How Tiny, Desolate Iceland Built a World-Class Soccer Team

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A rural road in Iceland

Iceland’s qualification for the 2016 European Football Championship was supposed to be both the beginning and the end of a feel-good story. Nobody expected the upstarts to do much in the tournament, but everyone was happy to see the team make it for the first time.

The odds were against the team from the beginning, as Iceland has never qualified for a major international tournament before. One of the managers, after all, works part-time as a dentist. With more volcanoes in Iceland (126) than professional soccer players (120), what chance could Iceland have against the deep-pocketed and battle-tested teams from elsewhere in Europe?

It turned out the qualification was just the start for the Icelandic team. They advanced past the group stage without losing a game and then defeated the freshly-Brexited English team with a strong performance. Iceland eventually lost to France in the quarterfinals, but their unexpected run will always be remembered.

Iceland’s remarkable performance as the smallest team to ever reach the quarterfinals shows exactly how an undermanned and inexperienced organization can succeed on a global scale. Here’s how they defied the odds and went so far with so few resources.

Complete Preparation

Iceland’s national team began drastically improving after hiring Lars Lagerbäck in 2011. Lagerbäck, a Swede, coached the Swedish national team for a decade until resigning after failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Sweden’s loss turned out to be Iceland’s gain, as Lagerbäck’s meticulous approach helped Iceland compete against more experienced teams.

He runs his team like a hands-on CEO manages a company. The manager’s strategy to hold so many meetings was dismissed by larger countries but ensures that Iceland is prepared for absolutely anything. Players actually look forward to these meetings and the information they provide.

With Lagerbäck on board, the size of the behind-the-scenes staff greatly expanded. Physical therapists, a cameraman for recording practices, and other important staffers came together to make a difference, despite never playing on the field.

This whole new philosophy helped push Iceland’s ability to compete in a way that’s far more effective than adding a couple star players. From practice to game time, all the players work as a narrowly focused team. One of the players jokingly likens this managerial style to brainwashing, yet he can’t find fault the results.

Confidence At All Times

When Iceland managed to play Portugal to a 1-1 draw, a frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo criticized his Icelandic opponents for having a “small mentality” and low ambition. The Icelandic team had no problem responding the world’s most popular soccer player.

“What can I say? Sore loser. Tough shit,” one Icelandic player told the press. Another Icelandic player exclaimed,” [Ronaldo] said we were lucky but you always need luck. Luck doesn’t fall from the sky, you have to earn it.’

Professional athletes are by nature confident and competitive. The Icelandic team, however, took that to a whole new level during their run in the tournament.

Confidence can have amazing results in helping people succeed. Researchers have found projecting a successful future image of ourselves makes us make likely to attain that goal. That works if you’re hoping to become a lawyer, attain a promotion, or in this case, compete in the Euros.

Further increasing Iceland’s confidence is the unique national psyche. Co-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson (the guy who also works as dentist) explains it like this:

“There’s an Icelandic saying: thetta reddast. It means ‘everything will be OK’ or ‘it will work out’.”

That mindset, coupled with heaps of confidence, might be the secret to Iceland’s success.

A Healthy Country

Iceland is known for its harsh winters and vast expanses of ice, but its population is among the healthiest on the planet. Due to a combination of genetics and lifestyle, Icelanders live to an average age of 83. That healthy lifestyle can be partly attributed to Iceland’s success in sports.

One of Iceland’s biggest disadvantages in building up a competitive national team is the small size of its population. Only 323,000 thousand people live on the island. With such a small pool to draw from, there’s a 1 in 2,000 chance of playing for the national team if you’re an Icelandic male between the ages of 20 and 40.

Despite those small numbers, Iceland isn’t unaccustomed to having world-class athletes. Some of the world’s strongest men come from Iceland, and these power lifters have done spectacularly on the international stage.

That brings to mind a quote from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: “A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” In this case, much of the population of Iceland has the potential to be an A+ player.

Lessons Learned 

Iceland doesn’t have the resources of some of the best soccer teams in Europe, but they went toe-to-toe with these teams and won some big games. The success of Iceland’s national team shows the importance of attitude and good management. Their unconventional approach to building up a team will serve them well as they try to continue improving.

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