So this one time, I was on an Icelandic fishing TV show with the women’s national team coach of Iceland … No, really.
In one of the more random things I have done in my life (a very long list) I spent two days in a remote part of Iceland, fishing for the first time. One of my teammates and dear friends from my team, Kolbotn, in Norway, was Thora Helgadottir, Iceland’s starting keeper and a celebrity in her home country. I had a ticket booked on Iceland Air back to Norway after a visit home to Canada in August 2010 and I took Thora up on her offer to come and visit.
A couple of days before my arrival, Thora called me frantically, as she had just realized she had committed to being on a fishing TV show months before, the very weekend I was supposed to be there.
She explained that as part of the program, she was to be fishing with her national team coach Siggi, and another national team teammate, Katrin, at a fishing lodge in a remote part of the country. Thora told me that she had explained my forgotten visit to the show’s producers, and they had agreed to let her Canadian friend also take part. I tried to interject to let Thora know that I had never been fishing before, nor spoke Icelandic, two things that I thought would be crucial to contribute to what I thought would be the show’s objectives. Thora told me not to worry, and I was off on another fantastic adventure through soccer.
Which led me to spend two straight days in the company of Siggi Eyjolfsson, who has been at the helm of Iceland’s women’s national soccer team, since 2007.
Even before knowing Thora, Iceland’s soccer system has always fascinated me. First and foremost, they have a women’s pro league, in a country with similar geographical and weather limitations to Canada.
Secondly, they produce a very high quality of player, as I saw with Thora, who currently plays with Malmo, of Sweden, one of the top teams in Europe, as well as many others that I’ve come across in the years.
Thirdly, as a team, they qualified as one of the top eight teams in Europe for the Euro’s in 2009. Iceland is currently ranked 15th in the world, and at the last Algarve Cup, a tournament that arguably ranks just behind the World Cup and Olympics in terms of the level of teams attending, managed to knock off perennial powers Sweden, Denmark and China, on the way to a tough 4-2 loss to the U.S. in the final.
But what is most astonishing among all these facts? Iceland has a total population of 320,000 inhabitants. On the other hand, Canada, as of the latest numbers posted on the Canadian Soccer Association’s website in 2008, had 377,320 girls registered for soccer in Canada.
That’s right, as of three years ago, there were over 50,000 more girls registered to play soccer in Canada, than there were in the total population of Iceland. Furthermore, Iceland has only 6,000 female players total registered to play the game in their country.
So having a whole two days with the man that is at the helm of the women’s soccer in the country, being a total soccer nerd, and seeing after a couple of hours that I did not have a future in fishing, I began firing questions at him.
What was their secret? With such tiny registration numbers, how could they compete on the world stage? Even more, when it is repeatedly told to us as female players in Canada, how ridiculous a notion it is for us to have a domestic league, how could a country like Iceland, with many qualities similar to us Canadians, be able to make a league a reality? After I managed to sidetrack everyone from their fishing exploits (if you can’t beat ’em, get ’em to join you!) it became an engaging conversation with Siggi, Thora, Katrin and myself.
Once I got back to Norway, I extracted more information from another teammate of mine, Vanja Stefanovic, a Serbian international who had played professionally in Iceland for 10 years. The following are the main answers from Siggi, Thora, Katrin and Vanja as to how Iceland is able to maximize a small pool of resources and have success in soccer that far outweighs their means.
1. COACHING EDUCATION
According to Siggi, 23.2 per cent of all active coaches in Iceland have completed the UEFA A coaching license with a total of 61.2 per cent having completed the UEFA B licence. According to Siggi, you will not find percentages this high in any other country in the world. “All of our coaches get paid for their work, even at the youngest ages. There are no volunteer coaches, and no parent coaches.”
2. TOP-NOTCH FACILITIES
Both Siggi and Vanja cited the abundance of top training facilities in Iceland that allowed for teams to train three or four times a week, even at the youngest of ages, through the winter. Playing on a good surface without dealing with bad temperatures, allowed players to develop their skills consistently from a young age.
3. FORMER PLAYERS BECOMING COACHES
Because of the professional league in Iceland, there are many female players that had played for a long time at the highest level, who have a high degree of soccer IQ.
4. A DOMESTIC LEAGUE
According to Thora, Katrin, Siggi and Vanja, having a domestic league has been crucial for Iceland’s success despite its minuscule population. According to Siggi, being able to have access to watch players and monitor their growth has been crucial in player development and selection for the national team. Thora said that being able to play against top women’s players in the domestic league, from when she was a precocious teenager helped her development immensely.
5. A BELIEF IT CAN BE DONE
Katrin, the fourth member of our fishing crew, who starred at the time for the NCAA University of California Berkeley and who just won the FAWSL with Liverpool, said that the Icelandic mentality is that anything can be done. “We work together and people believe that they can do whatever their heart desires.”
Perhaps if I had had that “can-do” attitude toward my fishing I would have had a more successful day on the river. But that’s another story.
That being said, it was one of the most fascinating, educational soccer days that I have ever had. My thought to this day is that Canada could learn a thing or two from Iceland. And imagine the remarkable possibilities, if we too were to work together within a functioning, collaborative system, believe we could do it, and maximize our resources.