The Icelandic national men’s football’s progress into Euro 2016, and now the World Cup 2018, has left the world’s media baffled. “Why is Iceland, a team from a country the size of [insert small local town here], so good at football?” has become a regularly used trope in international Iceland-related football coverage.
A couple of years ago, we ran a cover story at Grapevine that looked into all aspects of the Icelandic game, from the trailblazing women’s national team, to a local groundsman and domestic club captain, to veterans like Iceland’s biggest footballing star Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen and retired international player Pétur Marteinsson.
They had some interesting insights into the country’s positive progress, from the development of youth training methods, to retaining retired players as coaches, to the construction of indoor pitches for year-round training in the difficult Icelandic climate. With so much international interest on the Icelandic game, it seems apt to quote them now.
Not a fluke
“Our current national team is not just a fluke,” said Pétur Marteinsson, a former national team defender. “It’s not something that just happened. It’s been a ride. Back in 1998, Gylfi and Kolbeinn and the rest of the national team were eight, nine, ten years old. They saw Iceland play France after they’d just won the World Cup, and draw 1-1, and they thought: ‘We can do this.’ Even those playing in ‘98 had their role models—Ásgeir Sigvinsson, who was one of the best players in Europe, and Arnór Guðjohnsen, who was a really good international player. When I was little I thought, ‘These guys are heroes! I would love to be like them!’ And today, hopefully we’re seeing the result.”
Iceland’s best known footballer and all-time top goal scorer Eiður Guðjohnsen echoed Pétur’s sentiments.
“The majority of the players in the current national team are… I hesitate to use the phrase, but you could say they’re a golden generation,” said Eiður. “They’re the first Icelandic players to make the Under-21 European Championship finals. They’ve been together for a long time. They’re also the first generation coming through since Iceland got indoor pitches—they’ve been ready to play abroad younger, and gather that experience.”
Eiður thinks the current team has every chance of paving the way for a bright future. “I hope that this team has set some role models for the younger generations to come,” he says. “Every boy dreams about playing in a European Championship or a World Cup. Maybe now they’ll realise it doesn’t have to stay a dream.”
Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, the women’s national team captain, has been playing in the national side since she was 16 years old. Sara became the captain in 2014, and has scored 16 goals for the national team alongside her 57 club goals.
“Women’s football has been developing and getting better every single year,” says Sara. “We have more good teams and more solid leagues all over in women’s football. The quality is getting better and better all the time. It’s a really positive time.”
With both the men’s and women’s national teams far outstripping the expectations, Sara thinks there’s more to come from both. “Our nation is very impressive in sports, given its size. It’s good for the whole country what the men’s team are doing. And the women’s team have already been to the Euros twice. I think it’s fascinating how far Iceland has come as a sporting nation, and how far we can go.”