Iceland may have the sixth-smallest population of the 54 UEFA nations but their achievements belie such statistics and Siggi Eyjólfsson has played a big part in that trend.
The Football Association of Iceland (KSÍ) head of coach education from 2002, he added the role of national women's team coach in 2007 and recorded unprecedented success – qualifying for UEFA Women's EURO 2009 and then reaching the 2013 quarter-finals. After those exploits in July he left the KSÍ, taking over men's club ÍBV Vestmannaeyjar; Eyjólfsson spoke to UEFA.com about his decision, plus the future for the women's squad.
UEFA.com: How difficult was it to step down as Iceland coach, especially after your achievements in Sweden last summer?
Siggi Eyjólfsson: It was difficult because obviously I was really attached to the team. I'd been there seven years but I thought it was a good time for me to move on. I think the team got as far as I could take them with the current squad and now maybe it's time to build a new team. And I thought that I'd been there seven years so it was time for someone else to step in, plus I wanted to explore other coaching opportunities. It was difficult but I’m happy with the decision I've made.
UEFA.com: What did you learn about yourself and how have you changed as a coach over those seven years?
Eyjólfsson: Coaching the women's national team has been an adventure really. We've improved every year, I think, and I've seen a big change also in Iceland with the level of interest and the number of girls participating. The awareness and the image of the national team has grown a lot and it's been great to have been part of that. Hopefully it will continue.
It's been a great journey and I've had lots of great people with me – a lot of them also stepped down and decided to take time off, so there are new people now around the team. Only one player has retired so they still have a good team and some young, new and exciting players who have done really well with national youth teams – some made it to the final four of the Women's Under-17s in 2011 so I think there are exciting times for Iceland in the future.
UEFA.com: Are you proud of what you achieved?
Eyjólfsson: Yes, I think Icelandic football in general has really improved. We saw the men's team reach the play-off against Croatia so we were only one match away from the FIFA World Cup – which is amazing for such a small country – and reaching the quarter-finals at Women's EURO was one of the best results we've ever had. The Under-21 team is doing really well, the youth teams are doing really well, so there's been a lot of improvement. We are more technical and some of this comes down to improved facilities in Iceland, some of it comes down to better coach education. We have more technical players than before and we've seen football in general get better, not just the women's national team.
UEFA.com: When you started in that job, what were your key aims?
Eyjólfsson: I think it's not very realistic for us to take the team all the way to the final or semi-final at a big tournament like EURO because we only have 6,000 players across all ages – not a big player base to select from. Unfortunately the girls also retire quite early so we don't have that many adult players to choose from. We don't have an Under-23 team or a U21 team so that makes it even harder for the senior coach to develop a senior national team.
We get very little access to the players because many are playing abroad professionally so we don't have the finances to call them into Iceland just for a training camp, so we work with very limited resources against some very big nations. Germany has a million players and a lot of finance. But we tried to stay competitive. Maybe there are other ways that we can reach success and results, we just need to focus on the things we can focus on and be the best at those.
UEFA.com: Tell us about your EURO experiences and what you learned in 2009 that helped you be so competitive last summer?
Eyjólfsson: I remember after the EURO in 2009, I was standing outside one of the stadiums after the final match really disappointed because we didn't score a goal at the tournament and we really struggled attacking-wise against the good teams. And I kind of made a promise to myself that I would do everything possible to improve the team.
So it was very fulfilling to be at the EURO four years later: we got our first goal, first clean sheet, first point, first win, first time in the quarter-finals. I thought we took the team as far as we could and that's a very good feeling as a coach because the preparation matches were really difficult for us. We didn't get good results, a lot of key players were injured, we didn't have our main centre-forward except for one warm-up game, so it was a very difficult time leading up to the EURO. Yet to get the results we got was very fulfilling and it made all the hard work worth it.
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