A tiny volcanic island off the coast of Iceland is proving to be a grassroots hotbed for the country.
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Just over a year ago, Iceland was gripped by football fever, as the country's footballers left their mark both on and off the pitch at UEFA EURO 2016. The ‘Thunderclap’ captured the imagination of football fans across the globe, while 3% of the population descended on France to watch their side exceed all expectations on the field of play.
The population of the island nation, around 330,000, was transfixed on the exploits of their heroes who were sending shockwaves around Europe with their exploits. Iceland’s stunning 2-1 victory against England in the Round of 16 attracted a market share television audience of 99.8%. What the remaining 298 people were watching is anyone’s guess.
"The national team players are role models, and it was great for children from around the island to see their idols play on the biggest possible stage," said Margét Lára Vidarsdóttir, an Iceland women’s international. "The event was huge, and it put Iceland on the map. It was inspiring for our youngsters, who now want to repeat their heroes’ success."
Vestmannaeyjar – Where careers are made
Aside from starring for their country at UEFA EURO 2016, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, Elmar Bjarnason and Jón Dadi Bödvarsson all have one thing in common. They all took part in the Vestmannaeyjar boys’ tournament as youngsters. This competition has proved to be a conveyer belt of talent for both the Icelandic men’s and women’s teams.
"UEFA EURO 2016 was the biggest tournament I had played in since Vestmannaeyjar, when I was just 10-years-old," said Bödvarsson, who scored against Austria in the group stage at the EURO.
Aron Gunnarsson, who captained Iceland at the EURO, is yet another current international who had experience of playing at the Vestmannaeyjar event as a youngster. He decided to pay a visit to this year's tournament, and handed over the trophy to the winning side, while also giving a series of talks to the children, where he spoke about his experiences of playing in Vestmannaeyjar.
Vestmannaeyjar is actually a chain of 15 small islands with 4,300 inhabitants, just off the south- western coast of Iceland. The islands were formed through volcanic eruptions, while the name 'Vestmannaeyjar' translates as 'Westman Islands'.
The islands have been a rich source of footballing talent for the Icelandic national team. Former 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.
The importance of youth football is not lost on the Football Association of Iceland (KSI), who have been quick to embrace youth tournaments across the country, and grassroots football in general.
"Football is in competition with other sports and activities in Iceland, so it is important to support the youngest children playing football by offering them the chance to have good quality training from an early age," said KSI vice-president Gudrún Inga Sívertsen.
"There must be a good mix of teaching and development, while it should also be entertaining, so that the kids stick with football. The KSI has to give grassroots football as much investment as possible, as this is where future Iceland players will come from."
At the end of June this year, around 1,000 boys under the age of 10 from all over Iceland, visited Vestmannaeyjar to take part in the 34th edition of the tournament. The event is certainly a family affair, with approximately 1,500 parents coming to watch their children. The President of Iceland, Gudni Th. Jóhannesson, was also in attendance, but not on official duty. He was watching his son take part in the tournament.
President Jóhannesson did much more than cheer on his son’s team. He, just like all the other parents, helped out in making sandwiches, cooking and filling up water bottles for the players.
The idea of the tournament is to promote equality, and to give all the kids the same opportunities. All the children present play the same number of games, and play against teams of a similar level. There is no preferential treatment, with the kids all eating from the same menu and sharing the same accommodation.
‘Most beautiful place on earth’
The competition is not just about what happens on the pitch. The kids get the chance to take part in a number of activities such as climbing and looking at the breathtaking landscape, which includes an active volcano, which caused the island to be evacuated in 1973 when it erupted.
The tournament has encountered one particular problem – its own popularity. There is a desire to make the event even bigger, but Vestmannaeyjar is too small to accommodate any extra people.
Vestmannaeyjar also hosts a girls’ tournament, which itself has a rich history. This year’s edition was the 28th time it has been held, and the event now attracts around 800 girls from 26 clubs all over the island, which is a sign of just how popular and well developed women’s football is in the country.
One person who knows the island better than most is Margét Lára Vidarsdóttir – one of Icelandic women’s football’s most celebrated players.
She was born in Vestmannaeyjar and describes it as “the most beautiful place on earth.” She had a stint at local club ÍBV Vestmannaeyjar, who have one of the top teams in Iceland in both women’s and men’s football, but now plays for Valur Reykjavík. Vidarsdóttir has fond memories of playing in the Vestmannaeyjar tournament as a youngster.
"My team was very successful, and I often won trophies for being the top goalscorer and the best player," she admitted. "I learned a lot. I learned how to be a winner, how to be part of a team and the importance of respecting others. It was a great learning experience for me."
Despite having just over 7,000 registered female players, Iceland are a force at international level in women’s football. Youth football in the country is booming - and Vidarsdóttir says the KSI should take a lot of credit for this by engaging girls in the sport and letting them meet their idols in person, while encouraging top-level players to go around to the junior clubs and speak to the kids.
"The KSI are doing a great job in nurturing grassroots football. They are very ambitious and have built some great facilities, while there is a good level of coaching at all ages," she reflected. "I am sure that coaching abroad is also good, but I don’t think that many children have the same grassroots experiences that we have in Iceland."
Iceland play their first match at UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 against France on Tuesday. Vidarsdóttir will not be able to help her teammates in the Netherlands, as she is currently injured. Although she knows it will be tough, she is confident that, just like the men’s team last year, Iceland’s women can also spring a surprise.
"Everything is possible in football. Everyone is going to the Netherlands to win the tournament, and Iceland is no different in this respect," she said. "We have a good team, and we believe we can beat anyone on our day - with a little luck, this could be the case. We mustn’t also forget the pride in playing for our country, as this can help us a lot."
Vestmannaeyjar is the perfect example that size does not matter. Despite having a population of just a few thousand, the tiny island has given so much to Icelandic football. Some of the country’s best players were born here - and with such solid grassroots structures in place, it would be a surprise if more do not follow.