A few weeks ago Leicester City won the English premier football league against all odds. From an unfashionable club which had just avoided relegation in the preceding season, Leicester won the league with a relatively inexpensive football team.
Their star players during the season included goalie Kaspar Schmeichel – erstwhile known as the son of Danish legend Peter Schmeichel, England Forward James Vardy, who was busy scoring in non-League football some years ago, and Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, who, according to legend had never heard of Leicester’s football team before being signed by them in 2014.
There was also a certain Claudio Ranieri, whose career as football manager was all but written off before joining Leicester at the beginning of the season. The rest is history.
Leicester happens to have a population of 330,000 – the same as Iceland, the northernmost nation of Europe – 100,000 less than Malta, Europe’s southern-most country.
Iceland has become the hottest word in the current Euro 2016 tournament. Even if England eliminates them, they have already exceeded all expectations by qualifying for the tournament and reaching the knock-out stage. They are the smallest nation ever to qualify for this tournament.
It seems that in the cases of Iceland and Leicester, population size and their blue shirts are not the only similarities. In a world of Ronaldos and Ibrahimovics, both teams are proud of squad unity ahead of primadonna football. Their best footballers are not individually more important than the team’s collective spirit.
Some of Iceland’s national team players form part of overseas clubs, such as Swansea, Udinese, Cesena, Kaiserslautern, Nantes, Goteborg and Basel. Prestigious? Yes, but surely not comparable to the ultra-rich league of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United.
Iceland’s qualification for the European championship included two victories against the Netherlands and one victory each against the Turks and the Czechs.
The harsh climate only permits four months of outdoor football every year. This does not hinder Icelanders’ love of football
This achievement wasn’t a one-off. Back in 1994, Iceland was ranked 37th in the FIFA rankings – already a huge success in itself. They didn’t qualify by a whisker for Euro 2004 and 2014’s FIFA World Cup. In 2015 they reached 23rd in the FIFA world rankings.
The above successes should be seen in a context of a country with harsh climate that only permits four months of outdoor football every year. This does not hinder Icelanders’ love of football. They have indoor football pitches which can be used during the entire year, and they have a qualified football coach for every 411 persons.
It is clear that their passion for the sport is matched by scientific research, forward-looking policy and investment.
Iceland has been achieving success in other sports such as handball, and also in culture and the arts.
Bjork is an incredible example in music. In the past two decades she has consistently been providing lovely music, reinventing herself along the way.
Beyond football, Iceland also consistently tops global standings on various social factors. According to the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programmed, Iceland is ranked 16th in the world, with very high marks in various areas such as gender equality, despite falling four places compared to 2014.
Of course, one has to keep in mind that country recently suffered an economic crisis, but it is weathering the storm through Nordic resilience.
Comparatively, Malta ranks 37th in the Human Development Index, up nine places from 2014. Both countries are considered to have very high human development. One notable difference between the two is expected years of schooling. Malta’s is 14.4, Iceland’s 19.
Some other curious facts. All Icelandic governments have to date been coalition governments, with two or more political parties involved. No political party has ever won a majority of parliamentary seats.
In 1980, Iceland elected the world first directly elected female head of state, and in 2009 the nation had the first openly gay head of government.
More recently, Iceland’s Prime Minister, resigned following his involvement in Panama Papers and the massive protests that followed. Malta’s very own Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi did not seem impressed.
By the way, in 14 football encounters, Iceland beat Malta 10 times. They drew once.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.