Hallgrimsson: Echoes of Iceland's story in Qatar's rise

  • Heimir Hallgrimsson led Iceland to their first FIFA World Cup

  • Now coaching in Qatar with club side Al Arabi

  • Discusses his new challenge and the outlook for Qatar and Iceland

From climate to culture and in many other ways besides, Iceland and Qatar could hardly be any more different. But in football terms, the Nordic island and Arabian state have plenty in common, and no-one knows that better than Heimir Hallgrimsson.

The former Iceland boss, who led his country to unprecedented heights and their first FIFA World Cup™, now earns his living as coach of Qatari club side Al Arabi. Having famously combined leading his national team with working as a dentist, he has hung up his drill – for now at least – to focus a club that has gone through 18 different tacticians since 2010.

What he sees in Qatar is a small country dwarfed by its continental rivals, with no record of success, exceeding all expectations – and with historic targets in sight. Sound familiar? It should, because there are plenty of echoes of Iceland’s heroics in Qatar’s remarkable recent victory at the AFC Asian Cup.

Hallgrimsson outlined those similarities, offering a window into Qatari life and football, as he spoke to FIFA.com for the first time since resigning as Iceland coach. The 51-year-old also reflected on the Russia 2018 experience for the least populace nation ever to compete at the World Cup.

FIFA.com: Heimir, how are you finding life in Qatar? And how has it matched up to your expectations? Heimir Hallgrimsson: I prepared for this experience to be different, and it has been. I knew I had to learn to live and work in a place with different culture, different climate and to adapt to their style of football. Some things are very different from what I am used to but, in general, football has the same basic principles everywhere.

Al-Arabi coach Heimir Hallgrimsson. Photo courtesy of Al-Arabi SC.

When you took the job, you mentioned having other attractive opportunities in Germany and Canada. What made you decide to move to Al Arabi, Qatar and such a different football culture? Many reasons. I wanted a new challenge in a growth environment, and the league here in Qatar, like the MLS, is growing fast. That’s because of hosting the next World Cup but also because of growing interest of the game and the ambition of the people in charge. Being in the environment I am in today, where there is something new to learn in every corner you look, is exactly what I was looking for. I can keep on growing as a person and a coach. I needed that at this stage of my career.

Al Arabi is one of the biggest and most prestigious clubs in Qatar, so it is a big challenge and with it comes a lot of expectations and pressure. Looking at the number of managerial changes in recent years, you can certainly say that this is not the most secure coaching jobs around. To turn the fortunes of this club around has been, and will continue to be, hard work. But that is what I am looking for: a challenge.

We’ve seen how strong the Qatar national team is recently. Does the domestic league reflect that high standard? Yes and no. Yes, because all the Qatar national team players play here and the four foreigners that can play domestically usually are really good players. The national team players’ development is in part in the hands of their domestic clubs.

No, because I think one of the biggest reasons for the success of Qatar national team recently is the continuity and consistency in their work with their youth and senior national teams. The current national team players have played together from an early age and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When I see them play, I feel like watching a club team that has been working together on a daily basis for a long time and not a national team that normally has only a few days of preparation before games. This is the result of a long-term thinking in Qatar, and being led by a coach that has been with these players since U-17 is the icing on the cake in that respect.

You’ve already experienced your first winter in Qatar, at a time when the World Cup will be held. What can you tell players and fans about the conditions and environment they’ll encounter in 2022? The weather conditions will be perfect. What might surprise people is the facilities, venues, hotels, logistics and so on, all of which are fantastic. The people here are also very polite and helpful. Everywhere you go right now, there is construction, whether it’s new roads, hotels, a subway system, stadiums. Everyone is planning this event, and Qatar will be ready.

What did you make of Qatar’s Asian Cup success, and what has the reaction been in the country? It was great for the country to win. It win increased the togetherness of the people here, and cemented belief in the Aspire system of developing players. The celebration and the homecoming were impressive too, like so many other things the Qataris do.

The team played well in all the games. They were very consistent, and conceding just one goal the whole tournament was impressive. The psychological side of things also looked to be spot on. The players maintained focus and never got over-excited or over-ambitious, which often happens when you get nearer to winning something for the first time. Their composure and togetherness was fantastic.

You obviously know very well what it takes for a very small country to achieve great things in football. Are there any similarities in the challenges and opportunities facing Qatar now to those you encountered with Iceland? The road to success for Qatar has in many ways been like the Icelandic one. For one, it depends on a limited number of players, so they must have the opportunity to grow. And most of the Qatari Asian Cup winners have played together through the youth national teams of Qatar, similar to the bulk of the current Icelandic national team.

The biggest challenge is always in our heads. When we listen to negativity that says, “Now we have reached our goal, we can only go down from here”. This we hear from people around us, media, but also from our own mind if we are not careful. That will always be the biggest challenge - to get everyone to keep on working to improve, no matter what. My favourite sentence between the EURO and the World Cup was that success is not a destination - it’s a continuous journey towards the right direction. Success for Qatar does not stop with becoming Asian Cup winners; success is building on that and getting everybody to look inside themselves and find ways to improve.

Former Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.

Was it a tough decision to leave the Iceland job? I had spent seven years with the national team, and that's a long time today for any coach. I wanted a change and thought it was the right time both for me and for the team.

How do you reflect on the World Cup experience in Russia, looking back now? We had three good performances but only one of them gave us points. So we left the tournament disappointed but I believe we made our nation proud. You can always do better. But for a debut in this tournament and, in such a tough group, we did well. Russia was a great host too. All the logistics were spot on, the people were friendly and helpful, and the country left good memories with all the Icelandic supporters.

Having been part of an unprecedented period of success for Iceland, what do you feel is the key to the country maintaining the standards set? Keep on working hard, set new goals and follow your vision every day. Find people and players with a passion to improve and surround yourself with that kind of mentality - then the only way is forward.