A team more noted for their goal celebrations erupted onto the European stage in July with a series of eye catching Europa League performances. Tiny Stjarnan F.C. of Garðabær town in the Reykjavík capital area of Iceland are making waves in the early stages of the Europa League. They reeled in Bangor City, Motherwell and Polish runners’ up, Lech Poznan before landing the catch of the day: Inter Milan.
Having brushed aside Bangor City 8-0 on aggregate with relative ease, an impressive first leg away draw (from 2-0 down) and extra time home victory accounted for Scottish side Motherwell, while Lech Poznan were defeated without even the concession of a goal (1-0 on aggregate). Having now reached the last qualifying round before the group stages, Stjarnan must now overcome a home leg deficit (0-3) to advance past the mighty Inter Milan. It’s a tall order, underscored by the fact that Inter have won the competition three times and that the entire population belonging to the where the Icelanders play, would squeeze into Inter’s home – the San Siro – nearly six times over.
This is Iceland’s joint best performance – along with 2013 – in a European season since UEFA expanded the number of participants five years ago, allowing the mid-to-low ranking countries – such as Iceland and Ireland – four instead of three teams into the Champions League and Europa League. Performance is measured by a co-efficient ranking system based upon a five year average of points allocated by UEFA – 0.5 points for a draw, 1 point for a win and double that should progression beyond the qualifiers be achieved. Iceland are currently ranked 35th out of 54 in UEFA’s co-efficient ranking system, five clear of Ireland, with a sizable gulf in between.
The Icelandic national team is profiting too. A rise of 85 places in the last two years to number 46 in the FIFA World Rankings (20 places ahead of Ireland) had propelled Iceland to a World Cup play-off with Croatia. However, they failed in their attempt to qualify, losing 2-0 on aggregate. That begs the question, why Iceland are achieving their current levels of success?
One man who knows about football in Iceland is Skerries native and current Bohemians player, Steven Beattie. Beattie (26) spent two seasons playing in the Icelandic second tier with Tindastóll, arriving from America via Puerto Rico. He believes there are a myriad of reasons for their current success, the first unsurprisingly being investment. “The economy is thriving right now and they’re pumping that back into sport, which was first on the list apparently (following the country’s economic collapse). The big thing that I noticed over there is that you could be driving through the smallest town you’ve ever seen and there’d always be a 5-a-side astro turf pitch that the Government put in and a full-sized football pitch. The town may only have 800 people in it, but they still had the facility. The kids would play there ‘til all hours. You’d be driving home from games at 1am, it would still be bright and there’d be kids still out there kicking a football.” Those pitches – and the type he played on each week – were singled out by Beattie for special praise, “It was like playing on a snooker table week-in, week-out, whereas over here you kind of don’t know what to expect. I think that also helps them, you get a good surface, you want to play football and a lot of teams always had that attitude, so the standard improvement is not a surprise.”
Fishing for success
Beattie also adds that the fishing industry plays a large role, “The fishing industry is a major sponsor there and the main source of income for a lot of the teams. Fishing is a multi-million euro industry and the vast majority of the teams would be sponsored by the big local fishing companies”. Beattie, although at a second tier side was well looked after during his time in Iceland – taking a substantial drop in wages to join Bohemians. He states, “I was in a town called Tindastóll and the population was only about 2,500, but there was a massive fishing port from which they put money into the team, which allowed them to bring over foreigners and pay for a decent coach”.
Having the infrastructure and backing in place would prove futile without a competent skipper to steer the ship. Beattie acknowledges that as well as the foreign imports – attracted through sizeable salaries – the highly trained coaches also aid the country’s footballing development. “My coach was quite young, but quite experienced, he had his UEFA pro licence (Europe’s top coaching qualification) by the time he was 30. He’s only 32 now but he was able to communicate in both Icelandic and English, he was a great man-manager and the sessions he put on were second to none.”
The lack of government investment in facilities, the absence – in the main – of financial support and the hand-to-mouth existence of Irish clubs no doubt explains why only a handful are full-time and only one team pays their players 52 weeks of the year. With the resources available and the fact that the top tier and half of the second tier in Iceland are full-time, it’s no wonder football in the country is prospering.
“I think people don’t really know very much about Icelandic football and I didn’t know much about it before I went over. I thought I’d go over there, do very well and stand out in every game, but that wasn’t the case.” An honest opinion that probably tallies with the wider football communities’ opinion of football in the country. Finally, the energetic Beattie muses, “Playing there definitely improved my game though”.
Maybe the sight of Stjarnan taking to the field at the colossal San Siro Stadium against European heavy-weights tonight, may make people sit up and take notice of the Icelandic game. Either way, expect to see the Northern Lights shine brightly for many years to come.