• Iceland’s women have benefited from the FIFA Forward Programme
  • The team is bidding to reach its first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup
  • Three straight EUROs and qualifying win in Germany underline progress

The Football Association of Iceland (KSI) has never known anything like it. These days, barely a day goes by without a packed reception at its Reykjavik HQ, as administrators and coaches from around the world descend. All arrive in search of the same answer: how does this tiny country punch so spectacularly, and consistently, above its weight?

“We have so many people coming from other associations these days,” says Klara Bjartmarz, KSI’s general secretary. “It’s lovely, and a great compliment to what has been achieved here.”

It is also entirely understandable that the secret to Iceland’s success should be sought so eagerly. The country’s men have, after all, made history twice in recent years, establishing Iceland as the least populace nation to reach both the UEFA European Championship and, more recently, the FIFA World Cup™.

What’s less widely reported is that their women’s team have been just as impressive. This is a side that had reached the EURO quarter-finals twice before their male counterparts shocked the world by doing so in 2016, and which last year qualified for the continental finals for a third successive time. October of last year brought a fresh milestone, too, as they claimed a shock FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying win in Germany, ending the eight-time European champions’ 19-year, 63-match unbeaten run in preliminary matches.

Add in some notable triumphs from the country’s youth teams and it is no wonder that Iceland are celebrated as one of football’s great success stories. “I have been with the association since 1994 and, when I think of how far we have come, it is almost unbelievable,” said Bjarmarz. “But these great things have not happened by accident – or happened overnight. All Iceland’s achievements are the result of serious planning and investment, much of it going back years. And we don’t want to stop here.”

Indeed, as their teams reach new heights, so too does the investment propelling them onwards. The women’s side has been a particularly notable beneficiary over the past year, and FIFA Forward – the programme introduced to improve the way the world governing body develops and supports football across the globe – has played a significant role.

In October of last year, a FIFA payment of 300,000 USD was made to facilitate an overall 900,000-plus USD investment in the women’s team and their bid to reach the Women’s World Cup. Nor was this the first Forward payment to benefit Icelandic women’s football; in 2016, the women’s B national team and U-18s each received 158,000 and 202,000 USD respectively.

As Bjorn Vassallo, FIFA's Director of European Member Associations said: "“FIFA believes that despite the significant progress in the last years, the women’s game has yet to realise its full potential. Through the FIFA Forward Development Programme, all member associations around the globe can further develop women’s football, and Iceland has surely been a living example of this advance. The KSI has been able to implement one of the best educational and technical development models and for us at the Member Associations Division, it is always a pleasure to support them through FIFA funding as the results of the Icelandic national teams, on and off the field, are always impeccable."

“It has been very important for us to have the support of FIFA,” added Bjartmarz. “Financially it helps a lot, but the moral support is just as important because it sends a strong message to people who are still not supportive of women’s football. When FIFA sends out a message like this – that women’s football is important, and FIFA is firmly behind it – it carries great weight across the world.”

Such investment also yields significant practical benefits. Defender Sif Atladottir has represented the national team for over a decade and, as such, speaks with authority when she explains the difference the funding has made.

“The players have definitely noticed and appreciated what it has done for us,” she told FIFA.com. “To give you an example, it allowed us to go to a tournament in China at the end of 2016 and we also had a team training camp in January, which we hadn’t been able to do for many years. We’ve also upped the number of our physios to three. Things like that, though they might seem small to people on the outside, have been so important to building and improving this team.

“When I think of how it was when I started out, the difference is massive. Back then, you didn’t even know when the national team was going to play next. Now I just hope we can keep on improving. We have developed really fast but we can’t be satisfied with where we are. We need to keep on riding the wave we’ve created.”

That, of course, is the KSI's end goal. The tournaments and training camps, the additional staff and equipment, are all part of a drive to ensure Iceland reaches the one tournament that has thus far eluded them: the Women’s World Cup.

Topping their qualifying section is the only way to guarantee progression and, not for the first time, they found themselves written off when they were drawn in a group with Germany, the continent’s great Goliath. A thrilling 3-2 win in Wiesbaden maintained Iceland’s proud recent giant-killing tradition, though, and has left them well-placed to make history.

Germany 2-3 Iceland in numbers
14 – The number of times the teams had met before, with Germany winning all 14
56-3 – The aggregate score in those matches
19 – The number of years Germany had gone without losing a qualifying match
21 – The number of years they had gone without losing a home qualifier
27 – The number of successive qualifying wins they had racked up ahead of this game
11*_–_* The number of consecutive qualifiers the Germans had gone without conceding

“I was born in Germany and I played there, so I know how big a thing it is to beat them,” said Atladottir, whose father, Atli Edvaldsson, played for the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Fortuna Dusseldorf in the 1980s. “I think when I retire and look back in ten, 15 years’ time, that will be one of the games I am most proud of.

“When people look at the countries’ populations and history in women’s football, they think we shouldn’t have a chance. But although Iceland is a small country, we have an image of ourselves as standing tall. We think big and we always want to prove that, even though we are small, we can still do important things. I guess it must come from the Viking era – the belief that we can take over Europe!”

First Europe, next the world. And who would bet against another chapter being added to Iceland’s football fairy tale at France 2019?

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