Earlier this autumn, Iceland booked their place in the 2016 European Championships. With a population of just 330,000 the North Atlantic country outperformed not only The Netherlands, but also relative heavyweights Turkey and Czech Republic en route to next year’s tournament. On the other side of the world, a change in the World Cup qualification format has pitted some Asia’s weaker nations against the World Cup regulars of South Korea, Australia and Japan. We talk to Laos FF Technical Director and National Coach Steve Darby about football development in the region, and look at what other countries can learn from Iceland’s success.
Iceland will be at Euro 2016, but can other nations replicate their success?
The recent European Championship qualifiers have thrown up some interesting results with the unfancied nations of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Iceland all leading their groups. Whilst it is stating the obvious to say that football is played with eleven players, and as a result every now and then a smaller country can over-achieve due to the presence of a star player, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Iceland. Whilst Wales have Gareth Bale, the World’s most expensive footballer, and South American overachievers Uruguay boast a frontline of Luiz Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Iceland’s most famous football export Eider Gudjohnsen, is in the twilight of his career. The former Barcelona and Chelsea man has played only a small part in Iceland’s success, netting just one goal, in a three-nil win over Kazakhstan, during Iceland’s qualification campaign.
Iceland certainly aren’t a one man team, and their success doesn’t appear to be a temporary blip either, they were very close to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup too, losing the playoff against Croatia after finishing second in their group. Many thought that Iceland had blown their big chance after that defeat in Zagreb, but they have proved resilient, beating The Netherlands twice and qualifying for the European Championship with two games to spare.
Although they are top of their group, and are guaranteed to finish in the top two spots regardless, their early qualification is a direct result of a change in the qualification process, designed to allow more teams to compete in the final tournament. There have been changes too on the other side of Eurasia, with the World Cup qualifying stages being altered to allow some of Asia’s smaller nations the chance to play more matches against the region’s stronger sides. The qualification process in Asia is vastly different from that of Europe, with Asia’s smallest teams competing in the early knockout rounds before the larger nations enter in the group stages of the qualification process. The AFC made a big shift for the 2018 qualifiers, enlarging the first group stage, removing one of the knockout rounds, and giving thirty-four teams a bye to the group stage, up from just five nations in 2014. Countries like Laos, who were knocked out before the group stage four years ago, now have the chance to play eight qualification matches against better opposition in the group stage.
The aim of these changes is to give all of the football associations more chances to participate in world football.
Whenever a confederation’s smaller nations end up on the wrong end of a cricket score, whether it be Bhutan losing fifteen-nil to Qatar, or San Marino failing to prevent England’s Wayne Rooney from equalling Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record, there will inevitably be an article questioning whether such matches are a waste of time. However, such arguments are often focussed on the larger of the two sides, and fail to notice how such matches benefit the smaller sides. The money received from a regular number of home matches, along with any money from television rights, can provide funding for the local football associations to improve their facilities and cover running costs, but the players involved can learn a lot too, despite being on the losing side.
Lao Football Federation Technical Director and National Team manager Steve Darby described the team’s recent defeat to South Korea as “a football education lesson”, saying that playing such a team “proves to the players that when I say speed or first touch they now realize how important things like these are”. As well as on the field, the chance to visit Korea allowed Darby to see what parts of the KFA infrastructure were possible to implement in Laos. Although the beginning of the 2018 World Cup qualifying has seen a series of hammerings, evidence from Europe suggests that the smaller nations will eventually start closing the gap. Laos’ result against Korea has been the only heavy defeat that they have suffered recently, and one which at least partially comes down to them playing against Son Heung-Min. Asia’s most expensive footballer scored three and got two assists in the win over the South-East Asian side. Laos’ other recent results have been determined by two goals or less either way.
However, playing more competitive internationals is just one factor that can help national teams improve their football. From 2002 onwards, Iceland started investing heavily in facilities, including all-weather pitches which are vital for a country with such a hostile climate as Iceland’s. They also focused on improving the quality of their domestic coaches, meaning that rather than being trained by a well-meaning but under-qualified parent, Iceland’s youths are likely to have a UEFA qualified coach helping them improve their skills. Steve Darby also understands in the importance of long-term planning, investment, and education for coaches and administration staff. FIFA and the AFC have helped Laos by supplying “quality education course and grants to build things such as Gyms and artificial surfaces”. But it is also important that finance from FIFA is used correctly, with Darby stressing the need to “eliminate corruption, especially match fixing, and reduce political interference” in football. The recent scandal of FIFA money being wasted in Pakistan, a country that given its population is massively underachieving in football, highlights the importance of having a strong national administration in order to use FIFA grants effectively.
Another important factor is the level of club football that national team players compete at. Although the Urvalsdeild, Iceland’s top tier of football, is improving, only two players in the team that took part in the recent qualification matches against the Netherlands and Kazakhstan ply their trade in Iceland. The rest of the team play their football in leagues across Europe, and even as far afield as China. Young Icelanders are cheap and have good technical skills, leading to the best players being scouted and snapped up by European clubs while they are in their ‘teens, which further improves the level of their coaching and development. Almost all of the Lao national team currently play domestically, although it is Darby’s hope that more of them play across the border in the far stronger Thai Premier League where top clubs like Buriram United and Muangthong United regularly play in the Asian Champions’ League. Beyond that, Darby says that “we need to get our Laos players into the J and K leagues” (the top two leagues in East Asia) so that they can “return to Laos as good Pros (and richer) and act as role models”.
Although the changes in tournament qualification processes in Europe and Asia have only just been implemented, smaller nations are already benefiting from these alterations. While the World Cup is a long way off for countries like Laos, the opportunity for them to improve and participate more can only be good for the global game.