REYKJAVIK, Iceland — As the coach of the most successful national soccer team in Icelandic history, Heimir Hallgrimsson has had to make some sacrifices. This year, for instance, he was abroad with the team and could not dress up as his favorite mythological character, Gryla the child-snatching troll, at the Christmas party in Heimaey, his hometown.
Because Gryla’s costume obscures the wearer’s identity, few people realized that Hallgrimsson was for many years the man in the troll suit. “I don’t know who did it this year,” his nephew, Arne Olafsson, said, “but he was not as aggressive as Heimir.”
Coaching a team bound for the World Cup has also left less time for Hallgrimsson’s original job, looking after people’s teeth in his dental practice in Heimaey (pop. 4,300), a 5.2-square-mile volcanic island off Iceland’s south coast.
“It’s a good way to relax,” Hallgrimsson said earlier this year during a lull in Iceland’s soccer schedule here. Despite high winds and a looming snow and ice storm, he was heading home for some delayed dental therapy (for himself). “Some coaches play golf, shoot reindeer, whatever — everybody has something,” he said. “But I really enjoy going back home to my clients.”
Soccer necessarily takes priority these days. Under Hallgrimsson’s deceptively laid-back leadership, this tiny nation sitting far away at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans has finally become a contender.
Two years ago, Iceland reached the quarterfinals of the European Championship by defeating England, a country 158 times its size. Last summer, it dispatched its longtime nemesis, Croatia, and went on to become the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup. In terms of population — Iceland has about 334,000 inhabitants — it is as if a part of Staten Island (pop. 476,000) were sending a team to Russia.
There are many reasons for the success of the men’s team, now ranked an improbable 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.
When Iceland tied Portugal, 1-1, for instance, the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo accused the Icelanders of employing, as he described it, a “don’t try to play, and just defend, defend, defend” strategy.
“This, in my opinion, shows a small mentality,” he groused.
England went into a collective meltdown when it lost to Iceland, 2-1, in the next round, one of the worst humiliations (and there have been many) in the history of English soccer. The team’s coach, Roy Hodgson, resigned on the spot, before his traumatized players even made it to the dressing room.
“England have been beaten by a supermarket chain!” one fan joked on Twitter, referring to a brand of frozen-food grocery stores prevalent in England.
Although Iceland crashed out in its subsequent match, humbled by France — “We kind of had a flat tire,” Hallgrimsson said of the 5-2 defeat — the team returned to Iceland to find 100,000 people, nearly a third of the national population, massing at Keflavik International Airport, lining up along the (two-lane) highway and gathering in central Reykjavik, where they performed the intimidating but wordless Viking thunderclap chant that the fans had rolled out at the tournament.
“This was a reality check for me,” Hallgrimsson said. “I had thought, Everybody hates us because we lost to France. So it was a pleasant surprise.”
The coach’s life has been full of surprises, of one sort or another, since he grew up in a family of six children on Heimaey, where his father, Hallgrim, ran a small business repairing fishing nets. In 1973, when he was 6, molten lava and volcanic ash from the dangerous Eldfell volcano spewed across town, wiping out half the houses. (There were few casualties; the town was eventually rebuilt, but some of the ruined part has been preserved, Pompeii-style, in ash.)
Non-fish-centric job prospects in Heimaey are limited. After high school, Hallgrimsson decamped to Reykjavik to study computer science with the goal of becoming a software engineer. To help pay her son’s rent, his mother took a job cleaning houses.
As is so often the case with students who sign up for numbers-heavy courses without knowing what they entail, Hallgrimsson was alienated by all the math in his computer classes. Also, he said: “My sister’s husband is in that field, so I started reading the books and I thought, This is quite dry.”
But he had to find something to study. “My friend was doing dentistry and I thought I would just sign up with him and change later,” he said. “And I never did.”
Hallgrimsson’s patients praise his charming chairside manner. In contrast to the older dentists he replaced many years ago, he has a reputation for explaining exactly what he plans to do, even when it is likely to hurt.
“He’s always smiling, really professional and really good at what he does,” said Vedis Gudmundsdottir, who works in Reykjavik’s tourism office but has been a Hallgrimsson patient since she was a girl. In such a small community, Hallgrimsson is not just a dentist but someone residents see drinking coffee with old friends down at the harbor when he’s in town.
“Nobody looks at him like he’s this big-shot coach,” Gudmundsdottir said.
Hallgrimsson still sees longtime patients who are willing to put up with the fact that he’s not always around. Dealing with them, he said, is perfect preparation for dealing with soccer players.
“You know how it is in the dental chair,” he said. “Some are really afraid of going to the dentist. Others don’t mind one way or the other. The third group are sleeping. You have to approach each client in a different way — you have to adjust to his personality — and it’s the same with football players. You can shout at one but you have to be careful with how you approach another one.”
Iceland faces an uphill battle in Russia. It was drawn into one of the tougher first-round groups, with Nigeria, Argentina and Croatia (again), and the odds are not great. But Hallgrimsson is encouraging the team to look ahead, to the next big thing after this one.
“You always have to be prepared to stop and restart again,” he said. Before they had even qualified for the World Cup, for instance, he showed the players photographs of the quiet Black Sea spot where the team would practice in Russia, if they made it that far.
And he has been discussing strategy for next fall, when Iceland will compete in the first division of a new Europe-wide tournament.
“Success is not a destination,” Hallgrimsson said. “The rise and fall of Icelandic football is not connected to what happens in Russia in three games. It’s a continuous journey, which is why we would like to keep the momentum and understand that it’s not just this game or the next tournament. That’s the only way you can think when you’re an underdog.”