How Soccer's Minnows Got to the World Cup


  • Football
  • Saturday, 16 Jun 2018

Heimir Hallgrimsson, coach of the national soccer team of Iceland, at Laugardalsv

MOSCOW — They are largely minnows in the soccer world, countries that have far fewer people and far less money than the countries they had to beat to get to the World Cup.

And yet there they are, on soccer’s biggest stage, taking on the giants of the sport. Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 tie Saturday, a strong result that will help its chances to advance out of the first round. Panama squares off with Belgium on Monday. Costa Rica lines up against Brazil next Friday.

So how, exactly, did they beat out the bigger countries in their regions to get there? And what can the countries that aren’t in Russia, despite a much deeper history of success in the sport, or more resources, or millions more people, learn from what they did so they can get to Qatar in 2022?

Interviews with coaches, players and administrators from these countries reveal a through line — in each case, the team found a problem that was solvable and a way to turn a weakness into a strength. Iceland has spent the past two decades seeding its youth coaching ranks with professionals. Panama, traditionally a baseball-first country, got its best players on the best possible teams outside the country. Costa Rica has instilled the simplest of strategies and makes no apologies for aesthetics. They all know who they are, and who they are not.

“We have so many experienced World Cup players,” Marco Ureña, the Costa Rican striker, wrote in an email. “We know what we are capable of.”

How that will line up with reality over the next two weeks remains anyone’s guess. But for these countries, just finding a path to Russia was a triumph in itself and evidence that seeming disadvantages can be turned into advantages.

— Iceland

With a population (about 330,000) less than that of Wichita, Kansas, Iceland may be small, but it is big in confidence, motivated by the memory of a quarterfinal appearance in the European Championship in 2016 and victories in seven of 10 games in World Cup qualifying. Soccer aficionados say the success of Strakarnir Okkar, or Our Boys, as the team is known, is largely the result of a decision made in the early 2000s to try to turn the country’s largest weakness, its size, into a strength.

Dagur Sveinn Dagbjartsson, coach education coordinator, said the country’s soccer federation realized that with so few players, it needed to make sure not a single one slipped through the cracks. The association decided the best way to do this was to give every player the best possible training from the youngest age by making sure he had as many coaches as possible available to him.

Today, Iceland has some 700 active coaches with its top two professional training licenses, which require hundreds of hours of training. That is roughly one elite coach for every 100 children younger than 14. And every coach that children work with from age 5 is a professional who is paid at least a part-time salary.

“We realized we have to work like professionals in the grass-roots environment,” Dagbjartsson said.

Also, the Iceland Football Association flipped the coaching hierarchy — some of its best coaches work with the youngest players to support the philosophy that if a child doesn’t have a quality coach early on, he won’t be prepared to reach his potential in his teenage and adult years.

“Everyone gets the same service,” Dagbjartsson explained.

Compare that with the United States, a vast country with 1,000 times the population of Iceland, where children’s training often is guided by parents who mean well but lack the sophistication of a premier coach.

Tab Ramos, youth technical director of U.S. Soccer, said the United States’ size made it impossible to guarantee that every good player would come into contact with a quality, professional coach before it was too late. Players in the United States do not generally join the U.S. Soccer Federation’s regional select teams until they are at least 12, and that only happens if a scout spots them.

“Certainly, by 14, you need to have had a good coach,” Ramos, who is doing television analysis for Telemundo in Russia, said last month. “And unfortunately, the way our system works, you are incentivized as a coach to keep moving up the ranks with older and older players.”

— Panama

Panama, which has just 4 million people, little history of soccer success and a 10-team professional league housed mainly in small, decaying stadiums, decided its smartest play would be to use its poor facilities to persuade top players to play abroad in the best possible league.

In Major League Soccer, Panama found a willing accomplice — a professional league with vastly superior stadiums and training facilities and a need to stock its teams with affordable talent. MLS teams have payrolls smaller than a single top player in Europe earns in a season.

“We want the best players we can get with the resources that we have,” said Todd Durbin, the league’s executive vice president for competition and player relations. “That starts in our own country and our own backyard.”

So began a northward migration from Panama that essentially put MLS in charge of training the core of Panama’s national team. Panama has one of the oldest rosters in Russia, and it currently has six players on MLS rosters, including Román Torres, the 32-year-old defender who scored the goal that clinched its first journey to the World Cup. Another six played on MLS teams during their careers.

Defender Fidel Escobar, 23, played in Portugal before landing with the Red Bulls last year. He was still a teenager when coaches and players on the national team told him to leave the country and play the best possible competition.

“It wasn’t even a choice for me,” Escobar said of his decision to leave Panama. He said the team had not gone to Russia as tourists, but to hold its own against the best teams in the world. That may be a tall order, with matches against Belgium and England in group play.

— Costa Rica

The Ticos lost all three of their games at the 2006 World Cup and did not qualify in 2010, but then got to the quarterfinals in 2014. The team did not need advanced analytics to figure out why. Costa Rica is generally pretty bad at scoring goals — barely good for more than one a game. But rather than trying to become Germany or build an attack around a middling striker, Costa Rica decided to become very good at everything else, especially defending. That’s how the Ticos knocked off Uruguay, Greece and Italy and tied England at the 2014 World Cup.

“We do a good job of building a team with a lot of individual skills into a collective,” said Rodney Wallace, a midfielder who plays for New York City FC. “We have the right players to shut down a team from the back.”

It helps that Keylor Navas, Costa Rica’s goalkeeper, is among the best in the world. It also helps that the Ticos are willing to play 270 minutes of pretty boring soccer, with five defenders spread across the back line. The Ticos clump themselves in the area right in front of Navas, which is the most dangerous part of the field and where the most goals are scored.

Through hours of focus in training, they have also seemingly perfected the art of the offside trap. In the 2014 World Cup, referees whistled Costa Rica’s opponents 41 times for being offside, far more than any other team’s opponents.

Costa Rica lost to the Netherlands in 2014 on penalty kicks, after 120 scoreless minutes. Matching that performance this time in a group with Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia, when sneaking up on opponents is no longer an option, may prove difficult, but the team knows the game plan and how to execute it.

“We need to win the first group match,” Ureña, a striker for the Los Angeles Galaxy, wrote in an email. “It’s pressure for sure, but more than that, it’s a test for us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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