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In charge Iceland is in the top seat of UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group A

If a country of just 329,000 people can beat the 3rd place team at the last FIFA World Cup twice in the last 6 months why can’t New Zealand do much better?

Iceland currently lead group A for the right to qualify for the 2016 European Nations Championships.  By the time you read this it may have already booked its first appearance at the finals of a major tournament as it was due to play Kazakhstan Monday 7 September New Zealand time.

It has beaten the Dutch home and away during the qualification pathway without conceding a goal.  Just over a year ago the Netherlands was basking in the comfort of beating Brazil 3-0 to claim 3rd place at the World Cup.

So what has turned Iceland into one of the most interesting stories in world football?

There are similarities between Iceland and New Zealand.  We are both geographically isolated nations packed with volcanoes and glaciers, sitting on a major fault line.  From a football perspective our best players have to leave the country.

Icelandic children have had the chance to see what can be achieved by following the exploits of footballers that have cracked the big leagues.  Eidur Gudjohnsen starred for both Chelsea and Barcelona as an exciting attacking player.  In recent years Gylfi Sigurdsson has been stand out for Swansea City in the English Premier League.

Young footballers realised that if they wanted to progress in the game as professionals then they would need to leave home shores and venture overseas.  This test of character is familiar for New Zealanders in many fields – sports, arts, music and career options.

Today over 60 Icelandic footballers compete in European leagues and many youth players are also based on the continent.

This experience of travel hardens players and builds character.  This attitude is apparent when watching Iceland play – work rate and commitment levels are high.

New Zealand is similar in this regard.  Over the last three decades young New Zealanders have been inspired by the achievements of Wynton Rufer, Danny Hay, Ryan Nelsen and now Winston Reid and Chris Wood in highly competitive European leagues.  A large number of footballers are based at foreign clubs and the US college system has become a development pathway.

However, New Zealand cannot compete on the second element that has helped shape Icelandic football – quality coaching.

The country has the highest number of qualified coaches per capita of any European nation.

At the end of 2013 Iceland had 563 UEFA B license coaches while another 165 held A licenses.  This is a staggering number for such a small country.

With many Icelandic towns closer in size to villages, this knowledge base means that quality, consistent coaching instruction is delivered across the country regardless of location.

New Zealand just does not compete in this regard.  We do not have the coaching experience.  If we did, the quality of grassroots ability at both junior and senior level would explode.

Our national league would be genuinely semi-professional (like Iceland’s) and our country would become a destination for professional clubs looking to acquire relatively low cost talent.

We match Iceland on the third metric – access to facilities.  While Iceland has invested in half and full sized indoor pitches along with 5-a-side surfaces in all schools, New Zealand is blessed through it’s relatively temperate climate to have access to decent facilities.

The Icelandic results are no fluke, rather the outcome of a decade of factors that have ultimately produced a very competitive national team.  The country just missed out on qualifying for the last FIFA World Cup, losing to Croatia in a playoff – another small country that punches well above it’s weight.

New Zealand should be producing more quality players than we are.

If Iceland, with a national population approximately 25% of Auckland’s, can perform at the highest level then so can we.  But, for it to happen, we need more quality coaches at all levels of the game.  A small population isn’t a valid excuse for mediocrity.

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