Collaboration is the value that Iceland embodied to complete its decade long footballing journey from also-ran to Euro 2016 qualifiers.
For such a small country, it seems that everyone involved in the sport has played a role in making a difference, starting with the fans.
I was staggered to learn that 1% of the Icelandic population (3,000 people) travelled to watch the win over the Netherlands last week. Imagine 1% of the New Zealand population (45,000 fans) travelling anywhere to watch one of our national teams, even the All Blacks, compete abroad.
The players have certainly done their bit as have the national squad technical staff. Ably led by the evergreen Swedish manager Lars Lagerback the team has gone from recording just 1 win from 8 games when attempting to qualify for Euro 2010, to history makers.
Massive kudos must be paid to the vision of the Icelandic Football Association (KSI) for delivering on its vision of making the sport accessible across the island. This has been achieved through upgrading facilities and creating a world class coaching network.
The KSI offers a coach education programme that does not seek to make a profit.
The objective is help coaches improve themselves and to create a culture where on-going learning is both an aspirational target and essential for success.
By taking a long term approach a decade ago, the KSI backed itself to achieve positive financial outcomes by setting the sport up to achieve sustainable on-field success through player development.
Almost unbelievably, 70% of Icelandic coaches have either the UEFA A or B license. You must be qualified to coach in Iceland.
Across the grassroots spectrum (clubs, players, coaches and administrators) is the recognition that excellent coaching is essential for the sport to improve.
Players are usually only training three times a week. Due to the weather, pre-season lasts for 7 months before a 5 month season on grass. Excellent, balanced instruction ensures that young players keep enjoying the game while improving and not getting burnt out.
Junior training between the ages of 8-12 is very technical. The focus is on skill acquisition.
The national body seems to recognise that while junior pathways can look good on a PowerPoint presentation, and may mirror ‘best practice’ international programmes, it does not count for much if you don’t have a good coach on the pitch with the athletes.
The KSI is also very clear about who develops the player – it lies with the club, not the national body. This is due to the cost of travel to continental Europe and the challenges of time.
The role of junior coaches and collaboration was aptly summed up by national team assistant coach Heimar Halgrimsson after the final whistle blew to signal Iceland’s qualification.
Quoted in the Guardian he said “I would like to give credit to the youth coaches of Iceland. They are probably among the best in the world.”
The challenge for every youth coach in New Zealand is to work to match this high standard.
In a small country all elements of a system need to work for an outstanding result to be achieved. This is the opportunity presenting all stakeholders in the New Zealand game today. By following Iceland’s example we might also have a great story to tell in 10 years time.
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