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Iceland surprised many when they knocked out the likes of Germany en route to qualifying for their first UEFA European Under-21 Championship, but the seeds of that success can be traced back ten years, according to Football Association of Iceland (KSÍ) president Geir Thorsteinsson.
By ousting holders Germany in their qualifying group and Scotland in their play-off, Iceland's U21s caused quite a stir in reaching this summer's finals – a reaction Thorsteinsson says is more than understandable. "Well, this is the first time we've qualified at this level, so it's a big achievement," he told UEFA.com. "Everyone is very much looking forward to the finals in Denmark. It's a big, big thing in Iceland."
A former player himself, Thorsteinsson believes much of the U21s' progress can be put down to the improvement in training facilities on an island used to long winters. "When I was training at my club we didn't have any proper facilities," he said.
"There were only gravel pitches and they were often frozen. Now we have indoor halls with artificial grass, so we have perfect conditions for the long winter break we have in Iceland. This is really helping us to develop the game."
Recent investment has made this possible. "In the last decade or so we have developed the facilities enormously, especially the conditions for the winter season, and we now have many artificial pitches, outside and inside, and full-size halls."
The results of such projects have been dramatic, prompting in particular a rapid elevation of the U21 side's profile. A superb 4-1 home win against Germany in August sealed second spot in their group behind the Czech Republic, and was a triumph that produced "enormous interest in this team", Thorsteinsson said.
It also brought about a brief change in priorities, as the senior squad released seven players eligible for U21 duty for the two-legged play-off against Scotland. "We really had to make the most of our chance to qualify," added Thorsteinsson. "We took that decision and we don't regret it."
While Thorsteinsson says Iceland have had plenty of talented youngsters in the past, it is the volume coming through that has allowed coach Eyjólfur Sverrisson to mould such a side. "I would say it's the first time we have had such a good team, such a good squad, and so many good players in one team."
Another element has helped: the experience the likes of Jóhann Gudmundsson – at AZ Alkmaar – and Gylfi Thór Sigurdsson – with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim – have gained by playing abroad. "There is no question about it," the KSÍ president continued. "They are playing in good teams all across Europe. So yes, it's helping a lot."
Iceland have been drawn against hosts Denmark, Switzerland and Belarus – whom they meet on 11 June, the tournament's opening day – in Group A. They may have already exceeded expectations in some eyes, yet Thorsteinsson has raised the bar yet again. "It's only been a dream to participate at the Olympics, so for us it would be an enormous achievement."
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