1899 was a year full of new beginnings in Europe with the establishment of clubs such as Austria’s Rapid Vienna, AC Milan in Italy, German side Werder Bremen and Barcelona in Spain.
Even in the far northern reaches of the Old Continent, the beautiful game was gradually gaining ground. Today, 16 February, marks exactly 116 years since the founding of Iceland’s oldest club, Knattspyrnufelag Reykjavikur, better known simply as KR Reykjavik.
Since that historic day, KR – whose black and white striped kit was originally inspired by English Premier League side Newcastle United – have firmly established themselves as the country’s most successful team. The team have 26 league titles and 14 cup wins to their name and were the first Icelandic club to play in the European Cup. Although their fans harbour ambitions of UEFA Champions League or Europa League action almost every season, KR have failed to progress past the qualifying rounds for almost the past 20 years. Indeed, in its long history, the team have never gone beyond the first round of any European competition.
A unique project
Nevertheless, Icelandic football is experiencing a noticeable upturn in fortunes, as recent results have emphatically confirmed. The national team only fell to Croatia at the play-off stage in their bid to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, while the country celebrated as its young representatives finished in a surprising third place at the Boys’ Youth Olympic Football Tournament Nanjing 2014 – their first appearance at any FIFA tournament.
Despite this success, the date that will surely live longest in the memories of the nation’s fans is 13 October 2014, when Iceland defeated 2014 World Cup third-place finishers the Netherlands 2-0 in UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying. Far from being a fluke or one-off, as some claimed at the time, the result showed that the huge effort that has gone into developing football in the Nordic nation over the past 15 years is paying dividends.
The challenging climatic conditions in Iceland inspired the nation’s sporting officials to undertake what is arguably a unique project: to create ideal training conditions all year round irrespective of the weather in a country known for its Artic winds and long hard winters.
The Football Association of Iceland (KSI)’s solution was to develop an indoor football initiative in partnership with local authorities. To date, 15 full-sized and four half-sized indoor football pitches, 22 artificial pitches and 111 mini artificial pitches for schools have been constructed in a bid to help Iceland’s aspiring youngsters to train consistently.
“The first indoor football centre was built in Keflavik, and as soon as it was finished the people realised how beneficial it is to be protected from the weather,” the KSI’s marketing and media manager Omar Smarason explained in an interview with The FIFA Weekly. “The hall in Keflavik paved the way for the creation of more artificial pitches, and when we then launched the mini-pitch project, we pushed very hard for local authorities to provide these facilities for as many schools as possible.” FIFA also contributed a further two million US dollars to the KSI’s efforts between 2004 and 2013.
A new dimension
Fifteen years after these seed were first sown, the project is bearing more and more fruit. Over 70 Icelandic players now ply their trade with clubs across Europe, including the top leagues in Spain and England. The country’s interest in football is steadily increasing, thanks in no small part to the recent success enjoyed by its national team. Impressive performances against not only the Dutch but also Turkey and Czech Republic mean the sport is enjoying ever greater popularity across Iceland, with around 1,000 fans travelling to the away match against Czech Republic. “That’s never happened before,” Randers and ex-Celtic midfielder Elmar Bjarnason told The FIFA Weekly. “People up here are going absolutely crazy for football.”
“The change in mentality is probably the most significant shift I’ve noticed,” explained the 27-year-old, whose grandfather played for KR Reykjavik in European Cup qualifying in 1964. “Because the level of competition has increased across the board, even seven to nine-year-olds are focused on winning now. Although this is difficult for some kids and young people at the start, there’s no doubt it creates a competitive instinct among them.”
Current national team coach Lars Lagerback also believes the indoor football centres provide an important foundation for success. “The biggest difference from the Icelandic sides I encountered as Sweden coach about ten years ago is the improvement in technique,” he said. “Back then, Iceland were primarily known for their fighting spirit, but the improved conditions mean players can now impress opponents with their technical ability too. That adds a new dimension to our play.”
Whether following the latest exploits of birthday boys KR Reykjavik or the national team, it is clear that football is on the up in Europe’s second-largest island nation. The days of merely associating Iceland with volcanoes, wind and cold weather may finally be numbered.