I spent probably half an hour or so after Iceland’s 2-1 Euro 2016 win over England with my gob wide open, eyes sparkling, walking around the house mouthing, “Iceland. Iceland? Yes, Iceland!” before jumping in my car and heading off to Hamilton for a meeting. Such was my Tuesday morning.
It was an astonishing result and an excellent morning to be a football fan (sorry England, but for the rest of us it really was).
Iceland had done a Leicester City. As a Spurs fan, I was on the other end of it only a month or so ago. As a Spurs fan I guess you’d be thinking I’d be backing England, given their side was populated with our players. As a Spurs fan, however, I was quite glad England got booted because the players can now go on holiday. Harry Kane, for one, definitely needs a break. That much is obvious. Off you go to a beach in Thailand, mate. We don’t want to see you for a month. Massive season ahead.
The result has been done to death. Social media is full of it. Some of it even quite funny. I just need to leave this here so I can come back to it again and again…
Anyway, it’s a day and a half later. The initial glow has passed and, like many Kiwi football observers, my thoughts have turned to ‘what can we learn from a country the size of Wellington winning at this level’?
So, what can we learn? I guess, apart from both our countries being tiny, there aren’t all that many similarities. I mean, we’re not in Europe so we’re not playing European teams at both international and club level all the time. Playing good football, regularly, helps a lot.
We’re not a football culture, at least not in the way 95% of the world is. Here would be an ideal spot to insert a discussion about how insignificant rugby is on a global scale but, really, that’s irrelevant too.
We’re not a lot of things that Iceland is. So we don’t want to be Iceland. We can’t.
What we are is a country that does have a lot of people playing the game. We have more and more coaches who are getting better and better. We have an environment where we can play football year round. We have naturally talented athletes. We have no genuine excuses for being poor at the game (maybe one big one – see below). In short, we have just about everything we need to be better than we currently are.
My takeaway’s from the Iceland phenomenon are:
Know who you are
The Iceland football team totally knows who they are and who they aren’t. They play in a way that mirrors the Icelandic character – hardworking, intelligent, pragmatic, dour, savage, organised. Hard. Vikings going to war.
Does New Zealand, as a football nation, know who we are? I don’t think so. What’s our national footballing identity? Nothing obvious comes through in the way we play. At least not yet. But there may be a little ray of light shining through.
We need to work hard at this. Really, really hard.
No one system is best
Just because England lost does it mean we should get rid of all the English coaches in NZ? No. Aussie has gone down the Dutch track but the Netherlands didn’t even qualify for the Euros. Do they get rid of their orange coloured coaching manuals? No way. Spain has been trendy for the last decade or so but they got destroyed by Italy. Do we ignore everything Spanish now? Of course not. Do we ignore Brazil because they’re ‘underperforming’? I won’t even answer that.
Football is the simplest game to play but the hardest game to play well because there are so many ways to play it. We, as Kiwi football people, need to take in as much as we can, experiment, make mistakes, figure out what works best for us…then rinse and repeat. Forever.
Iceland has intelligently identified the best system for teaching football to their people as well as the best system for their national team to take on far bigger and far better resourced countries and it’s working for them. For now. How will they evolve?
We need to be in Asia
I’m totally convinced of this now. Sure, politically and practically it’s not quite that easy but we need the will, as a football nation, to at least try to make this happen. New Zealand needs to be playing more games against decent teams more often. Hell, I’d even be happy for them to play non-decent teams (of which there are plenty in Asia) if it means regular competitive games. Games with something at stake every time we take the field. Oceania just isn’t cutting it any more. Did it ever?
Iceland has a regular diet of Euro qualifiers, then World Cup qualifiers, each spanning over two year cycles. In Oceania we have, well, bugger all. It goes in fits and starts, with massive dead periods. This gives us no chance of bedding in an anywhere near half-decent programme for our national team. We get left with what we got left with recently in Papua New Guinea. Something little better than a short cut.
Commercially, too, the game is a comparative basket case here in NZ. For us, the real money’s in Asia. This is a whole other article, which I’ll get to at some point.
There’s always hope
We had South Africa. It was fantastic. We were the (almost) Iceland of that World Cup. We can do it again. Okay, it’s unlikely to be in Russia, given that one South American giant or another will stand in our way. But we can do it again. Some time in the future. Football provides the ultimate setting for small teams to beat big teams. With a bit of luck (and, let’s face it, Iceland had plenty of that in their group games) anything can happen in football. We’ve all seen it. And we’ll all see it again.
Oh yeah, and life goes on. As England’s fans will be well aware.
So that’s my slightly-more-than one thousand word take on England 1-2 Iceland. Enjoy the result. Learn a few things. Above all, keep on trying to make the game great here in our own little corner of the football universe.