We aim to give a great performance at 2018WC - Iceland’s football coach

Moscow welcomes the draw for the FIFA 2018 World Cup, with the teams getting ready to start planning navigating the group stage. One of the debutantes of the competition, Iceland, has already won the hearts of fans the world over at the 2016 Euros - and its manager, Heimir Hallgrímsson, is our guest.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: This is going to be Iceland’s first ever World Cup. Are you going to pull off another upset and progress out of the group stage even further? After the Euros, it seems like anything is possible for Iceland...  

Heimir Hallgrímsson: Of course, that’s the aim, to do well. We deserve to be in Russia like everyone else. We’ve achieved quite a lot of good results so that we’re in the World Cup finals.  We at least hope so. But we’re also realistic - we can have fantastic games but still lose against nations that normally end up in the World Cup finals but Iceland is normally really optimistic.

SS: How optimistic are you? What is your goal - to win, to reach semi-finals, quarter-finals?

HH: Well, to begin with, of course, it’s a great honor just to be there. If we progress from the group stage I think that is a big achievement for Iceland. But we know from the past 5-6 years that if we have our best games we can beat anyone. I actually think it’s healthy to dream of holding the World Cup in our hands but of course it’s statistically not very likely that we’re going to win it. Although, like I said before, we’re optimistic, we don’t know yet what teams, which nations we’ll be playing against, so we haven’t set any goals yet. But of course we're going there to progress from the group stage And starting from there it’s like a cup tournament.  If we have a good game we can beat anyone. It’s like playing in a cup.

SS: Seeing how Iceland has all this international experience now, you’ve been around quite a lot - which teams would you be most interested in facing on the pitch this time around?

HH: I don’t think there’s an easy team in the World Cup finals. My opinion is that we don’t actually mind anyone we get. We know we’ll get strong teams. I don’t think for Iceland there’s a team we surely should win against. But hopefully the best teams in the world - you can’t avoid them - because they’re in Group 1. Of course we’ll have a team that’s very very difficult to beat, [a team] from Group 1 or Group 2. So I don’t mind any team we will get. We accept what we get.

SS: Iceland isn’t an underdog anymore, everybody saw what the team can do, is it going to be a lot harder in 2018 for you? Do you already feel the pressure now that you have set sort of a limit that you can be really good?

HH: No, the pressure is more or less from ourselves. There’s been a preliminary group where all the games were tough. The teams play different against us now, compared to the past. We are just prepared for everything. We don’t have very much pressure on achieving results but it’s getting harder and harder because it’s very unlikely that people might underestimate us .

SS: Why didn’t you leave the team after the Euro 2016 like Lars Lagerbeck? I mean, to leave on a high and try your hand in coaching a club or another national team...

HH: I actually believed we can do even better than the Euros. Luckily, I did. Also I had the contract, I couldn’t abandon the contract. No, it was never the plan to leave the national team because I think we still can improve what we’re doing. I still believe Iceland can do even better than what we have been doing.

SS: The Dutch team coach Dick Advocaat says your team should be looked up to, having no inner conflicts and personal ambitions, but common ground and discipline. Is that your personal achievement of a coach or maybe that’s an Icelandic national trait, what’s the secret?

HH: I wish I could say it’s all me. But it isn’t. It’s a really big group coming together and trying to do as a team - both the staff and the players, the FA. We have a special relationship with the fans, the media. It’s a big team that is working together to make this happen. In the world as it is today - all the money involved, and all the… I don’t want to say ‘greed’. But it’s a lot about the individuals today, everything today is about the individuals. So it’s so nice to be a little bit different so it’s all about the team. It’s a quality the Icelandic football players have. Maybe because we come from an amateur environment. So we know that the other nations have better individuals and better individual qualities than we have. So we have to be collectively better than the others. I think that’s a good message for the Icelanders, to the kids in Iceland - that we have to stick together, work together to achieve something.

SS: Maybe it’s a national trait of the smaller nations. Every other football team’s coach dreams of the kind of unity that you have in your team. Why isn’t it working out with others?

HH: I can’t answer that one. Because I don’t know what the others are doing. We don’t try to hide what we're doing - so we’re open about how we are achieving things, how we’re working. There’s no secret in it. You can’t do anything in a sport like football unless you have good football players. It’s always number one, two or three - having good football players. Luckily for us, there are really really good characters - so it’s possible to build a team around good football players. And that’s a fantastic blend.

SS: Most of your players play in Europe, how do you keep that team cohesion going when the players see each other so rarely?

HH: I don’t think that’s any different from other national teams. They play everywhere around Europe. It’s no different from Iceland. What’s a little bit special about the Iceland national team is that the players have been playing together since the bulk of the squad. They’ve been playing together since they were under 17, under 19, under 21. So they know each other quite well. Many of them played together in the same team, as youth players. So the relationships between the players are also special in our squad. The players are probably closer to each other than in other national teams.

SS: You’re a doctor by trade. I know that when doctors work on medical problems like before an operation, they sit there, analyze and think about the job months before it happens. So, while all the players being on and off the European clubs how do you prepare the team for the next game when you don’t have the team present?

HH: I guess it’s the same for me like every other national team coach. We watch our players, we watch our games, analyze our games in the past. We watch our opponents and analyze them and so on. But yes, we try to see as many players as we can. It’s probably easier for the Iceland national coach to monitor the players because we don’t have that many playing in Europe - we have about 100 professionals playing across Europe. So it’s probably easier for the Icelandic national team coach to monitor his players.

SS: So when you say ‘monitor’, do you actually travel to the continent to see your players in action during their club games?

HH: Yeah, we sometimes do that. But since we’re so spread all over Europe, we don’t have it like the Russian national team coach has - all the players playing in Russia. We’re spread all over Europe. More or less, we use modern technology to watch as many games as we can, especially during the weekend. Today we have software to see every game in the world. It’s easy to watch the players especially if we’re here, [watch] if they’ve been doing well or badly. We can look back to this game whenever we like. So technology makes it easier to be the national team coach than it was before.

SS: You know how it works. Huge success usually comes with downfalls. And now the whole world is an Iceland fan. Do you think there is a danger your players will lose the humility, and with that  - the team spirit?

HH: No I’m not afraid of that. We talked regularly about why we win football matches, why we’re good as a team. We remind ourselves what we’re about, what we like to represent as a national team and especially how we win football matches. I think it’s really dangerous to overestimate yourself when you have success. But that’s the job of the staff, the coaches to remind the players about what they should stand for. Probably, at the moment, it’s the biggest task for us. Icelandic football doesn’t stand and fall with the World Cup final in Russia. There’s this phrase we often use :  ‘Success is not a destination, not the World Cup finals in Russia. Success is the continuous journey to the right direction’. And I think it’s vital for us to remind ourselves that we have to keep on building on what we are good at and we don’t have to try to be something else when we have success. This is so healthy and important for Iceland at the moment to remind ourselves, continuously, why we are a success. That’s the team.

SS: You often mention that there’s too much cash in football, that money is the enemy of motivation. But you have players who play in the English Premier League, you had players from Barcelona. Money didn’t corrupt them, so it must be something else then?

HH: No, I’ve never said that money is destroying everything. When you have plenty of it it stops motivating you. But, of course, you have examples of the best football players in the world that have a lot of money but still are really motivated. It depends on the personality. Of course, it’s difficult to motivate yourself when you don’t need anything in the world - then it’s down to the character of the person.

SS: During the quarter-final with France Iceland fans occupied a relatively small part of Stade de France. Yet it was 10% of Iceland’s population as some statistics put it. And I remember vividly all that “viking clap”, chanting and singing as one man - those guys really sent shockwaves throughout the world, let alone the stadium. Was it all result of some coordinated effort or was it all spontaneous?

HH: I think it’s a blend of both. It’s been slowly increasing - the support the national team is getting. All the credit goes to supporters club that’s been fantastic, growing all the time and doing even more things. If you go back 5 years ago you wouldn’t see many people wearing Icelandic shirt on team games. But now all the stands are blue, everybody has the Icelandic national team shirts, they are singing the anthem before the game. And the Icelandic national anthem is maybe the most motivational song ever made. The change in support is enormous. It’s also spontaneous. The interest increases with better resources. But it’s again also the supporters club that has been growing steadily. I kind of take control of what’s happening. I hope Russia will see the best of the Icelandic fans.  It’s a kind of family leisure - you take your kid, wife, your grandmother to the game. It’s a different kind of support - it’s a lot of ownership from the fans in the team. Almost everyone has a friend playing or in the staff. So that I think is unique regarding the Iceland support.

SS: If the same amount came for the Euros, perhaps even more will come to the World Cup, is Iceland just going to take one giant holiday for a whole month, who’s going to stay behind and work?

HH: That was the problem at Euros. There were a lot of companies that almost had to close because there were so many people in France. I hope it will be the same in Russia next summer. I hope the Icelandic fans will show their best side because they were really something to be proud of in France. And I think, I know that when they come in numbers to Russia they will be good guests.

SS: I know you have a tradition of going to the fan’s pub before home games of the national team, having a chat with them. What do you do this for, how do you deal with everyone there telling you how to do your job?

HH: Yes, it’s difficult to explain. It’s hard for many to understand how this is possible. But I think, firstly, it’s something that makes us different. The national team coach can walk into the pub two and a half hours before the game. Talk to maybe four-five hundred people that are there, some drink beer, there are different kinds of people. But there’s a lot of respect in it - of course we  respect our fans and we show that with doing this. And what, I think, is more unique, even more special, is that I’ve been doing it now for 6 years and nothing has gone online or to the media. It’s a rule for the fans that everybody shuts their phones off, nobody’s recording anything or tweeting. The fans are the first ones to know the line-up, how we’re going to play against the opponent. They have a lot of information on how we want to play. For me that’s something unique, something I don’t want to lose. We give the fans ownership in the team. They respect it enormously, we respect them as well. And we trust them. I think this is very hard to do it anywhere in the world. So this is something only we have. I love it. It’s kind of strange to think about it. But while it works I think it’s a fantastic way to to give ownership to the fans.

SS: Everyone knows everyone. Each family is somehow related in one way or another to the soccer team. How hard is it in the circumstances for you to be a public person?

HH: Actually, it’s quite easy. I live in a 4000-people village or an island. Just in the south coast of Iceland. Whenever it gets too much I go there and relax. When you come from  a small village you go there and everybody knows you for what you are. And you don’t have to play anything, act anything - they know you anyway and see you through it. It’s nice to come back there and relax after something big, like when we won the right to go to Russia. It’s quite easy because the media always knows how things are going. And we are close with the Icelandic media. Again, there’s something special between the national team and the Icelandic media. They’re probably closer to the national team than any media in the world. We trust them, they trust us. Again, it’s quite special that we have and that makes us a team. So it’s quite easy to be in Iceland in times of success.

SS: There’s one UEFA qualified football coach for 800 people in Iceland - compared to 1 per 11 000 in the UK, for instance. Iceland has also the highest density of indoor football pitches than any other country in the world. What’s behind such a massive investment into basically just a game? It’s not factories or roads or banks the country’s investing in, right?

HH: No, it’s the local communities that pay for facilities in every village, in every  town. Again, good facilities and a good coach - these are two necessary parts to produce good football players. We like to think - and we know this from research - that the kids do better at school when they do sports. They become healthier, they do less drugs and alcohol when they do sports. And all the villages in Iceland thrive and are proud with good sports facilities. Especially, things are quite good with coach education there. So it doesn’t matter if you come from a two-thousand-people village or from the Icelandic national champions - you always get the same coaching. So you don’t need to drive your kid a long distance for good coaching. It’s all locally based. It’s something unique in Iceland. And it’s hard for other nations to replicate that. Yes, you’re correct - that‘s the local communities that pay for the facilities. 

SS: You have been an assistant coach, and a co-coach, you’ve coached quite a few teams yourself - which approach brings better results: should the coach be strict, demanding, keep his distance, or does it work better when you’re the players’ friend, a part of the team?

HH: It’s different between teams you coach. Sometimes you have to be tough, sometimes it’s different. It's a balance of everything. What we’re doing now is quite a good routine. The distance is OK - and a coach always has to keep certain distance. But you can see everything in work. You can see a coach like a dictator or a coach who is hugging everyone. It depends on what club you have, what players, what team you have. It might be the culture of the nation, whatever. In my opinion it’s not just one type of coaching that is better than the others. You just have to look at the circumstances and surroundings.

SS: Football is a high-stakes game, especially at this level, so the temptation to bend the rules must be strong. You pull a shirt here or there, tackle someone’s leg instead of a ball, and there’s also diving. Do you think winning is worth doing things like that?

HH: Again, depends on what the game is, what the score is. Of course, nobody wants to cheat. “There are never any short-cuts to a place worth coming to” - I think that’s a good sentence. But you sometimes even applaud the player for fouling against the opponent going for a counterattack - and the player gets the yellow card. But it’s still important that the opponent didn’t score. It’s a very difficult question to answer.

SS: There was this case in Germany when a referee has called a penalty - but the player who earned it, who was fouled, came up to the ref and said there was no foul and the penalty should be cancelled. Have you seen a lot of things like that in football? Is it more important to be honest like that, or to actually put the team forward?

HH: It would be very stupid to say that you should cheat but you should always try to be as always honest as you can. That’s not only football, that’s also life  - you also should be honest. And I think that’s a philosophy everybody should live by and work by.

SS: Thank you very much for this interesting insight from the world of football. We were talking to Heimir Hallgrimsson, Iceland’s football coach and one of those behind the national team’s stunning success at the Euros 2016. That’s it for the latest edition of SophieCo, I’ll see you next time.