Just recently, Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was in Singapore for a three day state visit. Apart from having an orchid named in his and his wife’s honour at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, it is also notable to note how similar Iceland and Singapore are. They both have good economies, and both are located in geographically excellent locations for their respective sea-based industries to flourish. But most importantly, both Iceland and Singapore are football-crazy nations.
But the most astounding news is the fact that for a population approximately one-seventeenth of Singapore, Iceland has managed to qualify for a showpiece event that even Singapore has not managed at an Asian level yet.
It has been almost a month since the celebrations ended for Iceland. They had secured qualification for Euro 2016 in France for the very first time. This remarkable achievement had been publicised widely all around the world and congratulations were flooding in from everywhere.
Here are the raw statistics. Singapore ranks 152nd while Iceland as of now sit 31st in the world rankings. Singapore’s highest world ranking ever was at 103rd in 2009, while this is highest Iceland have ever been ranked.
Singapore has an overwhelming number of football pitches, both natural and turf, all over the island. People from all walks of life use these pitches and play the beautiful game either for leisure or at a professional level. Iceland have built many indoor football pitches to allow for tactical and technical sessions to take place for players at both youth and senior level, as the climate there is too windy or too cold to play outdoors. Previously it used to be hard to train under these sort of geological conditions, but from 2002 the Icelandic FA recognised and improved on the problem; today there is 1 pitch for at least 50,000 inhabitants, not bad for a country with a population approximately 16 times lesser than that of Singapore.
Iceland has about 700 coaches with a UEFA A or B licence, and in Europe it is one of the countries which highly emphasizes coaching education. Likewise, in the FAS new multi-year plan, coach education has been identified as a major pillar for future success and earmarked for massive investment. Getting good coaching in Iceland is as simple as just travelling to the next village. In Singapore, we do not even have villages. Travelling from Pasir Ris to Bishan takes an hour, yes it is long, but it is not as bad as going to another village. And well, true footballers will travel anywhere and everywhere to play.
In both Iceland and Singapore, children play multiple sports in their youth. In Iceland, handball and football are the two dominating sports. In Singapore, boys play football and also engage in track and field, hockey, tennis, amongst many other sports. This definitely is good for developing a wide range of skillsets which can help while playing football. There are plenty of opportunities in both countries for children to engage in multiple sports as well so children are able to find for themselves what they prefer and are good at.
The league system in both Iceland and Singapore are also similar. Even though the S.League is a professional league, as compared to the Icelandic leagues, most players playing in the S.League do also have other jobs to support themselves and their families, other than just football. On the other hand, while the Icelandic leagues are semi-pro, the players there work part-time day jobs but still turn up for team trainings and official club games like typical professional players.
So, in terms of materialistic goods, both the countries have plenty. Then what makes Iceland football so different from Singapore football? There is one last piece of the puzzle yet to be discussed, and that is the character of the players and the team.
Singapore are playing an exciting brand of football under new German head coach Bernd Stange. There is more passing going on, there are diagonal runs everywhere and overlapping full backs. But let us not go into the analysis of Singapore, we shall leave that for another time. In more than one press conference, especially when Singapore go down to the opposition by the skin of their teeth, the talk of the town is how tired Singapore players looked and how much less intensity they ran with when they went one or two goals down. Basically, the drive and determination during games are very different from that of Iceland’s when they play.
The Icelandic players do not stop running, pressuring and sprinting until the final whistle. In the dressing room, the atmosphere is one of huge confidence. The coaches and players know exactly how they have to play and have the mental belief to take apart any opposition. This was most significant going into both legs against the Netherlands, where everyone expected the mighty Oranje to triumph. Instead, Iceland came away with 3 points from both games.
Nothing in Iceland comes easy. Most of the players in the current national team have had to play on gravel pitches and engage in off-season training for seven months on end, as the weather during those years did not permit for outdoor trainings to take place and the infrastructure had not been as developed as it is now. The tough conditions-strong winds, cool environment, long winters- do not allow for ideal conditions for football development, however the Iceland FA have tried their best to solve this problem for the next few upcoming generations of footballers.
Icelandic footballers also have to be prepared to leave their country for coaching and further development abroad. This means, that at a tender age of 17, an Icelandic footballer has to be ready to sacrifice a lot of things back home to pursue a footballing career abroad. This is never easy for a teenager, where home- sickness may strike and emotions are high. Top players in the Iceland team, notably Aron Gunnarsson, the captain, and playmaker Gylfi Sigurosson, had to leave their homeland to be able to pursue a career in England. Definitely, this has some role to play in the national team’s progress and development. The players are already used to adversity and combatting challenges, and along with the fact that they have to move abroad also shows that they are battle-hardened and have a will to succeed at anything they do. This is one of the main reasons that the team spirit of the national team is so fierce, and this determination and drive to win and succeed can be seen clearly on the pitch.
Another overlooked fact is that, Icelandic players receive little or no win bonuses for the games they play, more often than not, the latter. This implies that they are truly playing football for the love and passion for the game, and not worrying about money earned. It shows the modesty the players have and how badly they want to win for a greater cause, and this truly brings together unity in the team. Lars Lagerback has certainly picked on something that is close to the players’ hearts that has fostered such great team spirit and attitude.
Now let us have a look at Singapore.
Singapore has ample facilities for everyone to use. Seeing football pitches and kids kicking a ball around under void decks or on empty fields is not uncommon. However, the fact that there are more than enough may not be a good thing in the long run. The value of appreciation takes a hit in this case. Iceland players are perhaps more able to appreciate the fact that they have a place to play for all 12 months of the year despite their climatic conditions. In Singapore, while there may be haze and rain for some of the time, it is mostly sunny and there is good weather for playing football. The facilities and favourable environment should not be taken for granted and footballers should appreciate what they have at their disposal
In addition, there are not many individuals in Singapore who would think about sacrificing their family time, studies and other commitments here to go abroad for football coaching and training. The entire thought is a little intimidating, for both the individual and their families, especially the parents, who would rather their child take the proven path through education to kick start a career. Few have had training stints and playing time overseas, and Safuwan Baharudin is the only other footballer who has not played within the confines of South-East Asia. If Singapore football has to improve, players have to start going overseas. This does not imply that the coaching here is not adequate, rather it implies that to improve a country’s standard of football, exposure to new pastures and football cultures is vital. This will not only increase the wealth of experience in the dressing room, it can also kick-start a new way of thinking and training as a team and as an individual.
Lastly, while the Singapore team does look like a complete and impressive unit in their red kits, the coaches also have to work with the players on a psychological level to foster a common sense of unity and give and introduce a greater reason for the players to go in for every tackle with greater commitment and chase every ball like it is the last minute in a cup final. This will definitely help to bring about more energetic and consistent performances from the team as a whole.
So, to emulate similar successes on the pitch, Singapore football should most importantly instil a greater sense of spirit to make the players fight for something greater than themselves or personal glory. Using and maximising the use of all facilities for development should also be implemented, though it already has been the case for a few years now, because talent can be found and developed anywhere. There are such things as late bloomers. Lastly, Singapore footballers should be confident and more willing to want to play and train overseas to experience different playing styles and gain more experience. This is not an easy decision and the support of family and close friends is vital to ensure a smooth transition and continually provide words of encouragement. These are a few of the elements that can definitely help Singapore football improve and reach a new high on the world stage, just like Iceland. Till then, the rest of us as Singaporeans should rally behind the team for home games especially and show our full support for the efforts of the players, as they deserve our respect by representing our country and working themselves into the ground day in day out to stay at that level.