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EURO 2016

The icemen cometh

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose goal sent England packing from Euro 2016, is a star example of Iceland's incubator clubs cultivating talent with top-notch coaching and indoor pitches.

The icemen cometh
Yves HermanREUTERS

Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose goal sent England packing from Euro 2016, is a star example of Iceland's incubator clubs cultivating talent with top-notch coaching and indoor pitches.

When the striker joined Vikingur Reykjavik at the age of six, the club saw immediately that he had something special. “He was strong, and fast. He'd always see the goal. He loved to score. And I've never seen a child of his age with this talent”, recalled Thrantur Sigurdsson, one of Vikingur's youth coaches.

Sigthorsson stayed at Vikingur for 10 years, finally fleeing the nest to join second division HK Kopavogur for one season, before moving to the Netherlands at 17. The blond 26-year-old forward now plays for France's Ligue 1 side Nantes.

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Like Iceland's top clubs, Vikingur has made enormous progress in developing talent over the past 20 years. Arsenal once tried to sign Sigthorsson when he was with Kopavogur. But the teen chose Dutch first division AZ Alkmaar instead, judging that the wealthy English Premier League club did not offer young players the same opportunity to get quality game time.

It was a prophetic choice. Fast forward 10 years to Euro 2016 and Iceland showed the new generation of English stars, Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and the rest, that they are a force to be reckoned with. Icelandic football is reaping the benefits of its emphasis on good coaches, according to Bjarki Mar Sverrisson, who handles Afturelding Mosfellsbaer, a club just outside Reykjavik. “The Icelandic federation is doing a great job in educating the coaches. We have educated coaches from under six up to the highest level”, he told AFP.

There are probably few cities in the world that have the same density of certified coaches as Iceland's capital region, home to two-thirds of the 23-member squad playing in the Euro 2016. Signing up for the local football or handball team has long been popular among Icelandic kids. They practice frequently in well-organised set-ups, with almost no tradition of pick-up street games seen more commonly in other big countries.

Sverrisson long ago crossed paths with goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, one of Iceland's biggest heroes right now. Halldorsson was 21, in the Third Division, and starting out on a career that saw him play for five Icelandic clubs before leaving for Norway at the age of 26.

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But Sverrisson saw already back then, more than a decade ago, that Halldorsson had the potential to make the national side. “Yes, I saw his skills at the time. And he's been doing hard work since then”, he said.

At Afturelding Mosfellsbaer, Sverrisson has his players run the same offensive drill 10 or 15 times, a single defender passing to two relays who fire long balls down the middle and the right wing. In the distance, ominous dark clouds over Mount Esjan threaten to put a quick end to the training session.

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HalldorssonDan MullanGetty Images

Outdoor practices are out of the question in winter, when the ground freezes, polar winds blow and storms rage. The winter climate was long a handicap for Iceland but now the many indoor pitches allow clubs to practice despite the chill.

According to Thrantur Sigurdsson, Euro 2016 is a unique moment in the history of Icelandic football. But the foundations that have been built enable Iceland to envisage a rosy future ahead for its national side. “The current Under 21 team is already really strong ... so I'm very confident about how they will do in the future. The coming kids are as strong as the current players”, he said.


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