When Lars Lagerbäck took over the reins at Iceland in 2011, the team was languishing in 134th in the FIFA World Rankings. Today the team sits comfortably in 34th position, ahead of Hungary, Austria and the Republic of Ireland.
Last night, Iceland defeated Holland 2-0 at home and are currently top of their group with three wins from three matches, having scored eight goals and conceded none. It’s the greatest start to a qualifying campaign in the nation’s history and a remarkable achievement for the nation with a population of 300,000 people.
So who is Lars Lagerbäck and how has he managed miracles with Iceland?
Lagerbäck is one of the most successful international managers of his era. He cut his managerial teeth with Kilafors IF in 1977 and has since spent time managing Sweden, Nigeria and of course Iceland. He’s best known for his time with the Swedish national team whom he managed for nearly a decade from 2000 to 2009.
Lars took Sweden to an incredible five consecutive international tournaments in his role as joint head coach and subsequently as head coach. When he left Sweden in 2009, his next destination was Nigeria. Not a traditional transition but one that proved equally as fruitful. As Nigerian Manager at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Lars only missed out on the second round of the games thanks to the misfortune of Yakubu Ayegbeni who fluffed effort from two yards in front of goal.
Lars is known for playing attacking football and producing shocks. Little has changed it seems. Since taking over with Iceland in 2011, Lars has completely revitalized the Icelandic set up. Expectations when Lars took the job were, in his own words, non-existent. The Icelandic FA were comfortable setting no targets for Lars upon his appointment and few people within Iceland thought much of the national side. Under his guidance however the team quickly began to raise the bar when they only narrowly missed out on qualification for the 2012 World Cup. Having finished second in their group, Iceland missed out on the games following a play-off defeat to Croatia. It was the closest Iceland have come to qualification for a major tournament.
Such success has come in spite of Iceland’s lack of resources. In a world where money seems to dominate the sport, Iceland have had to work with little means. Budget travel arrangements often see the team left with long layovers in their travels to far-flung corners of Europe. For a match against Cyprus two years ago, the Icelandic team had to wait six hours in London before flying to their destination. Not ideal travelling conditions but such is life for the Islanders.
Through a combination of youth and experience, Lars has turned Iceland into a team worth watching. His timing couldn’t have been better. Prior to his appointment, the Icelandic Under-21 team had proven to be a promising team at Euro 2011. Lars had no qualms about blooding the youngsters.
Jón Daði Böðvarsson, the 22-year-old striker from Viking is just one of the young recruits recently brought into the international fold by Lars. What’s more, Lars’ experimenting has proved successful. Under his stewardship, Iceland have won 12 games, drawn 4 and lost 11. This marks an incredible turnaround for a national not often known for its footballing talent.
Is it too soon to tip Iceland to qualify for Euro 2016? Iceland have never qualified for a major tournament and now represents as best a time as any. In a group containing heavyweights such as Holland, Turkey and the Czech Republic, Iceland have held their own. With the number of spots for the Euros having increased, who’s to say the Lars revolution won’t end up at the games?
After all, it’s worked thus far.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.