30 Nov Rise of Volcanic Nation Highlights Irish Underachievement
The story of how Iceland has risen through the football stratosphere in recent years has become an increasingly well-known yet as ever intriguing tale.
Through an economic use of resources and realistically set expectations Iceland will now play in their first international tournament next year in France at the 2016 European Championships. For all the good the story has shown though, it casts a foreboding shadow for the state of Irish football.
If Iceland – a small, faraway nation of approximately 320,000 inhabitants, have went about creating a cohesive football structure, then Ireland – various factors aside for now, have done the exact opposite. Irish football, from schoolboy level to senior tier both at club and international level, has been ravaged by political infighting which has been sadly at the forefront of Irish life for longer than we wish to remember.
To really highlight the issues which Ireland today face – and admittedly, are beginning to deal with, you first need to look into how Iceland have tackled their issues. Essentially their problems, historically and indeed presently, are quite obvious: they’re a small nation; they’re a faraway nation; they’re a very cold nation!
Like other nations such as Belgium, the country has used a long-term plan to reap the rewards of cohesive planning. A plan which, to date, has seen the volcanic nation rise over 100 places in the – admittedly questionable – FIFA World Rankings – from 135th to 23rd in a little over a year.
Put simply, Iceland have used a ‘work with what you have’ approach. Using whatever funds were available facilities have been built to allow all year-round play, despite harbouring the longest pre-season in world football – seven to eight months. Six full size indoor pitches have been built in Iceland since 2000, while there are 20-25 full size astro pitches and 150 mini astro pitches throughout the country.
Along with providing facilities for all-year round play, there has been a clear emphasis on coaching quality. Around 70% of all coaches have completed the UEFA B licence (124 hours) and around 30% have completed the UEFA A licence (120 hours). Furthermore, all the clubs in the top two leagues undergo a club licensing system where coach education for all their coaches is mandatory.
Like the (majority) of League of Ireland, the Icelandic league remains semi-professional, though there are no aspirations to rise above their current station: knowing their place in the food chain of world football – on club level – seems key to their success. Indeed, Icelandic youth coaches are happy to see their stars leave to become professionals elsewhere. While players such as Gylfi Sigurdsson left straight for England, most players will initially go to Scandinavia and play there; most notably in Norway’s Tippeligaen Division.
There are currently 93 Icelandic players playing professionally abroad. On average, every year about 5-10 Icelandic players leave to go abroad to become professional players. The stats for Iceland’s overachievement go on and on: Iceland manage to outperform more than 150 bigger countries on the FIFA ranking list; if Iceland was a US city it would rank 58th in population among US cities. The crux of it all though is perhaps they are only overachieving through the prism of underachievement elsewhere, principally Ireland.
In light of Ireland’s recent turnaround in their hopes for qualification to the 2016 European Championships, such aspersions of angst may seem harsh, but structurally barriers remain in place which holds back the development of Irish football. Like the running of the country, the running of Irish football has been rife with political in-fighting since its inception. Hampered by the foundations of rugby and especially GAA within schools, football never got off to a fair footing.
Through that, divisions were quickly set. Broadly speaking, there are three main pillars: schoolboy (the SFAI), junior (the provincial FA’s) and senior (the League of Ireland). Between those three, the links are unclear. Each body has in general looked to run independently of one another which has been at the crux of the issue. To illustrate how a lack of a fluid relationship between the three bodies has affected Irish football consider this: the five biggest schoolboy clubs are not also five of the biggest Airtricity League clubs.
While for many it will seem impossible that there will ever be a realistic alternative to England for Ireland’s elite youth players, a better, more cohesive top-down system is required. One which until recently, has been massively curtailed by a culture of distrust amongst administrators throughout each football body The FAI, for all of their faults, have looked to break new ground in recent years tackling the issue.
John Delaney has overseen the introduction of the under-19 Elite League of Ireland was announced in 2011, and is now encouragingly being filled by Emerging Talent Programme graduates. This year meanwhile, has seen the inaugural Under-17 National League begin. Twenty-two clubs will compete the first season, including 19 SSE Airtricity League clubs (Galway United the only omission) as well as junior sides Salthill Devon, Mervue United and Monaghan United Cavan Football Partnership.
Delaney has implemented a gradual approach; nothing is happening overnight. Critics of Delaney’s gradual approach argue that makes it all the more important he starts taking harder decisions with people. The politicking in Irish football has been engrained by men long gone, but has been kept at the forefront of our problems since. In Iceland, Ireland is provided a snapshot of how cohesive planning can vault such a small nation forward in world football.
Should Ireland ever truly reach their potential, it will require a change from top to bottom; something which, as it stands, remains a distant dream.