Whether Heimir Hallgrímsson likes it or not, the anonymity is gone.
The Iceland national soccer team coach’s demeanor is distinguishable from the fame, fortune and egocentric nature of the global game as he gently smiles and quietly discusses his side’s recent qualifications, the European Championship in 2016, where they reached the quarterfinals and the World Cup this coming June. The accomplishments are the first entries into major soccer tournaments in the island’s history.
With that success came the media spotlight — on him, his players and his country, which is now the smallest to have qualified for the World Cup.
Hallgrímsson, however, enjoys the experience. In a sit-down interview last week at the Icelandic team hotel on the banks of the Hudson river in Weehawken, N.J., Hallgrímsson said he wanted his team to soak in the atmosphere during its United States tour. At the time, Iceland was coming off a 3-0 friendly loss to Mexico and had a meeting with Peru in a few days.
“I love everything about it, and my players are taking in the experience: the big venues, the [media] interest, really strong opponents,” said Hallgrímsson, formerly a dentist before taking on the national team role in a full-time capacity in 2016. “These games in these environments help us to improve our football because we want to be exploited and see our weaknesses to get better before the [World Cup] tournament.”
Off the pitch, the Iceland coach wanted to test the players’ and staff members’ resolve. Iceland played at Levi’s Stadium in sunny Santa Clara, Calif. in front of a large crowd of Mexican supporters before flying across the country to cold and blustery New Jersey for its clash against Peru. There, at Red Bull Arena — home to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls — the South Americans enjoyed a partisan red-and-white-clad crowd. Iceland’s travels in the group stage aren’t as treacherous, but Hallgrímsson wanted his team and staff to adapt to the time difference, hostile crowds and climate as it juggled some marketing assignments on tour.
The island nation with a population of approximately 340,000 was an afterthought in competition not long ago and was looked at as a guaranteed win for much of Europe’s heavyweights. But that all changed less than 20 years ago, when Iceland’s federation received funds that it earmarked for construction of several indoor facilities that allowed players–youth and experienced–to train year-round on pristine fields.
The movement installed a professional environment for players as young as six, and Iceland’s small population helped coaches, which were ordained with top-level licenses to conduct practices, easily track prospects. Today, almost all of Iceland’s senior team players play abroad in more prominent leagues and are technically superior to what Hallgrimsson recalls when he played years ago on gravel and lumpy grass fields.
“We’re still not finished, we [strive] to continue to improve our football,” Hallgrimsson said. “Success is not going to the World Cup, it’s a continuous journey to the right direction.”
One of Iceland’s veterans, Emil Hallfredsson, on the books for Udinese in Italy’s Serie A, is a product of that system. Hallfredsson admits his side is not the most glamorous but is a hard-working, blue-collar team that absorbs pressure and is collectively compact enough to compete with the best.
“We do what we’re good at, it’s that simple,” Hallfredsson said before training at the New York Red Bulls’ facility in Whippany, N.J., ahead of the Peru friendly. “We can sit back and wait for the teams and then we can punish you.”
That mindset is a psychological aspect that Hallgrimsson breeds and condones.
“Not many people may know about our team,” the coach adds. “It’s good to have it that way; we’re a confident and optimistic country but we’re also realistic.”
Although the Icelandic team can counter on chances when it has possession–a trait Hallgrimsson said is material, especially if the percentage of control leans toward a 70-30 or 60-40 against them — he believes his team’s power all starts with defending.
“We’ve been able to sense that frustration, that anxiety when opponents cannot penetrate our lines,” Hallgrimsson said. “We don’t mind if we have 500 passes while they have 1,000; those statistics are something we don’t look at.”
Emulating teams like Spain and Germany isn’t a possibility, he concedes, but Iceland’s discipline individually leads to a collective effort to stymie the big teams as they did in the Euros two years ago and its qualifying group.
“This is a romantic story, it’s much more than Iceland,” Hallgrimsson said. “We’re not representing Europe at the tournament but we’re representing the smaller nations, the underdogs. People will want to see us do well so we hope to not disappoint.”