The Spot

How Iceland Transformed From a Soccer Weakling to a European Strongman

Iceland’s midfielder Gylfi Thor Sigurdsson celebrates after scoring a penalty kick during the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying round football match between the Netherlands and Iceland at the Arena Stadium, on Sept. 3, 2015, in Amsterdam.

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

The European Championships start Friday, with hosts France taking on Romania in the opener and most of the world’s best teams in action soon after. Germany’s team is close (that is, lacking Miroslav Klose) to the same roster that won the World Cup two years ago. Spain is the two-time reigning European champion. Belgium’s golden generation has finally come of age. France has many of this year’s breakout talents and is favored to win the whole thing. England will presumably show up too, at least for a little while.

Forget all of them. If you’re a neutral fan, you should be rooting for Iceland.

Yes, Iceland, that far-flung volcanic rock with a sporting history highlighted by a silver medal in team handball in the 2008 Olympics, strongmen like Magnús Ver Magnússon and Hafþór “The Mountain from Game of Thrones” Björnsson, and a disappointing shootout loss in the hockey finals at the Junior Goodwill Games. Iceland currently sits at No. 34 in the FIFA rankings, despite having fewer people than Cyprus (No. 84), Luxembourg (No. 146), and Malta (No. 166). The total population of Iceland, about 330,000, is a bit higher than that of Corpus Christi, Texas, which is not currently ranked by FIFA. Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament, with the exception of Tahiti, which took Oceania’s spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Tahiti lost its three games by a combined score of 24-1, and that single goal set off celebrations in the stands in Brazil.

Iceland isn’t Tahiti. It isn’t going to France for moral victories. To qualify for Euro 2016, the Strákarnir Okkar—Our Boys—beat World Cup semifinalists the Netherlands home and away and took the maximum six points from home games against Turkey and the Czech Republic.

Root for Iceland because a favorable draw has left Björk’s countrymen poised for Euro success. Portugal played its three games at the 2014 World Cup on autopilot and often looks like Cristiano Ronaldo and his backing band. Austria, captained by Leicester City left back and walking autocorrect litmus test Christian Fuchs, are the 10th-best team in the world according to FIFA’s imperfect rankings. But the Austrians can’t play defender/midfielder David Alaba everywhere, despite Pep Guardiola’s efforts to do so at Bayern Munich. Hungary finished third in arguably the weakest European qualifying group, then beat Norway in a qualification playoff. Meh.

Iceland has avoided the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and thanks to Euro 2016’s new 24-team format, it could advance even if it finishes third out of those four teams. Once they make it to the knockout rounds, who knows? Twelve years ago, Euro 2004 saw the biggest underdog winner in modern international history. Greece was ranked as low as 36th in 2004. That team beat the previous winners (France), the only remaining undefeated team in the tournament (the Czech Republic) and the hosts (Portugal) on its way to the title.

Root for Iceland because the country has earned it. The sport’s governing body, the Knattspyrnusamband Íslands or KSÍ, has willed the national team up from No. 112 in the world rankings just six years ago thanks to a series of intelligent investments in instruction and infrastructure.

In the absence of a sudden influx of Brazilian immigrants, the KSÍ had to make do with what it had. It revamped the country’s coaching education in an attempt to improve the players already available to them. Whereas prospective coaches once had to travel to mainland Europe to get certified, for the past decade cheap courses in Reykjavik have allowed hundreds of coaches to earn UEFA’s  A and B licenses. As a result, all but the youngest Icelandic children are now being trained by someone who knows what he’s doing. Davis Harper writes in Howler Magazine that there’s a UEFA-qualified coach for every 500 Icelanders. In England, that number is closer to 1 for every 10,000 people.

Of course, Iceland has a challenge that England doesn’t: the environment. Heavy winds and the temperatures that earned the island its name make outdoor play difficult for much of the year. As a consequence, the KSÍ commissioned 15 publicly owned indoor pitches, transforming a seasonal hobby into a year-round endeavor. They supplemented those with more than 20 new outdoor turf fields and more than 100 new mini-pitches scattered throughout the country. The first of these indoor pitches was built in 2000. Sixteen years later, the first group of players to come of age with the new facilities and the new coaches has qualified for the nation’s first-ever major tournament.

Before this revamp, the history of Icelandic soccer read as a saga of lone stars venturing to the mainland in search of their fortune. Thus did Ásgeir Sigurvinsson, who played for Standard Liege in Belgium and Bayern Munich and Stuttgart in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, beget Arnór Guðjohnsen of Anderlecht and Bordeaux, who begat (literally, in this case) Eiður Guðjohnsen, who saw time for Chelsea and Barcelona last decade and made the Euro 2016 roster as a 37-year-old elder statesman.

These stars returned to the island to lead their teams against the giants of Europe, and were always swatted aside. There’s a little bit of that legacy left. Swansea attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson is the unquestioned star of this squad—he scored nine goals in Swansea’s last 17 games to keep them safely in the Premier League and led Iceland with six goals in qualifying—but none of the 23 players on the country’s final Euro roster plays his club soccer in Iceland.

Captain Aron Gunnarsson has Premier League experience with Cardiff City. Forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, who spent time at Ajax before moving to Nantes in France, is at age 26 already his country’s second-leading all-time scorer. Goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson, who in 2012 supplemented his income from the Icelandic league by directing his country’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, plays in Norway now. Iceland’s new approach to soccer nation-building has lifted all boats instead of launching one of them.

Root for Iceland because its success offers a valuable lesson for the rest of the world. Practically, it’s not possible for most countries to duplicate Iceland’s revamp. A commensurate level of investment in a country with 1,000 times more people would be beyond the means of U.S. Soccer, no matter what percentage of revenues it devoted to development. Besides, the federation has to answer other questions about how it’s spending its money.

But that doesn’t mean Iceland’s example can’t be helpful. Some fans in the United States, mostly casual ones, believe our rise as a soccer power won’t begin until the elusive American Messi is unearthed. Maybe, some people say, we need to be luring our country’s “real athletes”—often an unsubtle code for black Americans—away from football and basketball. Or maybe the problem is that our emphasis on winning in youth soccer weeds out smaller, late-developing players who might have command of the touch and creativity needed to succeed at the international level. Usually, but not always, this refers to Latino players.

Both camps are right, to some extent, even if their arguments are tactless. Expanding the sport’s demographic appeal can’t be a bad thing, and sometimes smallish late-bloomers develop the kinds of skills that can change the face of a sport. But Iceland’s success proves that these sorts of players are soccer MacGuffins. To focus on them is to miss the point.

With just more than 20,000 registered soccer players in the whole country there’s no place for a real athlete, or even a diminutive wizard, to hide in Iceland. “Of course, it could happen here, as everywhere else, that some talented player who is small, we’ll miss out on him,” Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, the KSÍ head of coaching education, told last year, “but we know of every player who is good in football because of the size of the country and how few we are.”

Compared to that 20,000, the potential U.S. pool—about 1.6 million boys registered with U.S. Youth Soccer in 2014, plus all those basketball and football players us soccer types are going to lure away, some day—seems limitless, and that can be a distraction. The assumption that there may be someone better out there diverts attention from the responsibility to make the players we have better. The American Messi isn’t hiding somewhere. We’ll have to build him ourselves. Root for Iceland because they’ve already figured out what we might never understand.

Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016.