Anybody who isn’t French will be Icelandic come Monday morning. Even if you’re not a football fan, you may have heard football commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson lose his voice not once, but twice, as Iceland beat Austria and England to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Euro 2016 football championships.
It has been called a fairytale, how an island nation of only 325,000 people (slightly bigger than Alor Setar, slightly smaller than Malacca city) has achieved so much success on the international footballing stage.
It’s not that they have a large pool of players to choose from. The point was wryly made by former England international Gary Lineker when he tweeted there were more volcanoes (126) than professional players(120) in the country.
And apart from the volcanoes, the weather in Iceland is exactly what it’s name suggests, with football only played outdoors during the summer months. (Allegedly, they think they have to get out of the weather when it drops below 10°C. Wimps.)
So how does Iceland do it? How does a country that was ranked 131 in the world in 2012 manage to climb up to 23? (That was the highest ranking they achieved; currently they are ranked 34th).
By putting the infrastructure in place, and developing players to consistently high standards.
They first decided it was crucial to be able to play football all year round. Starting 15 years ago, the government built 150 indoor artificial pitches suitable for training, protected from the elements by giant domes. Almost every school now has one artificial pitch near it.
Now that the children had somewhere to play, the government then encouraged coaches to obtain professional certification. There are now 600 elite coaches in Iceland, and every child aged four and above can have a UEFA-accredited coach.
Being such a small country, the top teenage footballers play with each other constantly, with many of the current team having known each other since they were 16.
So although they seem to be an overnight success, it has been a long-term plan gradually progressing. Iceland almost qualified for the 2014 World Cup, narrowly losing to Croatia in the playoffs. And now the European championships are within realistic reach.
In all this, we can’t help but think of Malaysia and its current world football ranking of 173. Unlike Iceland, we have a population in the tens of millions and no winters, let alone one that lasts six months.
Of course, the problems facing Malaysia are different from those of Iceland. But one thing we can try to seriously emulate is the line between visualising a goal, planning for it and then executing that plan. What are the obstacles stopping us from developing a world-class football team? And how can we begin to plan around these obstacles?
I think too often we highlight our deficiencies and our faults. We fight among ourselves, there are systemic weaknesses … those are not really obstacles, they’re attitudes we shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t put down one another, we shouldn’t justify our existence at the expense of another group. And somebody working hard to do his best is not quite enough of a reason to pull them down.
Let’s focus on what the real obstacles are, the problems we can do something about. Is it that people are born geographically or economically distant from a good education and good work opportunities? Let’s narrow the gap. Is it that the right talent are doing the wrong jobs? Let’s lead them to a better place.
Let’s not confuse political bickering with problems that the country faces. Instead, recognise that they are distractions that pull us away from solving them.
Back to happier conversation about football. Watch how Iceland play. They know their players have limited skill, so they build the team to work with what they have. Coordinated defending, teamwork in moving the ball up the pitch. And jumping in to win tackles with full commitment.
If you think football is too trivial a topic to take seriously, consider this: Due to the banking crisis in 2008, Iceland at one point was on the verge of an economic collapse. The government had to take over the banks, and negotiated with the International Monetary Fund to secure loans in excess of US$6bil (RM24bil at today’s exchange rates).
Yet, it’s economy had a strong foothold. This is despite having almost no natural resources and less than 1% of its land is arable. But what it recognised was that the country was geothermally active (remember the volcanos?) and that it could harness it for energy.
Using a combination of hydro and geothermal resources, Iceland now generates 99.9% of its electricity from renewable resources. It is the world’s largest electricity producer per capita, and this excess of electricity now drives its manufacturing sector, especially power-intensive sectors like aluminium smelting.
The Icelanders saw what they had and made the best of it. They give this never-give-up attitude a name: “Daglegur”. It conveys this idea that if you strive every day, you can achieve more than is expected of you. And with a little good luck, and a lot of planning, they’ve managed it.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.