MANY countries and clubs used to send their football coaches to England, Germany and Netherlands to polish their skills and learn latest skills and techniques of this world most popular sport.
The scenario has changed. Now there are two destinations which are small in size, but have of late become giants in soccer after years of dreary performances of their clubs and national teams in international competitions.
These countries are Belgium and Iceland. Soon after the finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia in July last year many coaches and officials of football associations from Europe, Asia, the Arab world and Latin America have been sending their coaches secretly and openly to the two countries to get something extra which will help them produce more skillful and competitive teams.
Belgium, now on top of the FIFA world rankings used to occupy between number 20 and 29th place while Iceland with a 430,000 population and which last year became the smallest country to ever make it to the World Cup finals was in the 130s in the FIFA rankings four to five years ago.
Now it hovers around the 30 mark, but some soccer analysts with their latest outstanding performances they should be in the list of the top 20. Many people keep on asking: What are the secrets behind the success stories of these two countries in soccer?
It is true that Belgium’s emergence as one of the strongest nations in world football has exceeded all expectations.
A country with a population of only 11 million is now reputed, like Brazil of a few years back produced what you can describe as golden generation of footballers.
When Belgium were eliminated at the group stage at the 1998 World Cup finals in France 30 coaches, drawn from the Dutch- and Frenchspeaking parts of the country, met to discuss what to do to bring a change for the better.
One of their recommendations which was implemented by almost all teams in the country was to abandon the system of individual marking, sometimes with a sweeper and get away with 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 and proposed that every Belgium youth team should play 4-3-3 and instructed the coaches to more efforts in developing dribbling skills.
The University of Louvain was commissioned to carry out an extensive study on youth football in Belgium, which involved filming 1,500 matches across different age groups and to hold regular meetings with academy directors to exchange ideas and encourage them to contribute towards the changing face of Belgian football.
One of the findings in the university research was that there was far too much emphasis on winning and not enough on development.
There was also evidence to support the federation’s theory that 2v2, 5v5 and 8v8 were the best small-sided games to encourage children to practice the skills – dribbling and diagonal passing – that were central to their philosophy of playing 4-3-3.
A joint initiative of the Football Federation and the government saw the setting up of eight Top sport schools between 1998 and 2002, with the aim of providing the most talented boys and girls, aged between 14 and 18, with additional training during the normal curriculum to increase their chances of reaching the top.
Those sessions – four mornings a week and two hours at a time – continue until now. Players in the eight Top sport schools dotted around a small country were also allowed to train with their clubs four times a week in the evening.
There was also a special programme of encouraging children of immigrants, or former refugees to play football and today some of them are in the Belgium youth and national teams.
This programme exclusively based on the development of technical skills, has made a huge difference and brought the results which have now made Belgium a football giant. In terms of the broader picture, the contribution that certain clubs have made to the health of Belgian football can’t be overlooked.
Iceland’s latest achievement shows that its investment in the sport is paying off and its 460 licenced coaches have been instructed that they must also train children.
During the EURO 2016 tournament, the Iceland team which defied all odds reached the second round from a group that comprised of teams like Portugal, Austria, and Hungary, and then knocked out a much fancied England side in the second round.
This was considered as one of those ‘underdog’ fluke success stories, but this perception is totally misleading. The fact is behind Iceland’s football success lies on meticulous and an efficient football development programmes.
At the core of its success story is a well formulated football development programme which has involved a huge investment. Every year the Under-15 club coaches nominate players they think are of national team class for the winter trainings, and the first group comprises a total of 108 players. The Iceland U-15 national team coach narrows the list down to 64 players that go to the player selection camp.
The programme has been very successful. Second, Iceland’s football association (KSI) has undertaken massive investment in upgrading the football resource structures in the country.
Since the last decade, the KSI has constructed 30 pitches that can be utilised for practice. With 7 indoor stadiums, and around 150 small artificial arenas along with indoor dome structures, it is fully ensured that youngsters at the grassroots level do not lag behind in football practice and take weather conditions out of the equation as a hindrance for practice. Third, Iceland has produced a high number of qualified coaches at every level of football.
The KSI estimated that 639 people in Iceland held a UEFA B coaching licence. Previously, coaches had to travel to England in order to get their UEFA licences, but the KSI has embarked upon increasing the home-grown coaching talent pool. UEFA courses are being run locally in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.
The result is more than 800 coaches with UEFA licences – and 185 of those hold the prestigious A licence.
In a country of 330,000, this means a ratio of one A-licenced coach per 1,793 people. Iceland has the shortest football season in the world, has limited financial resources and has the 5th smallest population among the 53 UEFA nations. Yet, they outperform much bigger countries with much more resources every year.
Iceland’s football success has shown to the world that success can be achieved even with limited resources and infrastructure, if they can be optimally utilised.
The question of how such a tiny nation rose to take on the Goliaths of world football has now been asked so many times, but the answer is simple…good plans and heavy investment.
Now the Icelanders have earned the admiration of millions of sports fans all over the world, and they rightly deserve it. Today football in Iceland is an institutional obsession, seeded from the top down through the government, the FA and schools and individuals.
For now the wheels are still turning, the production lines thrumming and perhaps a bigger surprise is coming! I just hope we will draw some lessons from the successful stories of Belgium and Iceland and take steps which will one day change us from under dogs (cats!) and make us a proud football nation.