ZURICH (Reuters) - National team coaches are not usually found down the pub with fans two hours before kickoff, but when Iceland are involved, things tend to be different.
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson recalled that when he joined Iceland as assistant in 2011, the team were unloved.
“Half the seats were empty at international games,” he told Reuters in an interview after giving a presentation at the FIFA museum.
So he tried the personal touch. Hallgrimsson offered to meet the Tolfan, the team’s supporters’ group, in a nearby pub before home games.
Fans would get the lineup “before even the players knew it”, and Hallgrimsson would talk them through the tactics and show them the same motivational video the team would see.
“The first time we did it, seven supporters turned up. Now we get 500 or 600 people,” he said, sipping a beer.
“There is one rule: nobody takes pictures or makes a recording, nobody puts anything online. Nothing has ever leaked out. That shows the respect for the national team.”
It is all part of the low-key approach which Iceland are proud to adopt even after their astonishing run to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
Hallgrimsson, assistant to Lars Lagerback in that campaign, still practices as a dentist in his local village — something he says has helped his football coaching.
“When you are a dentist, you have to adjust yourself to the client in the dental chair,” he said.
“So some might be really scared, some might be really relaxed. It’s the same when you are coaching football players. You have to know what type of player he is and adapt to their mentality.”
With a population of 340,000, Iceland is the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. Their first venture at the finals will see them face Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as well as Argentina and Croatia.
Iceland’s change in fortunes began about 15 years ago when the country began building indoor artificial pitches.
There are now dozens of them around the country, owned and administered by municipal governments, prompting a boom in participation in the sport.
With 25,0000 registered players, an impressive seven percent of the population play organised football, rising to 30 percent in the 15 to 16 age group.
Although children have to pay to play, part of the fee is subsidised and it goes towards paying the coaches, another key to Iceland’s success.
The country boasts 600 coaches holding UEFA licences, most earning a welcome addition to their regular income.
Hallgrimsson said that young players, meanwhile, are given “organised and fun training which helps with inner motivation and makes them fall in love with the game.”
It is one of the benefits of being a small country.
“It’s our system and it works in our country,” said technical director Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, suggesting it would not be feasible in larger nations.
Another plus is that it is easier to get things done.
“We don’t think of our disadvantages as disadvantages,” said Hallgrimsson.
“If you want to change something, you maybe need to speak to one or two people. In a big country, you have to go through many steps and then, maybe, it doesn’t get accepted anyway.”
For example, if the women’s team need Hallgrimsson’s help, they do not have to go far — as he doubles as their scout.
One theme that runs through Icelandic football is that everyone is treated equally.
Hallgrimsson proudly pointed out that Everton forward Gylfi Sigurdsson, their most recognised player, is also the one with the best work rate.
“That’s what identifies the team’s spirit. We’ve got a bond between the fans and the team, and that’s what we need to get results,” he said.
“Nobody is too big to play for this team.”
“We know we can’t be best in all areas, we are Iceland,” he added. “If we tried to emulate Spain or Germany we would be a bad replica.”
Instead, Iceland’s philosophy was to concentrate on being better in certain aspects of the game.
“We know we don’t have the best passing team, so we are not bothered about statistics about successful passes, or percentage of ball possession... we have to be better elsewhere,” he said.
“We have to be harder-working than our opponents, we have to be disciplined, we have to be really organised, we have to be focused, we have to be good at set pieces... so these are things that have to be instilled in all our players.”
Iceland will even stop short at some of the tactics widely seen as necessary to win in the modern game.
“We pride ourselves on being very honest; we don’t lay on the ground and fake injuries, that is just not in our nature,” said Gunnarsson. “Sometimes we are in the lead and we want to keep the lead, but we are terrible at wasting time.”
That approach is just one more thing which makes Iceland different — and proud of it.
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Davis