Iceland's success is no laughing matter

ZURICH (Reuters) - Until recently, Icelandic football was possibly best known for the antics of first division side Stjarnan FC who gained millions of Youtube hits for their bizarre goal celebrations.

There was the fighter, where the goalscorer would aim imaginary punches at his team mates who then collapsed to the ground one by one.

In the diver, one of the players would crouch on the pitch and the scorer would climb onto him and "dive" onto the field.

Possibly the funniest was the fish, where the scorer would throw an imaginary fishing line and one of his team mates would pretend to be reeled in. The rowing team was fairly predictable while the toilet and the birth defied description.

Behind the scenes, however, Icelandic football was taking things very seriously, working hard to improve standards.

The results have been seen in the recent performances of the national team, who next month will play off over two legs against Croatia for a place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Despite a population of only 320,000 to pick from, Iceland managed to finish ahead of Slovenia and Norway on the way to finishing second in their qualifying group, where they also drew 4-4 away to winners Switzerland after trailing 4-1.

Icelandic officials said that one of the most important developments has been to build full-size indoor football pitches across the country to protect the players from the harsh climate.

"They've really done a lot of work, especially since they got the full-size indoor halls," coach Lars Lagerback told Reuters after the playoff draw at FIFA headquarters.

"Today, you can train and play football around the year, that started five or 10 years ago and I think that is the key explanation as to what has brought them forward."

At youth level, the Icelandic federation, the KSI, placed emphasis on matches with fewer players to improve technique and there was also a drive to increase the number of local coaches with UEFA qualifications.

The KSI has also made sure it fields teams in age-restricted competition in both men's and women's football, to give its younger players exposure to competitive football.

NIGERIA CONTRAST

The result has been a crop of players who have gone abroad, gained international experience and exceeded expectations at international level.

First division Breidablik alone have launched the careers of Johann Gudmundsson (AZ Alkmaar), Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and Heerenveen's Alfred Finnbogason.

Other leading exports include Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Ajax, Birkir Bjarnason (Sampdoria) and Eggert Jonsson (Belenenses).

"If Iceland now has successful forwards, particularly in the Eredivisie, it's because of the work put into training before now. A new generation of players is coming to fruition," Finnbogason told FIFA.com earlier this month.

All are following in the footsteps of striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, now 35, who started out with Valur Reykjavik and went on to have an illustrious career with the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona, with whom he won the Champions League in 2009.

An Icelandic official said the country has around 70 players who are based abroad.

"It's been very easy for me as a coach to work with them," said former Sweden and Nigeria coach Lagerback.

"It's been easy as a team and we've been getting better all the time. The organisation in the team has been very, very good, and we can score goals with players we have such as Gylfi and Kolbeinn, so we have pretty good team even if we're not the favourites.

"I think the players have a bit extra feeling for the country, he added. "They are really keen on coming home and playing for the national team, there is a really good attitude."

Coaching Iceland could not be more different than his previous job with Nigeria, an ethnically diverse country of 170 million where there is constant interference and bickering within the federation.

"The players in Nigeria were also easy to work with, they were very professional," said Lagerback. "But, of course, the culture and way of living is very different, as is the way the association is running so that makes a bid difference." (Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Justin Palmer)

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