Iceland's dentist coach off to the pub as usual before key qualifier
By Brian Oliver
REYKJAVIK, (Reuters) - When he became Iceland coach after the team’s amazing exploits at Euro 2016, Heimir Hallgrimsson made it a priority to protect the things that make his team unique.
That would explain why he was helping somebody with a dentistry problem last week, and why he will be in the pub on Thursday evening before masterminding the team’s first home World Cup qualifier against Finland.
Hallgrimsson, a qualified dentist, treated a player who lost a tooth in a recent match played near his clinic.
“I don’t take bookings, but I like to keep my fingers busy, just for one or two private clients or emergencies,” he told Reuters. “I’m actually quite a good dentist.”
He is also skilled in public relations, taking a lot of trouble as assistant coach to build a strong relationship with the fans.
Before a 2012 friendly against the Faroe Islands, he went to the bar frequented by Tolfan, the national supporters’ group, to announce the team, explain the selection and talk tactics. He has done the same for every home game since.
“There were only 12 or 15 guys and girls that first time. Now the place is packed,” he said. "There will be as many as 400 there on Thursday. “It wasn’t only the team in France, the supporters were fantastic too,” said Hallgrimsson, 49, who worked alongside the now retired Swede Lars Lagerback before taking over.
“We have built a unique relationship with our fans and my visits to the bar have become a sweet Icelandic tradition. I like to keep what’s unique about us, and even though I am now the head coach, it would be disrespectful not to go," he added.
"We always ask them not to film it with their phone, to leak anything to the press, and they haven’t done it."
Apart from Lagerback’s retirement and the arrival of a German fitness coach, little has changed since Iceland stunned England to reach the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
No players have retired, the support staff is barely changed and the team will not be adopting new tactics.
“We play how we must,” Hallgrimsson said. “We have 30-40% possession in our games, so hell, we have to be good at defending, and we have to have solutions for what to do if we win the ball.”
Several players have switched clubs and six now play in the English Premier League or Championship.
“Our players have been clever, sensible, when it comes to selecting a club,” Hallgrimsson said.
“The first priority is that they should be in the team, not on the bench at a club that’s too high-profile for them. We don’t have many on the bench.”
He cites the example of Hordur Magnusson, a promising 23-year-old defender who never made it into the Juventus first team and was loaned out to Spezia and Cesena. Magnusson signed for Bristol City and is already popular with their fans after a good start in the Championship.
Expectations are higher after the Euros but Iceland have been unlucky to be drawn with Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine in their bid to reach the World Cup finals for the first time.
“It’s the toughest group, the only one with four teams who played at the Euro finals,” said Hallgrimsson. “The benefit is that it’s so even.”
All three opening fixtures finished 1-1. Iceland drew in Ukraine and four points from home games against Finland and Turkey would be “fantastic” for Hallgrimsson.
So would home wins for the Under-21s against Scotland on Wednesday and Ukraine on Tuesday. That would ensure qualification for the European Championship finals, matching the achievement of the senior women's team. “The Under-21s have been in a really tough group and they beat France,” said Hallgrimsson.
“They can win that group. We have a lot of good young players, a good future. Nobody is underestimating Iceland any more.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)