Iceland’s population is exactly the kind of easily accessible, concise, less-than-140-characters statistic that enables self-flagellation, aimless outrage and easy scholarship—which are the triple axes of social media analysis and garbage opinion writing.
There is no denying two facts though. One, Iceland are punching well above their weight in international football. And two, Iceland has a ridiculously small population pool from which to draw these players. If you break the overall population numbers down further, Iceland’s footballing antics appear even more remarkable. Of its 350,000 or so population, there are perhaps no more than 50,000 men in the age group of 15-35 who may reasonably be expected to represent the country at the World Cup.
It is indeed quite remarkable to think that as recently as in 2005, Iceland and India were not that far apart in the Fifa rankings: Iceland was ranked 94 and India 127.
But those two facts above, and Iceland’s recent footballing boom, need not be particularly contradictory. There are more useful ways to think about Iceland than just through the idea that they are a small nation having a moment.
First, Iceland has hit upon an entire generation of good footballers all at the same time. A glance at the country’s line-up in Russia reveals a spine of players—all between the ages of 25 and 35—who have played for Iceland roughly since 2010. What is more, there has been remarkable stability in the squad. Of the 11 players who took to the pitch against Argentina, eight also started that great round of 16 game against England in Euro 2016 that the Three Lions lost 2-1. And this is not exactly for want of resources. In the last 12 months, Iceland have handed caps to another two dozen players across all positions on the pitch, none of whom were selected for the World Cup.
This is a team that has a found a formula and has stuck with it. A glance at their Fifa rankings vindicates this focus on stability. Iceland’s steady climb up the rankings has coincided almost exactly with the arrival of several players in the national team in or around 2010. Alfreð Finnbogason, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson and captain Aron Gunnarsson all debuted for Iceland between 2008 and 2010. (Not to forget that Heimir Hallgrímsson has helped managed the team since 2011.)
Second, and perhaps more important, population itself is only one enabling element when it comes to building a good football team. A large population needs a concomitantly large footballing set-up, talent identification programme, and competitive league system to sift through the thousands upon thousands of potential applicants before finding the core of four dozen or so that eventually throw up a world-class team. Even with a massive establishment of this size, success is easier said than done. A plenty of riches means that managers are under constant pressure to optimise. On top of all these challenges is the fact that problems don’t really scale up linearly as your population grows. Even if they did, it would still be a daunting prospect. A five-tier system of football, as Iceland has for the men’s sport, is probably more than capable of filtering every Icelandic footballing prospect through a selection scheme.
What would the size of an Indian footballing pyramid have to be before it was able to keep an eye on emerging talent in the country with anything approaching this comprehensiveness? Consider Germany, a country with a population of some 90 million. The German footballing system extends down six levels, with multiple leagues at each level. All adding up to a grand total of approximately 2,200 leagues comprising over 31,600 teams. A great young German footballer will probably have to work much harder than an Icelandic one, but he still has a system to lean on and a platform to get noticed off.
Perhaps a smarter way to think of Icelandic football is not as a ‘nation’ but as a modest club side that has the entire muscle of a small national government behind it. That sticks to a plan and delivers consistently. So the question then is not why India and China cannot replicate this success. That is a question for the future. The pertinent question is what can Indian and Chinese club sides learn from the Icelandic experience.