ZURICH, May 10 (Reuters) - For most of Iceland’s footballing history the Nordic country’s national team have been regarded as also-rans, their fortunes best summed up by their top player Gylfi Sigurdsson.
“When I was young, everyone told me: too bad you are from Iceland,” the attacking midfielder once said. “You are never going to play at a major tournament.”
Yet Sigurdsson was at Euro 2016 and is now set to take part in the country’s first World Cup in Russia next month.
With a population of 340,000, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the tournament. Their first venture at the finals will see them face Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as well as Argentina and Croatia.
Hallgrimsson, however, likes to think of them as different — whether for their remarkable grass roots programme, the spirit in the squad or the fact that the coach meets supporters in the pub to talk about their tactics.
In an interview with Reuters after giving a presentation at the FIFA Museum, the 51-year-old recalled that when he joined Iceland as assistant coach in 2011, the team were unloved.
“Half the seats were empty at international games,” he said, sipping a beer. So he tried the personal touch.
Hallgrimsson offered to meet the Tolfan, the team’s supporters’ group, in a nearby pub before home games.
He would give them the lineup “before even the players knew it,” talk them through the tactics and show them the same motivational video the players would see.
“The first time we did it, seven supporters turned up. Now we get 500 or 600 people,” he said.
“There is one rule: nobody takes pictures or makes a recording, nobody puts anything online. Nothing has ever leaked out. That shows the respect for the national team.”
Iceland’s change in fortunes began about 15 years ago when the country began building indoor artificial pitches.
There are now dozens of them around the country, owned and administered by municipal governments, prompting a boom in participation in the sport.
With 25,0000 registered players, an impressive seven percent of the population play organised football, rising to 30 percent in the 15 to 16 age group.
Although children have to pay to play, part of the fee is subsidised and it goes towards paying the coaches, another key to Iceland’s success.
The country boasts 600 coaches holding UEFA licences, most earning a welcome addition to their regular income.
Hallgrimsson said that young players, meanwhile, are given “organised and fun training which helps with inner motivation and makes them fall in love with the game,”
It is one of the benefits of being a small country.
“It’s our system and it works in our country,” said technical director Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, suggesting it would not be feasible in larger nations.
Another plus is that it is easier to get things done.
“We don’t think of our disadvantages as disadvantages,” said Hallgrimsson.
“If you want to change something, you maybe need to speak to one or two people. In a big country, you have to go through many steps and then, maybe, it doesn’t get accepted anyway.”
For example, if the women’s team need Hallgrimsson’s help, they do not have to go far — as he doubles as their scout.
One theme that runs through Icelandic football is that everyone is treated equally.
Hallgrimsson — who still works part time in his original profession as a dentist — proudly pointed out that Everton forward Sigurdsson, their most recognised player, is also the one with the best work rate.
“That’s what identifies the team’s spirit. We’ve got a bond between the fans and the team, and that’s what we need to get results,” he said.
“Nobody is too big to play for this team. Our biggest star is also the guy who works the hardest.”
“We know we can’t be best in all areas, we are Iceland,” he added. “If we tried to emulate Spain or Germany we would be a bad replica.”
Instead, Iceland’s philosophy was to concentrate on being better in certain aspects of the game.
“We know we don’t have the best passing team, so we are not bothered about statistics about successful passes, or percentage of ball possession... we have to be better elsewhere,” he said.
“We have to be harder-working than our opponents, we have to be disciplined, we have to be really organised, we have to be focused, we have to be good at set pieces... so these are things that have to be instilled in all our players.”
Iceland will even stop short at some of the tactics widely seen as necessary to win in the modern game.
“We pride ourselves on being very honest; we don’t lay on the ground and fake injuries, that is just not in our nature,” said Gunnarrsson. “Sometimes we are in the lead and we want to keep the lead, but we are terrible at wasting time.”
That approach is just one more thing which makes Iceland different — and proud of it. (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)