pursuit that harnesses the strengths of a proud footballing nation. Arnar Bill is quick to point out that Icelandic football aims to avoid falling victim to a culture comfortable with using misleading buzzwords and catchphrases.

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Article Written by  @jon_townsend3

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