Iceland is famous for troublesome volcanoes, Björk and a lingering belief in trolls among its citizens. Soon, it may also be famous for football.
With a population of just 320,000, Iceland is on the brink of becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup.
After finishing second in its group, a playoff with Croatia is all that stands between Iceland and a place in the history books.
Malta, with a population of some 418,000, has never come close to qualifying.
In the latest campaign, the Maltese national team finished rock bottom of its group with three points.
So what is the secret of Iceland’s success and what, if anything, can Malta learn from the footballers from the frozen north?
Iceland Football Association’s official spokesman Ómar Smárason said the key to the national team’s success was simple: massive investment in facilities and coaches since the turn of the millennium.
An island nation prone to long winters, it now boasts seven full-size indoor football halls, 15 full-size artificial football fields and more than 110 mini pitches located next to schools.
As well as investing at the grassroots level, the Icelandic FA, clubs and municipal authorities have upgraded spectator facilities to improve the match-going experience.
“Quality stadiums are pull factors that add to the prestige of the league, boost attendances and motivate the players to do well,” according to Mr Smárason.
Iceland’s Premier League teams play at their own stadiums – some of them fully or partly owned by municipalities.
Mr Smárason said increased investment in facilities would have been fruitless if the Icelandic FA had not also invested heavily in the education of coaches.
“We have really embraced the Uefa [Union of European Football Associations] Coaching Convention. Now even five- and six-year olds are coached by Uefa category B coaches,” Mr Smárason said.
Bjorn Vassallo, CEO of the Malta FA, felt comparisons with Iceland were unfair as the changes implemented since August 2010, when a new MFA administration led by president Norman Darmanin Demajo took over, were yet to bear fruit.
“Before 2010 I was personally of the opinion that Maltese football was 20 years behind that of other countries with the same characteristics,” Mr Vassallo said.
He pointed out that the MFA had since adopted a vision focused on heavy investment in sports facilities, grassroots football and coach education, as Iceland had done some years before.
Youth project results will be evident after five or six years- MFA
One factor that is hard to measure objectively is mentality.
While many Maltese fans tend to approach games with fragile hope, the Icelandic supporters aim high.
“Being an isolated island nation, we are very proud and believe we can take on anyone,” Mr Smárason said.
“Our fans expect us to compete. In fact, some fans don’t realise just how small we are and how big an achievement it is to reach the play-offs.”
The national team players and coaching staff are also made aware that they are not just in the qualifying group to make up the numbers.
“We try to accrue as many points as possible. We saw an obvious chance in our World Cup group to finish second due to the level of the teams we were drawn against,” Mr Smárason said.
In contrast, Mr Vassallo said: “Our objectives for the World Cup qualifiers were gaining respect from our opponents and trying to raise the level of our performances through more tactical discipline and more offensive play based on counter attacking.”
Part of Iceland’s confidence stems from the fact the country has around 70 professional footballers playing abroad, including some, such as Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, for top teams in Europe’s biggest leagues.
Emren John Vella, who researched small countries in international football for his postgraduate thesis, noted that 19 out of 22 Iceland players for their recent game against Norway had overseas club experience.
In contrast, just four out of 20 players in the Maltese squad to face Bulgaria in September played club football abroad.
“In the long run, more Maltese footballers playing abroad would only benefit the national side in terms of diversity of experience,” Mr Vella said.
The MFA recognises this. It has appointed ex-Inter and Parma youth coach Sergio Soldano as youth development officer and has established a academy for players born in 1997-1998 who are schooled by highly qualified coaches.
One youth player was signed by Manchester City while others have been picked up by Empoli and Chievo Verona in Italy.
“Today we are sending our children from a young age to foreign academies for grooming,” Mr Vassallo said, adding they were targeting Italian clubs due to the proximity.
“The MFA has embarked on a long-term project aimed at producing results that will be evident after five or six years,” the CEO assured fans.
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