For decades, Iceland was just a tiny dot on the world map with 30 active volcanos. When one of them, the tongue-twisting Eyjafjallajokull, erupted in 2010, almost all of Europe was covered in volcanic ash. Air travel effectively stopped, severely disrupting the European economy. Six years, later Iceland’s disruption of Europe on the football pitch would begin.
In 2016, they ousted the mighty Netherlands to qualify for their first major international competition, Euro 2016. There they held Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to a draw and got the better of England. And with that famed ‘Viking Clap’ celebration, they became the most endearing team of the competition.
Now they travel to their first ever World Cup — as the only team that does not have a professional league.
They haven’t needed one either. Only defender Birkir Sævarsson, who has played for clubs in Norway and Sweden for the past decade, plays in Iceland. Everybody else is abroad in established leagues held under weather more forgiving than that in the Nordic nation.
In Iceland, football was a summer sport that ran from May to November. In the remaining months, the weather would disrupt any outdoor sport and people would move inside to play handball or basketball.
And so the country decided to embark on an adventurous project in 2000 by building 30 full-size all-weather pitches, seven of which are in indoor halls. In the next eight years over 200 smaller astro-turf pitches were built all over the country. At the same time, coaching was made a profession and each candidate needed a minimum UEFA B-License to practice – just one level short of being eligible to coach a professional team in England.
The idea was simple — focus on the youth, train them all year round in the heated indoor halls with licensed coaches, then send the best abroad for trials.
The plan brought in its first reward in 2011, when the youth team qualified for the U21 European Championships. That was the first time Iceland participated at a major event at any level, and their players were rightly dubbed the “Indoor Kids.”
“For this nation, the dome pitches were a revelation,” national coach Heimir Hallgrimsson, who was once a part-time dentist, told the BBC. “These guys now with us in the national team were brought up on artificial pitches. Many would have had youth coaching in an indoor dome. They could go out if the weather was good, but they always had good facilities to train.”
Five from that team in 2011 were in the squad that travelled to France two years ago, including skipper Aron Gunnarsson and instrumental midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson who plays for Everton. Now they travel Russia but no longer as the ‘Indoor Kids.’