Iceland’s development pathway has been the focus of debate following the tiny nation’s showing at Euro 2016. But underpinning all the investment is an intangible thread, which recently came under attack from one of the world’s best players: their mindset. In light of the comments made by Cristiano Ronaldo and others about the Icelandic mindset, Jon Hoggard looks to unpick how the national team’s mentality has been formed by the country and shaped by recent investment.


In qualifying for Euro 2016, Iceland became the smallest nation to ever to make it to a major tournament. Their success – as qualification and progression to the quarter-finals can only be seen as such considering the size of the country – has been long in the development, however,  following a significant, expensive improvement in infrastructure and coaching.

That Icelandic football has had large financial input into their infrastructure is not in question. Before the 2008 banking crisis, which had severe economic and politic consequences, the period of cheap loans allowed a large number of indoor pitches to be constructed, which changed football from being a short-term pleasure to a year-round obsession in this nation of only 330,000 people.

The coaching landscape has also been altered. In Iceland, if you want to be a football coach then you must have a coach education, even at grassroots level. Around 70% of all coaches have completed the UEFA B license, and 30% have completed the A license. Clubs in the top two domestic leagues get fined by the Icelandic FA if their coaches don’t keep up with the education requirements.

But one aspect of Iceland’s rise cannot be bought, or even taught – their mindset. Although almost impossible to define and difficult to pinpoint, it recently came under attack from one of the world’s best players. Following the 1–1 draw with Portugal in the first round stages, Cristiano Ronaldo criticized the Iceland team’s “small mindset” – a critique of the side’s defensively focused second-half performance. At the Player Development Project, we believe that “Who we are is how we play” – so with that in mind, what would anyone expect from a small nation but a “small mindset”? Is it that simple?

Well, yes and no. With a small leap in the logic, we can re-evaluate Iceland’s “small mindset” in the words of Siggi Eyjolfsson, ex-technical director for the Icelandic FA: “working with what you’ve got”. This is the mindset formed in the icy, remote country of Iceland, which truly helps us understand the way football is developed and played there.

To examine the mindset of the Icelandic football team, we must first look at the wider context which bred it. Heavy investment has been pumped into coaching standards and facilities from the late 1990s onwards. In the boom era before the 2008 bust, all-weather pitches and indoor centres were constructed; today there are 20 full-sized all-weather pitches and 150 smaller ones. Whereas players couldn’t play or train for months on end, football can now be played through the year. To put that infrastructure into context, that’s one full-sized pitch per 15,000 inhabitants – a very favourable ratio. It’s no wonder the current crop of players has been labelled “the indoor kids”.

Of course, pitches themselves do not lead to a successful development environment. Usually such facilities are made available only for the elite few, the players who reach academy level – but not in Iceland. Instead of being privately owned, these new facilities are available to everybody, being owned by municipalities who in turn allow clubs to use the facilities, so long as the members of the community are allowed full use when the club isn’t using the facility.

Many mini pitches were built in schools, which are also available for the local community. Funding therefore is shared between the municipality and the Icelandic FA, as the benefit is for all. Could this inclusivity form part of the national team’s mindset? How might it fit in with the “working with what you’ve got” philosophy? Well, arguably it’s because the scale is so small – community and football club are much more intertwined socially, not just financially. It is born out of necessity. Take the town of Vestmannaeyjar as an example.

Vestmannaeyjar can be seen as a microcosm of Iceland’s wider football context. Despite having a population of only 4,000 people, this tiny hamlet has produced more than its fair share of footballers. Herman Hreidarsson, the most-capped Scandinavian player in Premier League history, developed at the club, as did current national team assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson and Margret Lara Vidarsdottir, who has scored an amazing 71 goals in 94 games for Iceland’s national Women’s team. The tiny size of the town means that only a handful of players are available – the town is stuck with a limited pool. A tiny pool. In the words of Siggi Eyjolfsson, “They have to develop what they have got; they cannot recruit from elsewhere and don’t recruit for talent. The lesson here is that you can develop good young promising players from anywhere.”

Extrapolated across an entire population, is it easier to see (and even to agree with) Icelandic football talisman Eidur Gudjonsson’s assertion that the country is reaping the benefit and witnessing its “golden generation”. Population size hasn’t been considered a barrier to competing at the top level; instead, investment has been matched with the mindset that you make do with the people available and turn them into good footballers.

Another area that has seen a lot of investment is in the area of coach education. Hundreds of coaches in Iceland have UEFA licenses – in 2010, 630 coaches attended a course, which works out as 0.2% of the entire population. Importantly, coaching is a well paid profession in Iceland, making it an attractive choice of profession, but also it is an arm of the FA which is not run for profit. The aim is to spend money to educate, to make that education widely available, and to reap the benefit of good coaches and good players through a resulting improved level of football.

This is of course made easier by the country’s small population. A larger country putting thousands rather than hundreds of coaches through professional courses would struggle with the expense. Again, this is a good example of Iceland working with what it has got. There are currently around 180 UEFA A-qualified coaches and 590 B-qualified coaches in the country – so a UEFA qualified coach per 500 people. England, by comparison, has one per 10,000.

So how does this fit with Iceland’s footballing mindset? Ronaldo dismissed it as a “small mindset” based on their game-stifling performance against Portugal. But this could fit in with the country’s wider concept of making do with what you have. It is clear is that the national team has a philosophy, as manager Lars Largerback has said: “the thing that stands out for every successful team […] is to have a very clear idea of how to play. A clear plan.” Although this could be read as meaning that every game must be planned for and executed in the same way, it could also mean that each game must be looked at and given a clear plan relevant to that situation. After all, a team that comfortably beat Holland in a qualifying group by playing attractive attacking football could hardly be tarred with a “small mindset = defensive” brush. Iceland did just that; they adapted according to the situation.

The “small mindset” should instead be re-read as a “small country’s mindset”, and in Iceland’s case it is precisely what has brought them success. It is what has allowed them to develop players from a very small available pool on the geographical fringes of Europe; it is what has allowed them to plough their limited resources into coach education and climate-defying pitches to hopefully reap the benefits of better players. In the macro-scale of the Portugal performance, it meant that Iceland assessed the best way to approach the game to leave with a result. The best use of their playing resources was to defend deep, shut down the game and play on the break. It worked.

It was a similar story against England. Iceland were brave, compact and impeccably organized. They knew that the long diagonal ball against England’s full-backs could be exploited, and knew that the players in their team would probably come out worse if they tried to win the possession battle. Two fairly lumpy goals and a lot of rugged, tight defending later, and they progressed to the quarter final.

Who we are is how we play. For Iceland, a small nation, this means they do indeed have a small mindset. But only in the sense that they “work with what they’ve got”, or make the best of what they have, however limited their resources. Yet, interestingly, they do not see themselves as small when in game scenarios. As assistant manager Hallgrimsson says: “We do not think of ourselves as a small country in these moments. We know we don’t have the individual players of Holland or Turkey. We win on unity and hard work and organization, and we have to be better than everyone else in these areas.” In recognizing your more limited resources and setting up a plan accordingly, however, you can still read this as making do with they you’ve got.

It is a way of thinking that can be traced through most facets of Iceland’s football landscape: Only a handful of players available? Make do and develop them anyway. Non-profit-making coach education? Work with it and invest in them. Non-professional domestic competition? Work with it, and support people’s careers outside the sport. Short league season due to climate? Work with it, and invest in all-weather pitches. Have to practice on gravel pitches? Work with it (and win the league, as was the case with KR in 2003). Coaches often split time working in physical education? Make the best of their educational abilities. In the end, France proved too much for Iceland in the quarter final, but the minnows’ run in the competition turned many heads and caused much navel-gazing in larger, yet less successful nations. You can be sure many of those countries will be wishing that they had also entered EURO 2016 with a small nation’s mindset.




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