Iceland makes its first-ever appearance in the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament this year. Its a huge accomplishment for the tiny nation, and is the culmination of a phenomenal player development project that will be studied for years to come. While all the attention will be focused on the efforts of the Iceland Football Association over the past 10-12 years, much of Iceland's success in developing players is a mentality and philosophy that has been deeply engrained in the culture of this tiny, island nation: making do with what you've got.
Meet Asgeir Sigurvinsson (in the white). He was born and raised in Vestmannaeyjar, known in English as Westman Islands. The Westman Islands are basically an archipelago of small islands stretching from the southern coast of Iceland into the North Atlantic. All of the islands except one are uninhabited. The largest island, Heimaey, has about 4,100 inhabitants.
Asgeir played youth soccer with a club based on the island known as IBV Fotbolti. As you can imagine, IBV is not a recruiting club. Young kids don't move to the Island to train and play at IBV. The largest city in Iceland, Reykjavik, is 70 miles away but accessible only by boat or airplane. Basically, if you live on the island, IBV is where you go. And for the coaches, there's not much of a point to tryouts and cuts. You've only got so many kids on the island and you've got to work with them.
Now meet Margret Lara Vidarsdottir. Margret is a striker and the all-time leading goal-scorer for Iceland's women's national team and she trained and played at..., you guessed it, IBV Fotbolti! From that island club, Margret progressed to top-flight professional clubs such as FCR 2001 Duisberg and Turbine Potsdam of Germany, and Linkopings FC and Kristianstads DFF of Sweden. She was also a member of Iceland's national team that competed in the 2009 and 2013 Euro tournaments.
And finally, meet Heimir Hallgrimsson. Heimir is the village dentist on the island of Heimaey. He also happens to be the head coach of Iceland's mens national team and will lead them in their upcoming debut at the Euro 2016 tournament. As a youth player, Heimir also trained and played wth IBV Fotbolti. In addition to being the village dentist, Heimir coached IBV's youth teams as well as its men's and women's teams.
And how exactly does a small club on a tiny North Atlantic island with a population of 4,200 produce such talent? They work with what they have. They work hard and smart. Unlike American youth soccer clubs that recruit widely from an enormous population base, IBV Fotbolti must develop the youth players they have. And they do it with a progressive system of player development that is truly player-centric. It is a system that is inclusive and challenging, but with a true development pathway upward for the best and most ambitious players.
You see, it is possible for a youth club to be a true development club as opposed to a recruiting club. All you need to do is work with the kids you have and commit to developing all of them, not just the ones you think are the best. Forget the tryouts and the cuts. Rearrange your training program into ability-based groups rather than team-based groups. Allow players to move up and down between training groups and teams, according to their developmental progress. And if you really lean in and commit to a long-term development journey, you might just develop world-class players along the way.