(Reuters) - Siggi Eyolfsson had only modest success as a professional footballer abroad, but he worked wonders when he returned home to launch a coaching revolution that many credit for Iceland making their European Chammpionship debut this year.
With a population of about 329,000 - roughly that of England's football wonder-child Leicester - Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for Euro 2016 in France next month, playing in a group with Austria, Hungary and Portugal.
But in spite of its small size the Nordic country of geysers and glaciers has more top-level coaches, per capita, than any other nation and has benefited from a huge investment in facilities including "football houses" and artificial pitches in the past 15 years.
Eyolfsson should take a bow.
As a 26-year-old with seven years at Icelandic clubs under his belt, he left to play for English and Belgium sides, where he had a modest career, before returning home in 2002.
On his return home Eyolfsson won successive domestic titles with KR Reykjavik, but then took over as head of education at the KSI, Icelandic football's governing body, where he launched an overhaul of the coaching system.
Eyolfsson knew his subject, having studied in the United States before embarking on a football career, acquiring a degree in exercise and sports science, and a Masters in sports psychology.
Now Iceland has nearly 850 coaches holding UEFA licences who, apart from coaching professional teams tutor boys and girls from the age of five.
Early results of Eyolfsson's revolution showed up with the women's national team qualifying for the Euros in 2009 and 2013.
"The KSI deserve so much credit for starting the coaching," said Hermann Hreidarsson, who played in England for 15 years and won the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008.
"The man behind it was Siggi he kept talking about it when he was head of education until it happened."
Hreidarsson recalled his early days in England when he signed for Crystal Palace as a 23-year-old in 1997.
"My technical ability was no better than a 14-year-old's today. The improvements have been immense," he said.
Nearly every player Iceland's Euro squad, all of whom play abroad, were coached in their teenage years in the new system.
There are other achievements. About 100 Icelanders play overseas, and many more compete full-time or part-time in Iceland – from a playing base of only 3,000 registered adult males.
The overhaul of coaching in Iceland was matched by a huge investment in facilities. The boom years before the 2008 economic crash saw indoor "football houses" and artificial pitches arriving in large numbers.
There are seven full-sized indoor pitches, six half-sized pitches for junior games and training, and nearly 200 outdoor artificial pitches of various sizes – with more on the way. Everything was paid for by clubs, municipalities and sponsors.
"Football is no longer a six-month game in Iceland," said Omar Smarason, marketing and media manager of the KSI.
"Iceland is out-performing about 150 bigger countries and arguably is the best in the world in developing players," said Eyolfsson, who helped to ensure that the coaching network extended even to the most remote villages.
"You don’t know where the next Eidur Gudjohnsen is going to come from," Eyolfsson told Reuters, referring to the Icelandic midfielder who has played for top flight foreign clubs including Chelsea and Barcelona.
"It could be a small village, so you need a qualified coach in that village."
Eyolfsson, 42, left the KSI in 2013 to try club coaching and now works alongside another Icelander Runar Kristinsson as assistant manager at Lillestrom in Norway.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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