Iceland’s dentist-coach defying convention and expectations
As Iceland’s key matches loom, with kick-off just a couple of hours away, you will find their national coach in the pub. This may seem unusual, even worrying. But Heimir Hallgrimsson does not head to this Reykjavik bar in search of a stiff drink to settle his nerves.
Instead, he is simply maintaining an admirable recent tradition that has strengthened the bonds between his team and their fans, and helped Iceland’s capital become a fortress for these serial giant-killers. His remarkable pre-match outings, as he explained to FIFA.com, date back to 2011, when he was appointed Lars Lagerback’s assistant amid a mood of national apathy.
“There was no real support or enthusiasm for the team when Lars and I first came in,” he recalled. “So very early on, I went to the supporters' club (the Tolfan group so visible and audible during EURO 2016). I told them that, before every home game, I would go to the pub that they have and give a report into what we were going to do. They would be the first to know the line-up, how we would play and I would show them the motivational video we had made for the players – at the same time the players were watching it.
“My feeling was always that if you come to all the games and you sing and you shout and you support the team, you deserve to get something a bit extra. This was just our way of showing those hardcore fans our respect and appreciation. It meant they went to the games feeling part of things and knowing more than other spectators or people just watching the game from home. At first, there weren’t many there when I would go down to the pub but now there are hundreds, and I think it’s had a big part to play in changing the culture in the stadium. Now the support and atmosphere we have there is fantastic.
“I know it will seem silly to people from other countries that the national team coach goes to the pub to do this before big games. But I think it’s something that makes us different and I really believe it has strengthened the connection between the supporters and the team. There’s a closeness there that makes us a little special. We want to preserve that.”
The results certainly prove that whatever Hallgrimsson is doing ahead of these home matches is well worth maintaining. While Reykjavik’s modest Laugardalsvollur stadium might not appear especially intimidating, it has become one of Europe's most foreboding venues, with Iceland undefeated in their last 11 competitive matches there, having beaten the likes of Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Turkey (twice). All the same, with Hallgrimsson having graduated from assistant to co-coach to a position in which he is now in sole charge, surely the pre-match pub routine will now be delegated to one of his support staff?
“When Lars left, I did think, ‘Should I still be doing this?’ But I kept it up for the home games against Finland and Turkey (both victories) and I just feel, ‘Why stop it?’ Really, I just see going to the pub with the fans and then meeting the team at the stadium as my pre-match routine now. And I enjoy it. It gives me a good feeling to go there, I’m not missing out on anything I should be doing with the team, and I think the fans really appreciate it.”
From the dugout to the dentist’s chair There is plenty to admire in Hallgrimsson’s approach. Yet, even if it was to be met with laughs or sneers, one suspects he would remain unfazed. ‘Doing things differently’ has become something of a mantra, and the same is true of the much-discussed role of part-time dentist that he held throughout his time as Lagerback’s assistant and co-coach.
“Even now that I’m sole coach and full-time, I still go back home now and again and do a little bit of dentistry,” said the Iceland boss, who hails from a small island, Heimay, with a population of less than 5,000. “That’s just me. Some coaches like to play golf in their spare time, others go fishing... I go to my dental office! It takes my mind off football for a while and I get the chance to see my patients and colleagues – people I miss.”
Lagerback also falls into that category, with the veteran Swede having become a firm friend and valued mentor during the pair’s five years together. Indeed, having vied for the manager’s job in 2011 before being appointed No2, Hallgrimsson is now immensely grateful that he was kept waiting for the position he craved.
He said: “I’m the kind of person who likes to learn and I don’t think I could have had a better teacher than Lars. And yes, I definitely miss him because, first and foremost, he’s a good friend. But I also loved that whenever an issue cropped up, he would always say, ‘Yeah, something similar happened to me with Sweden and we handled it this way.’
“It wasn’t always saying he had done it right; often, it would be learning from his mistakes. But it’s when I have dilemmas like that that I miss him the most. By the same token, though, I like being the sole coach and this was always my aim. My ambition was never to be the best assistant coach in the world. I always wanted to be a good manager in my own right.
“It’s clear that what we did together has been working though, so there has been no need to change much since Lars left. We have brought in a fitness coach, which I think was necessary after the EURO, and I have a new assistant to take over some of the jobs I had. The biggest change has been the media because the interest levels in Iceland have gone up massively since the EURO and, before, Lars and I would split media work 50-50. Now there is a lot more to handle, although I must say that it’s lovely to see the respect and attention that Icelandic football is receiving.”
Dodging a hangover There is, of course, one negative aspect to Iceland’s recent achievements and the coverage they have received. “No-one underestimates us anymore,” Hallgrimsson explains with a smile. “Opposition teams clearly analyse us much better than before and play differently against us too.”
Given the challenges that accompany his team’s new-found status, Iceland’s coach is delighted that they remain firmly in contention for a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Indeed, while a 2-0 defeat to Croatia in their last outing ended their unbeaten start to Group I and left them three points adrift of their conquerors, fears of a EURO hangover have not materialised.
“We have to be happy so far,” he said. “After the EURO, as everyone knows, Iceland had a big, big party. And you know how it is the day after a party – it’s not always easy to get up and start work again. We knew we faced a big challenge in that respect, psychologically and also physically, given that quite a few of our players in Scandinavia jumped straight back from the EURO, without any rest, to play for their clubs.
“Bearing that in mind, to start as we did – getting a draw in Ukraine and then beating Finland and Turkey – was fantastic. OK, we lost to Croatia away, but they were just better than us on the day and I had no complaints at all with my team. The goals they scored weren’t down to bad defending or mistakes; Croatia just have superior individuals to us and their quality shone through. Against teams like that, we can play our best and still lose.”
The rematch against Croatia will come in June, and Halgrimsson will hope that a noisy home support – roused by another pub pep talk – can roar Iceland to victory. First, though, there is the challenge of a trip to Kosovo, with little prospect of the Nordic outfit becoming distracted.
“I can guarantee no-one will be thinking of Croatia,” vowed Halgrimsson. “One thing we know better than anyone is the dangers of underestimating an opponent. We have seen enough teams do it with us and pay the price. And what you can say about Kosovo is that they have the talent to cause anyone problems. If you look at the players they have and the leagues they play in, the level is high and similar to what we have in our squad.
“We’re focused and we’ll need to be because it’s clear that the margins in this group are going to be very narrow. At the moment, it looks like Croatia will be number one but things can change quickly. We just have to believe that we are going to Russia and do everything in our power to make it happen. We’re definitely not scared to say that’s our target, and what gives us a chance is that the team has a good mentality and a clear identity.”
The same, too, could be said of the man leading them. In proving himself willing to attempt the unusual and able to pull off the unlikely, Hallgrimsson is a coach well worth raising a glass to.