Erik Hamren is closing in on two years as Iceland coach
The-ex Sweden manager was warned against taking the job
He tells FIFA.com about ignoring that advice and why he’s hopeful of EURO qualification
"They all told me I was crazy," says a smiling Erik Hamren as he reflects on the decision to become Iceland coach.
The Icelandic offer was accepted two years next month and, at the time, the former Sweden boss could well understand his friends' misgivings. His new team had enjoyed a glorious few years, becoming the least populace country to qualify for the UEFA EURO and FIFA World Cup™, but had achieved the unthinkable with an ageing golden generation. Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, the architects of their success, had both left and, for whoever took up the reins, it seemed the only way was down.
But Hamren ignored the warnings, embraced the challenge and has no regrets. While a period of adaptation and a raft of injuries have combined for a predictably bumpy ride, Iceland are in the EURO qualifying play-offs and could yet reach a remarkable third successive major championship.
The COVID-19 outbreak has kept them waiting for their semi-final against Romania – now rescheduled for October – but Hamren’s hope is that another famous night in Reykjavik lies in store. In this interview with FIFA.com, he discusses his reasons for taking the job, his experiences of the shutdown and the challenge of shaping a new era in the land of ice and fire.
FIFA.com: Erik, how have you been coping during the past few months? Erik Hamren: Fortunately my family have all stayed healthy, so although it’s felt really empty without football, I can’t complain at all. You know that people out there are dying and suffering a lot, and I’m in a very fortunate position. I think football coaches are also quite adaptable – maybe because we’re used to things changing quite often – and we tend to look to make the best of things. And there have been some positives, like more time to spend with family and more opportunities to play golf than I’m used to. All the same, I’ve missed football a lot and I’m really looking forward to it starting up properly again. The last time I met my players was in November, so it had been a long time even before the shutdown. And we’d all been really looking forward to, and planning a lot for, the EURO play-offs. So it’s great to have them on the horizon again.
You’ve been in the Iceland job almost two years now. How have you found the experience so far? I’ve enjoyed it very much. It has been a good two years for me – not only in terms of football, but in learning about the Icelandic people and Iceland as a country. It didn’t start too well; I had a really tough start, playing twice against Belgium - first in the FIFA Ranking – and also having tough games against France and Switzerland. But it was an important period to get to know the players, and we went on to do ok in qualification. We’d hoped to fight for the top two spots but Turkey did very well in taking four points from France, and those points ended up being the difference between them and us. But we still have a chance in the play-offs – a good chance, I believe - even if it will be very tough. We know it will come down to small details and, if we can get everything right, I’m quite hopeful.
How different have you found it, going from coaching your own national team with Sweden to being a national coach in charge of a foreign country? Has there been a lot of adaptation needed? A lot of things are similar, but there are undoubtedly some differences when it’s not your own country. The language is an obvious one, even if it’s fairly easy for me and the players to speak English to each other. It’s definitely different to coach in another language, and I’m sure there’s been some adaptation for the players too. But I’ve already coached in Denmark and Norway, and I was working in South Africa [as technical director for Mamelodi Sundowns] for ten months before taking this job. And I do feel that you improve as a coach and as a person by working abroad. It’s a real education, both in football and in life.
Does it help that Iceland have had some great recent success under a Swedish coach [Lars Lagerback], in terms of goodwill and acceptance? I think it does. They had a great experience with Lars here, and I see football in a similar way to him, which also helps. I think the federation had that in mind when they offered me the job.
Did you ask Lars’ advice before you accepted the offer? Not before I took the job actually, although I’ve certainly spoken to him since then. I was in South Africa at the time the offer came and, although I enjoyed that experience – doing a different kind of job in a different part of the world – I wanted to come back to Europe, and I missed coaching. I knew it was a big challenge, of course, because to follow what Iceland have done in recent years – such a small country reaching two major finals – is not easy. Most people told me it was impossible and that I was crazy to take the job. They said that things could only get worse! But although it will be hard to match what this team did at EURO 2016, then finishing ahead of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in such a tough World Cup qualifying group, I saw the challenge and was excited by it. I thought, ‘We can do this’.
There was doubtless concern, too, that many of the players in this Icelandic golden generation were getting into their 30s and, in some cases, their mid-to-late 30s. Has there been some renewal required in the squad and, if so, how have you found that process? I’ve been really pleased with the players in that respect. It was a question I had too when I took the job: do these older players still have the quality and the hunger to achieve more great things with Iceland? And what I’ve seen has told me that they do. I like their attitude a lot. The only problem we’ve had, which impacted the previous coach too, is a lot of injuries to important players. The people here told me that they basically played with the same starting XI for four years, and consistency like that was a big help. It hasn’t been the case over recent years though, and dealing with a few key injuries at once is much tougher for smaller countries, where you don’t have as many players to choose from. It has given us an opportunity to bring in and test younger players though, and some of those have really grabbed their chance. I definitely see a future for Iceland once this great generation has stopped playing.
You have a good record personally in EURO qualifying, having led Sweden to the last two editions. But would it be your biggest achievement if you can guide Iceland to next year’s finals? It probably would be, simply because of the size of the two countries - and the fact that nearly everyone told me it would be a bad idea to take this job. For a country as small as Iceland to make it to three successive major finals would be something really fantastic and, yes, I think it would be my biggest achievement in coaching.