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In November 2013, the Icelandic men's national team was on the cusp of a surprising World Cup qualification.
A couple months prior, Iceland had finished second in its World Cup qualifying group, which meant, under the byzantine rules of European World Cup qualification, that they had to play a home-and-away playoff against the second-placed finisher from another group. It drew Croatia, a team comprising players from Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Iceland's best player at the time, Gylfi Sigurðsson, was lucky to start at Tottenham Hotspur, and most of his teammates were playing club soccer in the relative wilds of Scandinavia. The odds were not in Iceland's favor.
In the first playoff match, in cold and dark Reykjavik, Iceland drew 0-0. Normally, this wouldn't be something to cheer about, but the result favored Iceland. The away-goals rule meant the team could progress with anything better than a 1-1 draw in the return leg.
In Croatia, however, things didn't go well. Mario Mandzukic, the heavily tattooed bad boy then of Bayern Munich, scored after 27 minutes. He was later red carded, which tends to happen when you're a bad boy, but Iceland failed to press its man advantage. It actually did worse. Croatia's Darijo Srna scored after the break, and Iceland finished a man up but two goals down. The dreams of a nation were dashed.
"Croatia was a better and more experienced opponent and showed its strength," Iceland's Eidur Gudjohnsen—the country's greatest ever player—said after the match. "Still, we have to be proud of what we have done in this World Cup campaign."
Eidur was right. It was a bittersweet moment: a tough loss, but at the same time a new high-water mark for Iceland, which had never made it this far before and, with a player pool drawn from a population just over 323,000, stood a chance of never making it that far again.
Since that night in Zagreb, however, the team has only improved. On Tuesday, it will take the field against Portugal in the UEFA European Championship, the first major tournament Iceland's men have ever qualified for. (The women have qualified for the Euros twice.)
While the team has improved—it's now ranked 34th in the world, up from 131st in April 2012—little about it actually changed. Iceland still sets up in the same rugged yet effective 4-4-2 it used in Croatia. The lineup, too, is nearly identical. Almost all of the players who participated in the 2-0 loss to Croatia also took part in Iceland's shock 1-0 Euro qualifying win over the Netherlands in Amsterdam two years later.
One thing that did change, though, was the coaching staff. Iceland did not fire Lars Lagerbäck, its veteran Swedish coach. Instead, the team promoted Heimir Hallgrímsson, who had been Lagerbäck's assistant. Iceland no longer has one manager. It has two.
A soccer team with two coaches is exceedingly rare. Only two other examples come to mind. The first also involves Lagerbäck, who co-managed Sweden during the mid-aughts. The second example comes from club soccer, where, for five months in 1998, Roy Evans and Gérard Houllier co-managed Liverpool.
It makes sense that dual management is rare. At first blush, it seems almost ridiculous. It's antithetical to the military-style power structure that most teams have in place. Think about it. Managers are supposed to be infallible leaders of their own little fiefdoms. How else can they gain the respect of their mercenary players but with absolute authority over whether and how they play?
Consider some of soccer's top managers: Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Sir Alex Ferguson. Can you imagine any of them working by committee? When David Beckham challenged Ferguson back in 2003, Ferguson kicked a boot at Beckham, striking him in the eye. They almost came to blows. The following season, Beckham was gone. Even Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to ax Landon Donovan from the U.S. team's 2014 World Cup squad was one that stemmed from near-dictatorial power.
Iceland, though, is not Manchester United. It's not the U.S., either. The team cannot buy and sell players as it sees fit, and it can't afford to alienate the players it does have. It can only draw from the best its population produces. Historically, with the exception of Eider, Iceland's best were not very good. But over the past decade, the country embraced soccer in a way it hadn't before.
Part of Iceland's revolution is technological. According to Heimir, just about every club team and every school in the country now has an artificial pitch; there are more than a half-dozen indoor soccer arenas—think an airplane hangar full of screaming kids and bouncing balls—spread out across the country, including one in Heimir's home town on the island of Heimey, population just over 4,000. "Icelandic football has changed from a summer league to a full-year sport," Heimir told me back in 2014.
There's more to it than artificial turf, though. Iceland also takes coaching very seriously. Per capita, the country has more UEFA–certified coaches than England.* Ómar Smárason, the Football Association of Iceland's communications director, has three kids under nine who play soccer. Each is coached by people with UEFA A or B licenses. The UEFA A license wouldn't allow those coaches to manage top division teams in Europe's big leagues, but it qualifies them to work on one of their coaching staffs. In other words, the coaches working with Ómar's kids hold the same credentials as those assistant coaches working at Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, or Paris St. Germain.
But even with this coaching boom, Iceland can only do so much. When the population of your country is smaller than Staten Island's, your team's starting lineup basically picks itself.
To get the most out of a team like this, you need to think outside the box. And by outside of the box, what I mean is, you might need to rethink how the team is structured altogether.
Soccer fans in Iceland talk about Lagerbäck with reverence, as though they still can't quite believe he took the position. At 67, he plans to retire after the summer's tournament to spend more time with friends and family. "You don't live a normal social life with this job," he said at a press conference in early May, seated beside Heimir who, at 49, plays the role of young protégé. "And I have only so many years left."
A journalist asked him what he would do next.
"Brazil," someone in the audience shouted.
"We need a new president," someone else yelled.
"That would be nice, of course," Lagerbäck responded, a smile curling across his lips. "But I don't wish the Icelandic people the bad luck to have me as a president. I also have the wrong passport." He pondered for a moment. "But it is a nice house."
It is curious that Lagerbäck took the job in 2011. He had spent years coaching the more established Swedish and Nigerian national teams. He's been to World Cups and the Euros, and worked with household names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson. Iceland was still a soccer backwater when he arrived.
"I played 27 times for the national team and we used to lose every game," Bjarki Gunnlaugsson, a former Icelandic pro, told Andy Mitten in 2015. Bjarki's last match for Iceland was in 2000, but his experience is telling. "It was an amateurish environment and we knew we'd lose before the game. Home matches would get 4,000 … and everyone would cheer if we got a draw."
But Lagerbäck found something intriguing after checking out the squad and mulling over the job offer. Iceland's U-21 team had just participated in that age group's European Championships. Talent was on the way. The U-21s didn't perform particularly well—they finished third in their group, behind Switzerland and Belarus—but even qualifying for that tournament had been a minor miracle.
The core of the current team is made up of players from that U-21 squad. They're tough and talented, and led by Gylfi Sigurðsson, an attacking midfielder who now pulls the strings at Swansea City, in the English Premier League.
"When I took the job I thought, it looks interesting to see what you can do with a rather young squad, " Lagerbäck said. The appeal is not hard to understand. The opportunity to draw on a career of experience and mold a young team is rare. The question he faced after taking the job was: How do you get a team of raw youngsters to play to its strengths? And, more important, what are their strengths?
"We are a little bit of an underdog," Lagerbäck said. "We don't have the most technically skilled players. I learned that in Sweden and obviously Nigeria, you have to find the strength you can find to beat the big elephants, so to speak."
Before Lagerbäck could find that strength, he had to address the team's mentality. The players are no slouches, but they're not playing at Europe's top clubs for a reason—a fact Lagerbäck does not sugarcoat. They'd never compare favorably to Germany or Spain if you line up player by player. He had to find something his team could latch onto that wasn't pure footballing ability, and he settled on organization.
Iceland is not the first underdog to try and overcome a lack of skill with teamwork, but their approach is a little different. It's not just about working together, and there is no I in team and bla, bla, bla. Both Lagerbäck and Heimir told me, repeatedly, that they believed Iceland was the most organized team in the world.
"We can be that even if we don't have the best individuals," Lagerbäck said. Organization—acting as a structured, cohesive unit on the field—is something they work on constantly. By focusing on being the best-organized team in the world, the players were absolved of the inferiority complex that hamstrung Iceland in Bjarki's day.
But what's more, the results are measurable. Prior to announcing the squad, Lagerbäck gave a short slide presentation to the gathered press. On one slide, he paused, and behind his black-rimmed spectacles you could see him almost bask in the light reflecting from the white scene just behind him. The slide showed that the team had three clean sheets in World Cup qualifying. During Euro qualification, Iceland had six.
Lagerbäck now had an organized, confident team, but is that enough? The world is full of organized, confident teams. If you look at the best of them, however, they also have an identity, a personality: Spain's tiki taka, Italy's catenaccio, the Dutch total football.
As a foreign coach arriving in a foreign country, it's not all tactics and match preparation. Lagerbäck had to get to know the people, too. He had to figure out how they worked together, and where they drew their strength. Iceland is unique in that it has one characteristic that defines it above all others: its tiny population. In footballing terms, this is a disadvantage. But in cultural terms, it's not so clear.
"If you look upon society in general and also the football family, everything becomes black and white," Lagerbäck said when asked about Iceland's population. "It doesn't matter if it's a problem or something positive. It's close between the bosses and the rest of the people."
"You can't hide [like you can] in a bigger group of people, whatever it is—in the society or in football."
Lagerbäck did all the conventional things managers do: he set up the backroom staff and organized future friendlies. But he also knew the team had to be more than just organized to succeed. They'd have to trust him and believe in themselves.
So rather than arrive as a foreign dictator, he worked as a mentor. During World Cup qualifying, he didn't just delegate tasks to his assistant. He took Heimir—a career semi-pro coach who worked on the side as a dentist—under his wing. This came easy to Lagerbäck. In addition to coaching, he has spent his entire career as a coaching educator, first with the Swedish FA and later with UEFA, where he often gave seminars at coaching licensing courses across Europe. (He and Heimir first met when Heimir was studying for his UEFA Pro license before he joined the Iceland national team.)
When Heimir talks about Lagerbäck, the respect is clear. Lagerbäck gave him an opportunity to live out his dream of becoming a professional coach. The Icelandic league is semi-pro. "It's not something where you can walk to the next stadium here and watch a professional team train," Heimir said. "That's not possible in Iceland."
Lagerbäck taught his young protégé to curb his ambition, and that international coaching is a process of small, consistent iterations.
"I think it's really vital for a small country like ours to keep the continuity going." Heimir said. "So don't change that today and this tomorrow, just build on what we are doing slowly."
The decision to promote Heimir, to make him Lagerbäck's equal, came from Lagerbäck himself. Following World Cup qualifying, the Icelandic FA offered Lagerbäck a new contract. He suggested Heimir sign a four-year deal as head coach while he signed on for two.
Part of the promotion was a way to preserve continuity. Heimir will eventually inherit the system and team structure Lagerbäck set in place.
But the promotion was also about more than that. The coaches say Heimir's promotion isn't a big deal. The workflow is the same, and decisions are still made as a group. If there's any separation of duties, it's that Heimir runs offensive drills and Lagerbäck focuses on the defense. But they're understating it. They're overlooking the symbolic importance.
The team that Lagerbäck built is one based on trust and working hard for one another in the face of bad odds. What better way to build trust among his charges than to show that he's invested in the team's future beyond his tenure? And the players and coaches have bought into it.
The question Iceland faces now is: How much should they dare to dream? One weird thing about being an underdog is that there's an inherent juxtaposition of being grateful just to be there while also playing to win.
When it comes to the team, Lagerbäck and Heimir think this is largely under control.
"We try to always repeat what our [strengths] are in the practice, and every team has to have some connection to this," Lagerbäck said. "Don't think you're better than you are—we have to do this and this and this."
"We're not saying it's OK to lose," Heimir added.
Icelandic fans are not accustomed to being in this position. Across the country, people are talking about expectations being either too high or too low; they're either selling the team short by not believing in the guys or they're not properly girding themselves against the inevitable.
Both sides have their points, and the makeup of Iceland's group stage make this especially vexing. It would be one thing if Iceland had to play, say, England, France, and Germany. But in addition to Portugal, Iceland plays Hungary and Austria in the group stage. All three nations have more soccer history and are ranked higher than Iceland, but they're also totally beatable—a notion that speaks to just what Heimir and Lagerbäck have accomplished.
But maybe everybody is missing the point. Maybe the progress and the pride aren't in the results or in even being at the tournament. Maybe they're in how the team plays. How the players fight for one another.
This is a team from a rock in the North Atlantic occupying the same latitudes as central Alaska. It's a place so inhospitable and hard to reach that humans didn't settle it until 874. I mean, it's called Iceland for God's sake. There are no bad odds here. Here, bad odds are called life. Here, you live and thrive through careful planning and execution and hard, hard work—or you don't live at all.
Heimir knows this better than most. When he was just five, his hometown on the island of Heimaey, off the southern coast of Iceland, was the epicenter of a volcanic eruption. A fissure formed in a field near town, and it eventually grew to more than a mile in length. A wall of molten rock flew out of it like a flaming Las Vegas fountain. The entire five-square-mile island was evacuated in a matter of hours.
Heimir's family didn't return for more than a year. When they did, it wasn't to the Heimaey they knew but to the scene of some geologic battleground. The island was almost 20 percent larger than it had been, and it had a new high point, the now dormant Eldfell volcano, whose peak today is about 200 meters above the former field. The city, too, was different. More than 60 homes were gone, trapped 20 meters under hardened lava. Ash was everywhere. Even the harbor had changed—its entrance was smaller. For much of the last year, the lava threatened to close the entrance entirely. Had it done so, it would have scuttled Iceland's most important fishing fleet, but some 300 people returned during the eruption, working in shifts, pumping seawater onto the molten rocks as the lava slumped across the harbor's mouth.
The residents of Heimaey fought a volcano and won.
I visited the island in May, and watched Heimir's old team play. After the match, I asked one of his former players what he was like as a coach.
"His playing is in line with what people on the island are like," he told me. "Play hard, work hard."
It took some Swedish cunning to lay the foundation of Iceland's revolution, but Heimir's influence added that last bit of Icelandic spirit, and the team that takes the field on June 14th will be something the country has never had before: a true reflection of itself.
With Lagerbäck leaving, it's fitting that Heimir, an Icelander, will take the team forward. The two men will be sad to part ways. Over the past five years, as their team excelled one shock upset at a time, the managers became close. But this tournament isn't the end of their journey. It's the passing of a torch. It's the next step in a plan the two coaches laid years ago.
Euro 2016 is only the beginning.
*Correction: This sentence originally ommitted the term "Per capita."
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