Iceland’s Euro 2016 success is no laughing matter

Annecy (France) (AFP) – The jokes have been doing the rounds on social media since Iceland’s stunning 2-1 victory over England put them in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s winning goal made him a hero in Iceland while the last 16 defeat signalled the end of Roy Hodgson’s career as England manager.

“Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, We’re out of the Euros, And out of the EU #engice,” quipped one England fan after Monday’s defeat and the Brexit referendum.

Now hosts France are the next big name hoping to avoid being made laughing stocks by the Nordic minnows in Sunday’s quarter-final in Paris.

A big chunk of Iceland’s population of 330,000 is in France to support their team and the island is going nuts for football.

The mood in the Iceland camp is relaxed.

There are lots of jokes in their press conferences alongside a confident air of determination.

“This is the biggest game in our history,” said midfielder Birkir Bjarnason.

“I don’t think any team is going to underestimate us after the England result.” 

Unusually, the team has two coaches — Heimir Hallgrimsson, who works as a part-time dentist, alongside Sweden’s Lars Lagerback.

“We’re the team behind the team,” said Lagerback.

The duo have shared the duties since 2014, but this is their last joint venture and Hallgrimsson, 49, will take over after Euro 2016 as head coach.

Media interest in the smallest nation to qualify for a major tournament has exploded since the England win.

“Things went a bit crazy,” said press officer Omar Smarason.

– Nothing sloppy –

Journalists want to know the secret behind Iceland’s success, but the simple answer is hard work — and not being “sloppy”.

“We have set guidelines to work within, it’s about creating a standard both on and off the pitch,” explained Lagerback.

“For example, standards were a little sloppy and in the euphoria of the win (over England), a few of the guys were late to dinner the day after.

“Normally we’re flexible, but that was one of the details we brought up.

“‘Don’t think you are over the hill just because you beat England – keep the standard’

“I think the best way to challenge a footballer is to ask if he is 100 percent professional.”

There was nothing sloppy about how Iceland qualified for France.

They made the football world take notice by beating the Netherlands home and away. Before that, Iceland almost qualified for the 2014 World Cup before losing a play-off to Croatia.

Iceland had finished second-bottom of their group in the Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 qualifying campaigns.

Iceland’s success in France is the fruit of a decision made by their national football association (KSI) fifteen years ago to invest in indoor football arenas and improve coaching.

Lagerback has also been important.

Before he started to work with Iceland in 2011, the 67-year-old had taken his native Sweden to five major finals and coached Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup.

– ‘Priceless’ –

“His contribution has been priceless,” said Hallgrimsson.

“You have to realise that Iceland is a very small country, the coaches there are amateurs.

“So to have a guy come in, with all his international experience, was a big deal,” added Hallgrimsson.

“He probably doesn’t realise what he is leaving behind and what a difference he has made.”

Results in France have put Iceland on the footballing map, but Hallgrimsson says the challenge is to carry the success into the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

And to find the next generation of giantkillers.

“If you take your child, to football training (in Iceland) there is a 90 percent chance the trainer working with the kid will have an A or a B UEFA licence,” he said.

“I think we are amongst the best in the world for kid’s coaching.

“When it comes to 17,18 or 19, then it’s better to be in academies abroad, that is what we’re looking to improve in the future.”

Hallgrimsson switches effortlessly between Icelandic and English, the latter of which is often spoke in training for Lagerback’s benefit.

“Icelandic players are very adaptable,” said Hallgrimsson.

“Most of the team has spent some time playing in Sweden, so most of them can speak the langauge fluently.

“Even those who play in France or Spain, so they adjust quickly, I think that is a real attribute.”

Lagerback will walk away from Iceland after France with the team having outperformed their wildest dreams.

He has even been a suggestion to coach England, but the Swede says he has done his time on the international stage.

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