The tiny Nordic nation’s World Cup success is no fluke and has lessons for us, writes Lesley Riddoch
We are all Icelanders now. Two years ago, when Iceland beat England in Euro 2016, the world witnessed a sub-Arctic nation of just 330,000 people out-perform a former footballing “great” with a population of 60 million.
Last year, the Icelanders qualified for the World Cup. This weekend they faced the mighty Argentina in their opening game in Russia. Amazingly, Iceland defied all logic and expectation to produce a one-all draw with a footballing giant that’s won the World Cup twice and been runners up three times.
Iceland had a football world ranking of 130 four years ago, but are now 30th. This is their first World Cup, and they are the smallest country to ever reach major football finals. There are only 21,500 registered football players in a country with just 330,000 people, 160,000 horses and 200,000 sheep.
What’s not to like and downright admire? Even though Good Morning Scotland miraculously failed to find any Iceland supporters in Scotland before the World Cup, I’d imagine many Scots will be glued to their next game against Nigeria on Friday.
So what is the secret of the Icelanders’ success?
It isn’t the terrain – “a cacophony of sweeping volcanic hills, dried lava plateaus and ominous mountain ridges” means pitches are sand or gravel flatbeds of dried volcanic magma. It isn’t the climate -- the snow-laden winter months mean the Icelandic national team didn’t play on grass until 1957. It’s partly the growth of indoor stadiums in every village – and the support. One-eighth of Iceland’s population travelled to France for Euro 2016. 99.8% of all Icelandic televisions were tuned in to watch. Icelandic fans are called “Tólfan” (“The Twelve”) because their unswerving support creates a twelfth player on the pitch. But the Tartan Army’s remarkable decades-long dedication hasn’t lifted the Scotland team out of the doldrums – so something else must be happening.
It is. I got a whiff last week, walking past the national stadium in Reykjavik one night while making a film. The full stadium, full car park, buses from distant towns like Akureryi (five hours drive away) and the roar of the crowd suggested it must be World Cup related. It was – and it wasn’t. It was the sound of Iceland Women’s football team qualifying for the Women’s World Cup by beating Slovenia in front of a packed stadium. When I asked an excited steward for the secret of the Icelander’s success she said, “the water” and winked. The fact women footballers are paid the same bonuses as the men, clearly helps.
But something even more fundamental happened to change the motivation of Icelandic teenagers more than 25 years ago, when a young researcher at the University of Iceland, called Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir examined American research about addiction. It revealed clear differences between the lives of kids who took up drinking, smoking and drugs, and those who didn’t. A few factors emerged as strongly protective: participation in organised activities – especially sport – played three or four times a week, total time spent with parents during the week, feeling cared about at school, and not being outdoors in the late evenings.
Other nations probably saw that research too. But Iceland put it into action. A new national plan was gradually introduced called Youth in Iceland. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Parental organisations had to be established in every school (by law), along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a lot of time with their children not just occasional “quality time” and on keeping their children home in the evenings. An outdoor curfew was placed on children aged 13 to 16 after 10pm in winter and midnight in summer. It’s still in effect today. State funding was massively increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids ways to feel part of a group, and to experience the power of natural highs, instead of using alcohol and drugs. In Reykjavik, a Leisure Card gives families £250 per year per child to pay for recreational activities.
The results have been stunning.
Twenty years ago, Icelandic teens were among the heaviest-drinking youths in Europe. Today, they top the European league table as the cleanest-living. The percentage of 15 and 16 year-olds, who’ve been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 per cent in 1998 to 5 per cent in 2016. Cannabis use fell from 17 to 7 per cent. Daily cigarette use plummeted from 23 to just 3 per cent.
Has this impacted on the health and mental outlook of Iceland football squads –men and women? You bet.
After the Euro 2016, Iceland coach and part-time dentist Heimir Hallgrimsson
said; “What’s changed for us? Our coaching, our facilities, the way we train. There’s an explanation for all of it. Scotland is a traditional football nation but that’s maybe what keeps you down. Tradition.”
Hallgrimsson is right in more ways than he could possibly know. Traditionally, football in Scotland has been a male affair with an exclusive culture that displaces everything else. The Icelanders, by contrast, have used their ancient skills of story-telling and modern film-making industry to wrap an entire vibrant culture around their football teams, as demonstrated by their promotional videos. The incredible Icelandic Coke ad directed by goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson, was produced by two local film companies. The main theme is the “Hú” clap with the rhythm speeding up throughout the ad. Essentially, the Icelanders “borrowed” a simple chant devised by Motherwell fans and created a powerful Viking myth, just as surely as Mel Gibson spotted the untold story of William Wallace and made it an international best-seller.
Iceland is not just living the dream – they’re filming it. Meanwhile, a filmmaker we interviewed in Reykjavik said she had not seen a single Scottish film. No wonder. Creative Scotland hands out a tiny fraction of the cultural cash always available in Iceland despite its near bankruptcy ten short years ago.
So let’s not just follow Iceland in the World Cup. Let’s learn how motivation, putting children first and financing culture can combine to create a truly beautiful game, enjoyed by everyone.