BY RYAN PLANT
With a crisp, dark blue suit worn with tinted shades, immaculately combed hair and a trimmed goatee, 34-year-old Freyr Alexandersson could be mistaken for a player whilst pacing around the pitch before kick-off of every game. Instead, he is a young, yet experienced, manager with lofty ambitions for football in his homeland, Iceland.
Since 2013, he has been combining his role as Iceland Women national team manager with a similar role at menâ€™s side Leiknir Reykjavik, a second-tier team based in the countryâ€™s capital, where he spent the entirety of his playing career. He made only 72 league appearances after making his debut in 2001 before becoming a coach at top flight side Valur in 2009.
Icelandâ€™s rise as a football nation has been meteoric. It all started in 2009, when a group of young Icelandic coaches travelled to England to study for their UEFA coaching licenses; at around the same time, a teenage Gylfi Sigurdsson was training with Reading. He was to blossom as the islandâ€™s creative midfield jewel, a Premier League star worth vast amounts of money, but for the time being he is a rare case.
But whilst training at Reading, the breakthrough moment for Icelandâ€™s bright young coaches and future star player became a puzzling affair. Readingâ€™s manager at the time, Steve Coppell, insisted that Sigurdsson would be better suited as a centre-back because he was too slow to be a midfielder. He eventually was deployed as a playmaker and was sold to Bundesliga side 1899 Hoffenheim before moving back to the Premier League, but the scare was enough to prompt Icelandâ€™s coaches to do things their own way.
Iceland has an open, hugely popular, training scheme for coaches. As a result, there is a spread of expertise right down to the lowest level, with every manager needing at least a UEFA B license to coach in under-10 leagues and upwards. Ranked 133rd in the FIFA world rankings five years ago, Iceland now sit 19th after an inspiring journey to the quarter-finals stage of Euro 2016 that gripped the world of football. The run included an impressive victory against a star-studded England side and a credible draw against eventual champions Portugal in the group stage.
However, after speaking to Alexandersson, I got the impression that for him, the best is not quite good enough. Sure, Icelandâ€™s menâ€™s national side have climbed over 100 places in the world rankings and the womenâ€™s side have in the last decade appeared in its first two editions of the UEFA Womenâ€™s Euros, but in his opinion, there is still more to come in both the male and female games.
He said: â€œWe are getting closer to the best nations; we have seen that we can be competitive against everyone. We have an amazing mentality, good tactics and a strong culture â€“ but there are small things that we all need to improve that will take time.
â€œWe still need better coaches, better coaching and better matches to play at club level, for both girls and boys. Youth football needs to be improved by UEFA.â€
By now, after answering my question for what seemed an age, Alexandersson was addressing the whole room that was full of journalists, and a few UEFA officials. He continued: â€œDo not wait for it! Why are you waiting? We need money, especially in womenâ€™s football, now!â€
His voice rose, and got louder and louder. But this was not a sign of anger, it was instead the very opposite. Alexandersson is a showman, a man who loves the media spotlight that comes as a national team manager, and he embraced it. He used open conferences with journalists to enthusiastically explain his plans for football in his homeland, but not before discussing what his coffee was like in the morning and deciding that he was to have a double espresso the following day to calm his nerves.
â€œPlease do it! Please do it so that we can still improve our football. I do not know why we are waiting; this is the most played game in the world. Nations like Iceland need support,â€ he exclaimed.
Iceland, a spiky lump of volcanic rock halfway to the Arctic, the smallest nation to ever qualify for a major menâ€™s football tournament, has a population the size of Lewisham. The male side were eliminated by France at Euro 2016 after losing 5-2. Relatively speaking, they had done themselves proud, given that there are 27 French cities with a larger population.
Alexandersson certainly had a point â€“ something that he was keen to remonstrate. He said to me: â€œI could be here all night talking about how to improve football. Please come over to ReykjavÃk, and I will show you what my ideas are. I will take these plans to the football federation. In a few yearsâ€™ time, we will be better than this year.â€
The evidence was clear that he backed himself to succeed. He certainly had no plans to give up just yet, despite managing his womenâ€™s side to zero points in their three group games at the Euros this summer.
â€œIf you have anyone better than me, then let me know. When that happens, I will step down with no problem,â€ he said.
Having spoken to him about how green the grass in Holland was, how strong he planned to have his morning coffee and his career plans should he be sacked as a football manager, maybe travelling all the way to Iceland to spend the day with Freyr Alexandersson to talk football, probably over a double espresso, would not be such a bad idea. We certainly have not heard the last of him.
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