On 10 June 2006, the national anthem of Trinidad and Tobago belted through the Westfalenstadion Stadium in Dortmund, Germany, as this country’s Soca Warriors became the smallest nation (by population) to play in a FIFA World Cup.
Backed by a population of 1.3 million people, Dwight Yorke and his troops overcame a pre-game injury to goalkeeper Kelvin Jack and the 46th minute ejection of left back Avery John to hold Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden to a historic goalless draw.
Thirteen years on, Trinidad and Tobago have not come close to reattaining those heights and a 14-game winless streak by recently dismissed Warriors head coach Dennis Lawrence—ironically, a 2006 World Cup hero—was further indication of how local football stocks have fallen.
Where the Warriors have faltered, Iceland soared though. In 2018, the tiny European nation with a population of just over 360,000 replaced Trinidad and Tobago as the smallest nation to appear at a World Cup final.
On Saturday 18 January, Icelandic professor Dr Vidar Halldorsson told an audience packed with sport administrators—including Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) technical committee chairman, Keith Look Loy—just how they accomplished in with his presentation:“The Sport Success in Iceland: How Small Nations Achieve International Success” at the UWI Campus in St Augustine
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight,” said Dr Halldorsson, as he borrowed from late American writer Mark Twain, “but the size of the fight in the dog.”
Can Trinidad and Tobago learn anything from Iceland, who finished as quarterfinalists at the 2016 Euros—a run that saw them eliminate England—and held Argentina to a 1-1 tie at the Russia 2018 World Cup? (Iceland rose from 133rd to 18th in the Fifa rankings between 2011 to 2018.)
“Iceland just isn’t the right place to cultivate football stars,” reads a 2018 piece in The Telegraph titled: The story behind Iceland’s assault on world football, “it’s on the fault line between two tectonic plates, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. It’s not really the right place to cultivate anything. But nor is Iceland the type of place to care unduly about long odds.”
So what is the secret to Iceland’s success?
Dr Halldorsson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland and a researcher at the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA), argues that it’s the fighting spirit, camaraderie and togetherness—which comes naturally to Icelandic sportsmen and its people on the whole—that has been the foundation for their success.
“We don’t have great players so we have to have great energy and have this Viking spirit and we try to use that to kindle the fire so to speak,” said Dr Halldorsson, as he tried to explain ‘Icelandic Madness’. “They use it as a phrase because this is how we play. These are our strengths and we have to play on our strengths. Like the former national team coach said, we cannot play like Spain or FC Barcelona.
“We cannot play football like that. If we play football like that, we would lose every game 10-nil because we don’t have players for it and we don’t have the tradition to play this way.”
Iceland’s tradition is more inclusive. There isn’t any room for pre-Madonnas or inflated egos and during their formative years, each boy or girl has an equal opportunity to play the beautiful game.
“These guys and girls have been brought up in a sports system which is healthy and constructive and there are no big egos created when it’s done this way because everybody is playing together,” said Dr Halldorsson. “Everybody has to mop snow off the pitch; the best players and the worst players. And everybody has to collect bottles or wash cars [to raise] money for trips.
“[…] We don’t necessarily pick the best players, we pick the right players.”
Iceland invested heavily too in infrastructure and coach education. Since the early 2000s, they built seven full-sized indoor football halls, 20 outdoor fields, half-sized indoor sport arenas and 150 mini-pitches.
Added to that, the Iceland Football Association (KSI) invested heavily in the caliber of coaches at all age group levels. There are over 700 coaches with UEFA coaching badges in Iceland, and 60% of them have at least obtained the UEFA B Licence.
These coaches share their expertise with the community-owned sport clubs, where their salaries are effectively paid by the yearly enrolment fees that parents pay to have their children participate. The municipalities cover the cost of the facilities and subsidise the parents’ fees. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned.
This way, youngsters in Iceland are exposed to high quality coaching even outside of their national team programmes.
Look Loy was skeptical as to whether our local culture could replicate such a developmental set-up.
“Iceland are a social democratic state, it’s a social welfare state and the government supports everything he spoke about there,” Look Loy told Wired868. “We live in an entirely different situation and that’s why he is correct in saying that what works there can’t necessarily be applied here.
“Trinidad and Tobago is still one of the richest states in the world but it’s not a social democratic state. So the role of the state, the philosophy of the state and the role of the community in everything that is done in the society is totally different from in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and those social democratic states.
“They’re departing in one direction and we’re going in another. It’s not about how much money we have, but how we use it; and what’s the guiding philosophy behind the use of the money. You think you can get the Tunapuna Regional Corporation to provide a bus to send children to any sports club?”
Look Loy continued.
“The central philosophy of social democracy if you could make one, is that the society has a collective responsibility towards its people and people have a collective responsibility towards its society,” he said. “The group is central there. This filters into sport and filters from the community into government. They are focusing on the player who could be part of the team, the player who fits into the community, the person who fits in the group and the group can see about them.
“They’re not interested in pre-Madonnas. We live in a totally different society…”
Will Iceland’s structure help them to avoid to subsequent crash that followed Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean rivals, Jamaica? Dr Halldorsson hopes that his team uses the Euro 2020 Playoffs to show they were no flash in the pan.
Iceland must best Romania and either Bulgaria or Hungary to advance.
“Iceland is now taken seriously in football and we no longer have that element of surprise,” said Dr Halldorsson. “Secondly, the golden generation of Icelandic players is coming close to their end. Can the players coming in full their shoes?
“We don’t want to end being a case like Norway. They went to two major tournaments in the 1990s with the same team. However, since [Euro] 2000, they have not qualified for a major tournament.
“They had six good years and then nothing afterwards.”
Intriguingly, Dr Halldorsson also sees a downside to their success and is wary of ‘increased professionalism’ in Icelandic football, which he feels might undo the innocence and innate traits that made their rise so unique.
“We have the best of both worlds at this point in time,” he said. “From the professional approach, we have more professional training and they teach the kids how to train, practice and take care of their bodies and things like that. But we also have amateurism in that players are friends [and] sport is play and about having a good time.
“[…] And my argument is this, we are in the sweet spot because if we didn’t have this amateur aspect; the friendships and togetherness. We wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here.
“We can’t rely on talent alone. We have to have all the other elements of play that brings it all together. I’m a bit worried that we will lose of this. With the commercialisation of sport and the idealisation of sport, it makes players behave differently.”
While Look Loy stressed that the TTFA cannot wholeheartedly copy the Icelandic football model, he also believes the Warriors would do well to create their football identity. In that aspect, he thinks we can take pointers from the nation that charmed the world with its ‘Viking clap’.
“We can sit down and talk all we want about playing a certain brand [but] we are not Costa Rica, we are not Mexico,” he said. “Their culture and their whole cultural approach to football is totally different to ours. But we have our strengths too.
“We will never be as technical as the Mexicans. I am not fooling myself about that because I’ve been around football long enough. But we have strengths which they don’t have.
“What we have to do is play to our strengths and see how we can minimise theirs. That’s football; football is a chess game.”
The TTFA technical committee has already begun trying to define the strengths of local players, so as to create a blueprint for national teams at all age groups. And don’t expect tiki-taka football.
“All who feel that Trinidad and Tobago must play like Barcelona, they are wasting time,” said Look Loy. “And I am in a position now to try and influence that. What is the character of our football? What is the nature and character of our football team?”
Look Loy told Wired868 that a brave, aggressive, high-tempo approach is more in keeping with the local persona. (Click HERE to read more.)
It is the style of football that he hopes can take us back to the magic of 2006.
“I made the point to the gathering that we want to experience again that adrenalin rush from the day we beat Bahrain to go to the Germany 2006 World Cup,” said Look Loy. “We must make it an expectation and we must make it a disappointment if we don’t qualify. People must be upset! And there is a lot of sacrifice involved there; the pride of being a Trinbagonian.
“The pride of putting on red, white and black to represent Trinidad and Tobago must be restored.”
There is unlikely to be any Icelandic Madness or Viking Claps in Port of Spain, but the Warriors aim to see if opponents can dance to their soca beat soon enough.
Cue Maximus Dan’s (MX Prime) infectious Fighter chant.