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With a Coach Who Pulls Teeth to Relax, Iceland Becomes a Contender

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Because the trainer of probably the most a success nationwide football group in Icelandic historical past, Heimir Hallgrimsson has needed to make some sacrifices. This 12 months, for example, he used to be in a foreign country with the group and may now not get dressed up as his favourite mythological persona, Gryla the child-snatching troll, on the Christmas birthday party in Heimaey, his place of birth.

As a result of Gryla’s gown obscures the wearer’s id, few other people discovered that Hallgrimsson used to be for a few years the person within the troll go well with. “I don’t know who did it this 12 months,” his nephew, Arne Olafsson, stated, “however he used to be now not as competitive as Heimir.”

Training a group sure for the International Cup has additionally left much less time for Hallgrimsson’s authentic process, having a look after other people’s enamel in his dental observe in Heimaey (pop. four,300), a Five.2-square-mile volcanic island off Iceland’s south coast.

“It’s a great way to calm down,” Hallgrimsson stated previous this 12 months right through a lull in Iceland’s football time table right here. Regardless of prime winds and a looming snow and ice hurricane, he used to be heading house for some behind schedule dental remedy (for himself). “Some coaches play golfing, shoot reindeer, no matter — everyone has one thing,” he stated. “However I truly experience going again house to my shoppers.”

Football essentially takes precedence this present day. Underneath Hallgrimsson’s deceptively laid-back management, this tiny country sitting some distance away on the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans has in the end turn out to be a contender.

Two years in the past, Iceland reached the quarterfinals of the Eu Championship via defeating England, a rustic 158 occasions its measurement. Ultimate summer season, it dispatched its longtime nemesis, Croatia, and went directly to turn out to be the smallest country ever to qualify for the International Cup. Relating to inhabitants — Iceland has about 334,000 population — it’s as though part of Staten Island (pop. 476,000) had been sending a group to Russia.

There are lots of causes for the good fortune of the boys’s group, now ranked an unbelievable No. 22 in the world, up from 133rd six years ago. These include a national push to encourage new talent by training more coaches and building indoor soccer fields across Iceland; the maturation of a core group of players who have played together since boyhood; the development of a tight and disciplined defensive game to combat stronger opponents; and no small amount of good fortune.

But the road to Iceland’s larger success started, in some ways, when a man walked into a pub.

It was 2013, and Hallgrimsson had just become the assistant coach of the men’s national team. Under the head coach at the time, the Swedish veteran Lars Lagerback, the team was beginning to find its feet.

Still, it was a fixer-upper. Iceland had been an amateur team until the 1990s and played on gravel fields, even in icy weather. It had never qualified for a major international tournament. It had never beaten Croatia, though it seemed to play Croatia all the time. It had never shaken off the horror of a 1967 loss to Denmark, its former imperial overlord, by the score of 14-2.

One of the problems, Hallgrimsson believed, was the near-dearth of fan support. Though supporters came to the games, there was virtually no fan culture, none of the sort of emotional investment that can make soccer a symbiotic enterprise between spectators and players.

So he did something that would be unheard-of pretty much anyplace else: He invited fans to meet him at a pub before the next match, against the Faroe Islands. Only about a dozen hard-core supporters came. Hallgrimsson unveiled the starting lineup before releasing it to the news media; walked the fans through an exegesis of the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses; and showed them the same motivational video he had shown the players.

Hallgrimsson has kept up the tradition, even after becoming head coach two years ago. Now hundreds of people come to the meetings, part of a burgeoning group of fans that are among the most voluble, passionate (and peaceful, because they are Icelandic) in Europe. “I would like to give them ownership in what we are doing,” Hallgrimsson said. “It’s one of the benefits of being a small country, that you can have that sort of closeness.”

Iceland’s tiny size also informs a coaching philosophy that emphasizes the collective “us” over the individual “I.”

“If we believed that it’s down to one or two players, we would be losing before we played the game,” Hallgrimsson said. “It’s an important message to the kids in Iceland, because a small nation can’t make it with just one guy.”

Few thought Iceland would qualify for the European Championship in 2016, and almost no one predicted it would reach the quarterfinals. Unable to cope with losing to a team many had never even played against before, its opponents were reduced to whingeing and rationalizing.

Despite the fact that Iceland crashed out in its next fit, humbled via France — “We roughly had a flat tire,” Hallgrimsson stated of the Five-2 defeat — the group returned to Iceland to search out 100,000 other people, just about a 3rd of the nationwide inhabitants, massing at Keflavik Global Airport, lining up alongside the (two-lane) freeway and collecting in central Reykjavik, the place they carried out the intimidating however wordless Viking thunderclap chant that the fanatics had rolled out on the match.

“This used to be a fact take a look at for me,” Hallgrimsson stated. “I had concept, Everyone hates us as a result of we misplaced to France. So it used to be a nice marvel.”

The trainer’s lifestyles has been stuffed with surprises, of 1 kind or any other, since he grew up in a circle of relatives of six youngsters on Heimaey, the place his father, Hallgrim, ran a small trade repairing fishing nets. In 1973, when he used to be 6, molten lava and volcanic ash from the harmful Eldfell volcano spewed throughout the town, wiping out part the homes. (There have been few casualties; town used to be ultimately rebuilt, however one of the most ruined section has been preserved, Pompeii-style, in ash.)

Non-fish-centric process potentialities in Heimaey are restricted. After highschool, Hallgrimsson decamped to Reykjavik to check pc science with the objective of changing into a tool engineer. To assist pay her son’s hire, his mom took a task cleansing homes.

As is so continuously the case with scholars who join numbers-heavy lessons with out figuring out what they entail, Hallgrimsson used to be alienated via all of the math in his pc categories. Additionally, he stated: “My sister’s husband is in that box, so I began studying the books and I assumed, That is somewhat dry.”

However he needed to to find one thing to check. “My good friend used to be doing dentistry and I assumed I’d just enroll with him and alter later,” he stated. “And I by no means did.”

Hallgrimsson’s sufferers reward his captivating chairside means. Against this to the older dentists he changed a few years in the past, he has a name for explaining precisely what he plans to do, even if it’s more likely to harm.

“He’s at all times smiling, truly skilled and truly just right at what he does,” stated Vedis Gudmundsdottir, who works in Reykjavik’s tourism place of business however has been a Hallgrimsson affected person since she used to be a lady. In one of these small neighborhood, Hallgrimsson isn’t just a dentist however any person citizens see ingesting espresso with outdated pals down on the harbor when he’s on the town.

“No one appears to be like at him like he’s this big-shot trainer,” Gudmundsdottir stated.

Hallgrimsson nonetheless sees longtime sufferers who’re prepared to place up with the truth that he’s now not at all times round. Coping with them, he stated, is best preparation for coping with football avid gamers.

“You understand how it’s within the dental chair,” he stated. “Some are truly petrified of going to the dentist. Others don’t thoughts somehow. The 3rd staff are napping. It’s important to means each and every shopper differently — you need to regulate to his character — and it’s the similar with soccer avid gamers. You’ll be able to shout at one however you need to watch out with the way you means any other one.”

Iceland faces an uphill fight in Russia. It used to be drawn into probably the most harder first-round teams, with Nigeria, Argentina and Croatia (once more), and the percentages don’t seem to be nice. However Hallgrimsson is encouraging the group to appear forward, to the following massive factor after this one.

“You at all times should be ready to forestall and restart once more,” he stated. Earlier than they’d even certified for the International Cup, for example, he confirmed the avid gamers pictures of the quiet Black Sea spot the place the group would observe in Russia, in the event that they made it that some distance.

And he has been discussing technique for subsequent fall, when Iceland will compete within the first department of a brand new Europe-wide match.

“Good fortune isn’t a vacation spot,” Hallgrimsson stated. “The upward push and fall of Icelandic soccer isn’t hooked up to what occurs in Russia in 3 video games. It’s a continual adventure, which is why we want to stay the momentum and take into account that it’s now not simply this sport or the following match. That’s the one approach you’ll be able to suppose whilst you’re an underdog.”

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