The Black Swan of elite football: The case of Iceland | A summary


Vi∂ar Halldorsson
Professor of Sociology, University of Iceland

The Argument: Talent development programmes in football are ineffective

Talent development programmes are the conventional and ‘legitimate’ route do develop football skills and gain success, and draw attention of young hopefuls and their eager parents as a crucial step into professional football. The key argument of this paper is however that professional talent development programmes are flawed and ineffective. Firstly, because of the low number of successful transitions from youth academies to elite level – which is no more than by chance alone – and secondly, because they have largely been inadequate to produce elite players with the right characteristics and attitudes for team sports. The case I use to illustrate this point is the recent success of Iceland, which emerged like a black swan onto the international football scene.

The Case: The success of Icelandic football

Iceland (with a population of 340,000) has attracted international attention by being the smallest nation to qualify for major international football championships. The men’s national team qualified for the 2016 European Championship Finals, where it reached the quarterfinals after eliminating England in the round of 16, and for the 2018 World Cup, where it, for instance, drew against Argentina in its first match of the competition. This emergence of Icelandic players and teams at the top international stage in men’s football (as in other sports) has come about in the past ten years signifying the golden age of Icelandic sports. It is, however, not only the small population of Iceland which is of interest in this case but also the fact that while the football world in the last decades has moved from an amateur status to full-time professionalism, Iceland’s recent football success has, surprisingly, been generated by a local amateur sports-for-all youth system, which contrasts the high-profile international elite professional systems in profound ways. Thus, while top-level Icelandic sports have become more professional in recent years they have not become too professional, as they can still be typified by an amateur ethos, such as friendships of players, communal sentiments, and the joy of playing for the sake of playing.

Iceland beats England 2-1 in shock of Euro 2016. Probably England’s biggest humiliation since losing 1-0 to the United States in 1950 World Cup. (Denver Post, June 27, 2016)

Sports in Iceland are built on similar structural and cultural foundations as sports in the other Nordic nations. However, all the sports clubs are community owned and based multi-sports clubs, which are open to everyone. The most remarkable feature of the Icelandic Sports Model is that it does not distinguish between participation sports and performance sports as is done in most other countries. The two ideologies – most often perceived as opposites that do not mix which indicates the ‘either/or’ ideology – combine into a single sports model in Iceland where equal emphasis is placed on both. This mixed system is a key distinctive feature of the Icelandic Sports Model which has two main aims in the customary sport-for-all clubs: 1) to foster the positive personal development of children and adolescents through sport, and 2) to develop elite athletes for sport competition. This mixed system has served the Icelanders well as they have been remarkably succesful on both accounts.

The Problem: Moving kids sports from play to work

With increased commercialization and glorification of global sports, the establishment of specific talent development programmes for kids all down to five years old, within the sport clubs youth academies, has become the norm in contemporary elite sport organisations all around the world, separating the ‘talented’ kids (the few) from the rest (the masses), from early on. This trend has highlighted performance-oriented youth sports, at the cost of participation sports, and emphasized individual player development at the cost of more communal dispositions. This trend has further shifted the emphasis of youth sports from play to work.

Thus, while the Icelanders fostered teams that became something more than the mere sum of their parts, most of their opponents failed to play to the potential.

There is vast critical literature on the youth sport development programmes. This literature shows how talent development programmes have been associated with increased player burnout, anxiety, depression, long-term injury, and dropout from sports, as well as the attribution of dubious social skills such as egocentrism and arrogance. The youth sport development programmes have made sports less enjoyable and effective as such systems have largely been inadequate to produce elite players with the right characteristics and attitudes for team sports, which shows in the failures of many top-level teams.

This paper argues that Iceland’s football success can, in part, be explained by its ability to exploit those major weaknesses in the elite sports model, as many of the big nations seem to have missed some important elements in their culture as regards successful teamwork, such as players’ enjoyment, friendships and team sacrifice, which has resulted in the failures of those teams to play to their potential. Those failures of the ‘big teams’ have made them vulnerable to embarrassing results and provided ‘smaller teams’, which have emphasized more human and playlike sports, like Iceland, with a window of opportunity to beat them. Thus, while the Icelanders fostered teams that became something more than the mere sum of their parts, most of their opponents failed to play to the potential. I believe the reasons for this can be traced to the different development of players from different youth sport systems.

The Proposal: Don’t take the play out of playing

The Icelandic ‘none-elite’ mixed system of participation and performance sports has been extremely successful in guiding players and teams to the elite level, as well as having a positive impact on the psycho-sociological development of its participants. The professional elite youth sport system can, however, be criticised for doing neither successfully. Therefore, the emergence of Iceland at the top of the international football scene can be considered as a black swan, in terms of the efficiency of talent development programs, unsettling the status quo. Big football nations, such as Germany, have already begun to take notice and somewhat changed their course in how they manage youth sports, where they have tried to restore the play in the playing of youth sports –  as do the Icelanders.

Copyright © Vi∂ar Halldorsson 2021

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