Iceland has enjoyed unprecedented success on the pitch. Now the country’s football association want to harness these achievements to help the game grow off the field of play.
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Iceland has been busy capturing the imagination of football fans across the globe. However, not content with making giant strides on the pitch, which has seen them reach the quarter-finals at UEFA EURO 2016 and qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup, the island nation of just 320,000 inhabitants is now determined to keep on growing off the field of play.
The Football Association of Iceland (KSÍ) recently became the 34th member of the UEFA GROW programme, which is designed to help football flourish across UEFA’s 55 member associations.
“The Iceland Football Association is delighted to be the newest member of UEFA GROW. We have had quite some success in recent years on the field of play with both our male and female national teams, as well as strong development of the sport overall,” said the KSÍ President, Gudni Bergsson. “However, we must keep improving and planning for the future. UEFA GROW is the perfect opportunity for us to examine our progress and agree our best future approaches in various areas with the UEFA GROW team.”
UEFA GROW supports national associations to develop across a number of key areas – Improving the image of the game, engaging with larger audiences, getting more people to play football and boosting the revenues of national associations. The programme also assists federations, helping them to create an overall strategic plan, which is strengthened by strong brands, effective communications and government support.
Iceland has been a pioneer in getting people to play football, with some of the highest participation rates in Europe. The country has a total of 23,500 registered players ─ impressive when you consider the population of the country is 320,000. Almost 10% of males living in Iceland play football, while the figure is 4.4% for females – the second highest number amongst UEFA’s 55 member associations.
“Football is in competition with a number of other sports and activities in Iceland, so it is important that we make playing football as attractive as possible. We can do this by providing them with good quality training facilities,” said Bergsson, a former defender, who played over 300 matches in England for Tottenham Hotspur FC and Bolton Wanderers FC.
“We also need to make sure that we get children involved and playing the sport. There has to be a good mix of training and development, but we must also ensure that football is entertaining. Investment in grassroots football is one of the KSI’s biggest priorities.”
Football for everyone
In 1915, Iceland became one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote. One hundred years on, the island nation has kept its belief of equal opportunities for everyone, which is now an integral part of the country’s identity.
Being a leader in gender equality has immense appeal internationally for sponsors who would like to be involved with a brand like the KSÍ, and this is something the association believe they can capitalise upon to help the development of girl’s and women’s football. It also helps that Iceland’s women’s team is one of the stronger European nations. They have enjoyed more success than their male counterparts during the last decade, having qualified for the last three UEFA EUROs.
“UEFA GROW has been deeply analysing how the KSÍ can ensure further sustainable football growth through strategic and systematic development,” said UEFA’s head of national associations business development Noel Mooney. “We want to help the KSI to exploit their potential in various key areas, including women’s football marketing, which will also involve UEFA’s flagship women’s marketing campaign Together #WePlayStrong.”
The KSÍ has been making sure that there will be a steady stream of talent to replace the current men’s and women’s stars by heavily investing in youth football across the country. For example, a tournament for 1,500 children takes place each year in Vestmannaeyjar – a chain of tiny volcanic islands off the south-west coast of Iceland. The islands have been a rich source of footballing talent for the Icelandic national team.
Former VfB Stuttgart captain and national team coach Ásgeir Sigurvinsson and the current head coach Heimir Hallgrímsson ─ who also happens to be the local dentist─ were born in Vestmannaeyjar. Iceland international stars such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, Elmar Bjarnason and Jón Dadi Bödvarsson all took part in the Vestmannaeyjar boys’ tournament as youngsters.
Over the last few years, 111 mini-pitches have been built across the country thanks to grants from UEFA’s HatTrick programme, which reinvests money back to the European body’s 55 national associations. In order to help maximise the usage of each pitch, underfloor heating has been installed, which allows the facilities to be used around the year.
Punching above their weight
The KSÍ’s investment in grassroots football has yielded fantastic results on the field of play. Both the Icelandic men’s and women’s teams qualified for their respective UEFA EURO tournaments in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, the men’s team will be travelling to Russia next year to play in their first-ever FIFA World Cup.
Greater success on the pitch has led to increased commercial opportunities, but this has been an area that has been harder to exploit. Despite differences in standards, football games are played between two teams who each have 11 players. However, off the pitch, the playing field is anything but level. The KSÍ has a staff of less than 20. Just to put this number into perspective, the English Football Association (FA) has 851 employees – thus giving the association far more scope to realise all the commercial opportunities at its disposal.
During the GROW workshop in Reykjavik, UEFA worked closely with their colleagues from Iceland to see which areas could be developed. In the short term, the KSÍ is looking to maximise revenues from Iceland’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup, such as potentially engaging with football fans in other countries whose team has not made it to Russia to potentially support Iceland at the tournament.
“During UEFA EURO 2016, there was unprecedented interest in the Icelandic national team,” said Bergsson. “We could never have predicted that we would sell so many shirts, and that there would be so much interest in our country from around the globe. We must make sure this time around that we are fully prepared to maximise our potential earnings, as this can subsequently be used to help develop football at all levels within the country.”
In many ways, the KSÍ is a shining example to Europe’s national associations. Icelandic football's governing body is a star pupil across key UEFA GROW pillars such as participation and results on the pitch. However, the association would be the first to accept that some of its infrastructure needs to be improved and, in particular, the national stadium.
Plans are now afoot to redevelop the Laugardalsvöllur venue, which will be used by both the men’s and women’s teams. A newer stadium will not only lead to more fans being able to attend, but it will also mean that the association will potentially be able to earn greater revenues through hospitality and ticketing.
"There is such passion for the game in Iceland," said Mooney. "The national team has captured the imagination of fans both at home and abroad. The KSÍ have done a fantastic job in developing the necessary conditions both on and off the pitch to allow football to grow and with their willingness to learn and improve, I am sure that the game will continue to blossom for years to come."