It is one of the greatest stories in soccer. Iceland, a country of 340,000, one of the most sparsely populated in the world, just south of the Arctic Circle, qualifying for the World Cup. The smallest nation to ever do so.
The story climaxed on Monday when the best player in Icelandic history, Gylfi Sigurdsson, wrote yet another thrilling chapter. His goal beat Kosovo, and sent Iceland to Russia. Fans screamed. Fireworks erupted.
— Alex Mandziy (@OleksiyTheFirst) October 9, 2017
And a nation celebrated as only it can. With its coordinated Viking clap, of course:
— RÚV Íþróttir (@ruvithrottir) October 9, 2017
Its story is one that commenced almost two decades ago, and one that cannot be told by a silly little statistic. But we’ll begin with the statistic, and work backward.
Iceland isn’t just the smallest nation to ever appear at a World Cup; its population is less than half that of Paraguay in 1930, and about a quarter of Trinidad and Tobago’s in 2006 – the previous modern-era record (Paraguay did not have to qualify in the traditional sense in 1930):
SMALLEST NATIONS TO APPEAR AT MEN’S WORLD CUP
|Trinidad and Tobago||2006||1.3 million|
|Northern Ireland||1958||1.4 million|
|United Arab Emirates||1990||1.9 million|
|Costa Rica||1990||3.1 million|
|New Zealand||1982||3.2 million|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||2014||3.6 million|
|El Salvador||1970||3.7 million|
So how have they done it? They began with a plan. And with what surely seemed like ludicrous ambition.
Around the turn of the century, the project commenced. It required money, which Iceland had. It required patience and determination, which, we would soon find out, Iceland had in droves. And it required a laundry list of other things nobody thought possible.
Iceland wasn’t exactly a soccer hotbed, in part because its climate isn’t exactly conducive to the beautiful game. It’s a volcanic island closer to Greenland than to the British isles, Norway or mainland Europe. The lowest temperature on record is almost -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter averages are below freezing. Summer averages are below 50.
So Iceland poured money into heated indoor complexes, which began popping up around the country, in major cities and minor ones. It also built heated outdoor fields, especially next to schools. Kids flocked to them to learn the game.
But the island nation was still operating at a fundamental numbers deficit. Three-hundred thousand-plus people shouldn’t be enough to build a World Cup-caliber soccer team. Iceland, though, had a solution.
If it didn’t have as many kids playing the game as the Netherlands or Turkey or Ukraine – all of whom are set to miss out on the 2018 World Cup – it would make sure its kids were, on average, better educated. It dedicated resources to youth development by investing in coaching. From the excellent Guardian article titled “Football, fire and ice”:
“Bolstered by the TV money pouring into every UEFA country, Iceland set up an open, hugely popular training scheme. Currently this nation of 335,000 has around 600 qualified coaches, 400 with UEFA B licenses, or one per 825 people. To put this into context, in England this number falls to one per 11,000.”
“Here you need a UEFA B license to coach from under-10 level up and half of the UEFA B license to coach under-eights,” Dagur Sveinn Dagbjartsson of the Icelandic FA says. This isn’t simply box-ticking. The UEFA B is one step off the level needed to coach a professional team in England. Yelling dads it ain’t.
“Even if you start training at four years old you get good quality coaching. Every coach in Iceland gets paid, we don’t have any amateurs,” [Dagbjartsson says.] “Every kid who plays pays an annual fee and can go and train with a professional club. My own kid started when he was three. One coach had the UEFA A license and one the B license.”
Inside those indoor soccer halls, and under those over-qualified coaches, Iceland built something special. It built a team that, two decades later, is going to the World Cup. Against all odds.
That same team, at one point during the last qualification cycle, was ranked 133rd in the FIFA Rankings. But the grassroots project finally started to yield results at the senior level. The national team finished second in its 2014 World Cup qualifying group, and only missed out on the Finals in Brazil with a playoff loss to Croatia.
It then rode some luck and some upsets to qualify for Euro 2016 – the smallest nation to ever accomplish that feat as well. And it captured the imagination of Europe in France, advancing to the quarterfinals with an upset of England. Its supporters also took the tournament by storm with their now-famous routine:
Now it has taken another gigantic, previously unthinkable step, to the World Cup. It is no longer just a cute Cinderella story. Its rise is as legitimate as can be. And it – the team – and they – the fans – will not be silenced anytime soon.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.