Barely 24 hours passed between Scotland failing to reach another major tournament, and Iceland reaching the World Cup finals for the first time. Patrick McPartlin looks at what Scotland can learn from its distant northern neighbours
There are reasons why Iceland has, in the last two years, qualified for both its maiden European Championship and its first World Cup finals. True, a lot of the national team are tall, but it is not genetics that are behind Iceland’s stunning rise from relative oblivion to being the 22nd best team in the world.
So what can Scotland learn from a country with a population around half that of Glasgow?
1. Success starts with education
Education is considered vital to the progression of youngsters and the Icelandic government’s sport policy requires children to take part in three sports sessions at school each week, one of which must be swimming, so as to avoid specialisation early on in life. Evidence suggests that railroading kids towards a particular sport from a young age can be detrimental.
But every Icelandic child is also allocated a UEFA-accredited coach from the age of just four. There are well over 800 coaches in Iceland with either a UEFA A or B licence, and they train professional teams as well as youngsters.
Coaches are free to adopt methods that work for the kids they train, rather than having to adhere to a national model that might not suit everyone.
A lot of this was the work of head of education Siggi Eyjolfsson, appointed by the Icelandic football association (Knattspyrnusamband Íslands or KSI), who spearheaded nationwide changes during his time in post between 2002 and 2013.
Eyjolfsson was brought in after UEFA introduced a set of standards, that Iceland used to implement a stronger footballing education.
Huge numbers of people expressed an interest in becoming coaches and 15 years later, Iceland has several top quality coaches.
KSI spokesman Omar Smarason says the work done on establishing a stronger football education ethos has been the main driver behind Iceland’s rise.
Nearly every player Iceland’s Euro 2016 squad was coached in their teenage years in the new system and the emphasis on coaching means Iceland now has more top-level coaches per capita than any other footballing country.
Similar to many Gaelic Athletic Association clubs in Ireland, there is a focus on the community aspect, with everyone encouraged to participate regardless of ability.
Youngsters are invited to train as well as build friendships, while games are based on relative ability rather than age group.
Speaking at the Scottish FA’s 2015 convention, current national team boss Heimir Hallgrímsson revealed how coaches get the best out of their players.
Hallgrimsson said: “[Coaches] develop all players. The best [players] move up age groups, the best girls train with the boys up until 16 years old. But everyone trains, everyone is allowed to attend practice.
“We have ability-based groups, so the best players train together, the mediocre ones train together and the poorer players do the same. They play against teams of the same level but still get the same standard of coaching.
“So a late developer won’t drop out. He’s not rejected at the age of 10 or 11 like in most countries, and that has benefits. We don’t lose kids from the system. If they get better later, they are still with us.”
2. Facilities have to be plentiful and be as good as the coaches
One point mentioned by Hallgrímsson, former players and former national team co-manager Lars Lagerback among others is that coaching is key but so are facilities.
There are seven full-sized indoor pitches in Iceland, as opposed to Scotland’s four: Oriam, Toryglen, Ravenscraig and Aberdeen.
The cold weather is one thing, but the many hours of darkness was also a stumbling block for the country in years gone by.
In order to combat the cold and the dark, the KSI focused on building top-level indoor facilities, dubbed ‘football halls’, before the economic crash in 2008.
Smarason said last year that football was ‘no longer a six-month game in Iceland’, adding: “There wasn’t exactly a target set [for the number of pitches to be built].
“It was something that simply developed 15 years ago when we started to build indoor football halls.
“By building the indoor football halls we created places where young and senior players could train and play in top conditions all year round.”
The indoor facilities mean players, both professional and otherwise, are able to continue training and improving throughout the long close season.
Smarason continues: “Facilities are all well and good, but you need to exploit them. How do you do that? You educate the people coaching the players.”
As of June last year - when Iceland won the hearts of millions with their performances at Euro 2016 - the country had 23 full-size outdoor pitches, the seven indoor pitches, and close to 200 smaller artificial pitches.
Most of the smaller facilities are attached to the country’s schools.
All the new pitches were paid for by Iceland’s clubs, local councils and sponsors. The facilities are essentially council-owned, rented by clubs but free for all to use.
Local communities and authorities are responsible for constructing the faciltiies - the state government does not get involved - and the clubs run them.
3. Sport in general is key from a young age
Rather than channeling all its efforts into football, Iceland has adopted a wider approach to sport.
There are around 22,000 registered footballers in Iceland, although there are estimates that a further 10,000 play on a regular basis, taking that total to 30,000 - or 10 per cent of the population.
And research in Iceland has revealed a direct link between sports and better results in school. About 90 per cent of kids aged 10 in Iceland do two sports and Hallgrimsson reckons this improves motor skills and lets Icelandic players adjust no matter where they end up - a belief perhaps backed up by the fact that none of Iceland’s national team ply their trade in their homeland.
Instead, the national team features footballers who play in 13 different countries - including Scotland, Italy, Germany and Greece.
Because of the importance given to the ‘next generation’, coaches are paid employees rather than keen volunteers and so many - including Hallgrímsson, who works as a dentist when he’s not leading Iceland - view it as a second job. Very few of the volunteers at grassroots level in Scotland stay the distance, no matter how keen or involved they are.
Many PE teachers and former players take jobs as coaches, not as a full-time role, but as a second job. It is considered a good profession and the quality of the training reflects the fact that the coaches are paid.
The money for wages comes from parents paying fees for their children to play and receive training.
The cost of fees increases with age, starting off at around £250 per year and increasing with each age band until players turn 19.
But not only are facilities free to use, local councils provide vouchers which cover part of the cost of the training fees.
Even some of Iceland’s smallest towns - with populations of under 10,000 - are flush with facilities including indoor and outdoor pitches, handball courts, basketball courts, golf courses and swimming pools.
The reasoning behind this is that it is impossible to tell where the next star player, in any sport, will come from.
Iceland’s aim is that children get an equal chance and the same level of facilities and coaching whether they grow up in Reykjavik, or a small village.
4. Plan for the future
Iceland’s timeline to success illustrates how revamping the system has worked for the country.
They reached the play-offs for the 2014 World Cup, being beaten by Croatia, but qualified automatically as group winners for the next tournament, finishing ahead of old foes Croatia, the Ukraine and Turkey.
Iceland also qualified for Euro 2016 and reached the quarter finals, where they were knocked out by eventual finalists and hosts France.
But a word of caution for anyone hoping for a quick fix in Scottish football: Iceland began making changes in the early 2000s, and only really began seeing the benefits nearly 15 years later, and that was with extensive funding for top drawer facilities, pay-for training sessions and paid coaches.
Perhaps then, Scotland haven’t underperformed in failing to reach major tournaments for the past 20 years. It’s possible that this is as far as we can get without wholesale change.
Project Brave looks like it could be a step in the right direction and certainly the SFA’s performance director Malky Mackay has talked of the importance of coaches, as well as highlighting the need for education to play a key role.
The seven performance schools set up as part of the new project will combine coaching with the normal curriculum between the ages of 12 and 16.
But Iceland introduces sport to children from a young age, giving more youngsters a chance of making it and crucially, a chance to participate in sport full stop. Starting them early, from the age of four, means they grow up with the mentality and the drive needed for success. It is ingrained in them. It is proven to work. Mentality, culture and education are all key to Iceland’s success.
We are seeing an increase in Scottish clubs developing coaching for youngsters and seeking to play a bigger role in the community.
Scotland can’t copy Iceland. It can learn from and take inspiration from it, but a system that works for Scotland is needed. And Project Brave could well be that system.
The signs are that we are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.
Time will tell if Project Brave can improve Scotland’s chances of reaching major tournaments. But if the Icelandic model is anything to go by, we could be waiting for a while yet.