By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published July 4, 2016
The blueprint to reverse the misfortunes of Jamaican football may lie within Iceland’s recent path to success in European and world football.
The year 2016 seems to be the year of fairy tales in sports. From Leicester’s improbable run to win the English Premier League (EPL), to Cleveland’s comeback from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals against the greatest regular season team in history, and now Iceland’s destined run in the European Championships, of a certainty, anything is possible against all odds.
At the beginning of the 2015-16 EPL season, Leicester started out as 500-1 underdogs to win the EPL title. Eight games before the end of the previous season, 2014-15, they were relegation bound and at the bottom of the table. However, the team, centred in belief, made the great escape and not only escaped, they trounced the preponderant teams of English football, a little over a year later. From April 4, 2015, Leicester’s last day at the bottom of the table, to the end of the 2016 season, Leicester have been better than the luxuriant Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea by 16, 17, 20, 26, 32 and 33 points respectively. Nothing is impossible if you only believe.
Before a ball was bounced in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers team were unanimous underdogs to win the title by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). At 0-0, ESPN’s BPI gave the Cavs a 25% chance of winning the Championship. After the Warriors went up 2-0, they had outscored the Cavs by a combined 48 points over the first two games, the biggest deficit for any team after the first two games in NBA history. After the Warriors went up 3-1 in the series, the BPI said the Cavs had a 4% chance of winning the series. To be frank, no team in NBA Finals history had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. All 32 teams before them who were in this abyss, lost the Championship. Furthermore, the Warriors weren’t just any team in NBA history. At that point they were the best regular season team in NBA history with 73 wins and the best single season team in NBA history with 88 wins – that is regular season and postseason combined. Yet the Cavs, lead by LeBron James and Australian-born Kyrie Irving, achieved the unfathomable against all odds, when they won the 2016 NBA Championship.
In Iceland, UEFA-accredited coaches are available to every child from the age of four
The Icelandic story is incomplete. At the time of penning this piece, they had advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship. To be honest, they started the Euros at odds of 100-1 to win it. After drawing against Portugal and Hungary and beating Austria in the group stages, no one fancied that Iceland, a country of just 330,000, would have advanced to the knockout stage of the Euros, in this their first qualification for a major tournament. Against the English in the round of 16, Iceland was fearless and clinically dismantled the more famous English to advance to the quarters against the hosts, France, who are former European and World champions.
After Iceland’s victory over Austria in the group stages, which saw them progress to the knockout stages, Gummi Ben, an Icelandic commentator evoked unfiltered and unintelligible emotions with an unforgettable and unscripted peroration that went viral. The now famous Gummi Ben – real name Gudmundur Benediktsson – recently declared the mindset of the Icelandic team that faced France yesterday. He said, “They believe they can’t lose.” The rest of the world believed as well.
Whether they have beaten France or not, this tournament and the lead up are already a poetic success and has been the backdrop to their grand coronation before the world. Four years ago, Iceland was ranked 131st in the world according to FIFA’s rankings. Three years later, they leaped to as high as 23rd. During the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Iceland was impervious at home in Reykjavík, drawing two matches while winning against more highly favoured teams such as the Czech Republic, Turkey, and the Netherlands. In fact, they pulled off the double against the team that finished second and third in the last two World Cups, the Netherlands, beating them both at home and away. So, Iceland isn’t new to winning against all odds. Before yesterday’s game, the odds were 40-1 for them to win the tournament, a big fall from the 100-1 odds at the start of Euro 2016. Just before the tournament, Iceland was ranked 34th while France is ranked 17th. Yet as Gummi Ben remarked, in every match in this tournament they have played as if “they believe they can’t lose.”
Littered above and below are mental and developmental lessons Jamaica football should adopt from Iceland. During the Euro qualifiers, Iceland was impervious at home while during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, at home, Jamaica has been incontinent. Despite the severe climate, with Iceland’s warmest month having temperatures of 10-13 degrees Celsius and days where almost 20 out of the 24 hours is putrid darkness, they have put in measures, specifically, indoor facilities to ensure that people can train all year round. We, in Jamaica, have the sunshine all year round but our facilities and fields remind me of the Sahara desert.
Fifteen years ago, most importantly, Iceland’s football association (KSI) ensured that quality UEFA-accredited coaches were available to every child from the age of four. You heard right. Now 15 years onward, the seeds invested are bearing enormous fruits that are shocking the world. How much have we invested in our youth coaching?
In order to do all this, we have to get our mentality, our grassroots, and national programs right. Our mentality is weak and bemoans excuses and problems with a lack of solutions.
Against all odds, this year, Leicester City, Cleveland, and Iceland have all punched above their weight. Maybe like Iceland in football, we have to pump in massive capital into infrastructure, coaching and the process of unearthing and developing players from a tender age to reduplicate their meteoric rise in football. I believe if we do this, like Iceland, we may not win all our games, but as a program, despite the obstacles and the opponents, we may start to believe that we cannot lose.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
Zaheer E. Clarke is a freelance sportswriter and columnist.
This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on July 4, 2016.