• Opinion
  • July 12, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

Iceland’s World Cup saga holds surprising lessons for policymakers

Opinion: Long-term thinking, cross-sector collaboration and trips to the pub played a role

This opinion piece was written by Leon Voon, Innovation Enabler at Singapore’s Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT). 


Nearly three weeks ago, I sat riveted watching Iceland make its World Cup debut — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the competition, with just 334,000 citizens.

The team managed a 1-1 draw against heavily-favoured Argentina — a huge upset. Iceland is now ranked 22nd in the world, up from 133rd in 2012. The team’s remarkable ascent began more than a decade ago, and was led by good planning, with excellent execution, patience, persistence and public engagement.

While Iceland failed to make it past the group stage, its team’s journey provides real insight for policymakers into how to tackle complex issues that may take years to resolve.

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A long-term vision

The journey started without much fanfare. No big bang announcement, no large press conference around a new government initiative to boost Icelandic soccer.

In the early 2000s, some additional funding from television deals increased the budget of the Icelandic Football Association. If it had been looking for a quick-fix for the soccer team, it could have used this to attract talented players from abroad and offer them citizenship. Another quick-fix might have been to hire a high-profile, experienced (and likely expensive) soccer coach from another country.

Instead, what Iceland did took patience, perseverance and an ecosystem approach. Not knowing (or wanting to prescribe) where the best youth soccer talent was, it decided to let stars flourish naturally.

“Often new policy initiatives or government campaigns are announced very loudly and publicly”

First, the Icelandic FA wisely used its surplus budget to build high-quality indoor soccer domes across the country. Iceland’s weather is a huge barrier to playing soccer — cold or freezing for most of the year. This created the opportunity for many, especially children, to play all year round.

To garner support, such a large infrastructure investment had to be shown to be doing more than just promoting football culture and national pride. It was sold as an investment in citizens and their health. More active children would grow up to be healthier and fitter adults, reducing medical costs in the long term.

The second part of Iceland’s ground-up solution was to invest in raising the standard of coaching throughout the country through subsidised courses and through requiring youth coaches to have a license. Many went from being parent volunteers to professional, full-time licensed coaches. The country now has a very high number of qualified coaches at all levels of the soccer talent ecosystem, with a ratio of qualified coaches to players that far exceeds the ratio in the UK (approximately 1:800 v/s 1:11,000).

Fast forward to today, this organic and holistic approach has paid off — the core of the current national team comes from the generation that received this world class coaching, and these players are highly skilled and play in prestigious leagues throughout Europe.

There is much for policymakers to learn from this long-term, patient vision.

That starts from the quiet beginning. Often new policy initiatives or government campaigns are announced very loudly and publicly. That can result in more harm than good, bringing in unwanted pressure, speculation and scrutiny. Learning from Iceland, agencies could consider, in some cases, adopting a “launch first, announce later” strategy.

Secondly, linking the problem of an under-performing football team and low national pride in the game to public health allowed for a much larger investment and return than a siloed approach would have. This points to the resounding benefits of cross-sector planning, collaboration and thinking laterally about many possible benefits of a proposed policy.

“Government agencies too often feel pressure to deliver results quickly”

Finally, in trying to solve complex and complicated problems, government agencies too often feel pressure to deliver results quickly. But in doing so, agencies may place their bets on particular solutions very early on. We need ways to empower agencies to have more time and freedom to create solutions through a more organic and holistic approach.

Authentic public engagement

While the investments were helping players and coaches, in 2013, Iceland’s national soccer team was still only improving marginally, and support from the local fans was weak. What happened next holds another important lesson for policymakers: a case for the power of authentic and transparent public communications.

Heimir Hallgrimsson, the current national coach and then an assistant coach, wanted to try to engage the fans. He invited them to meet him at a pub prior to the next match, and spoke candidly to the dozen or so supporters that turned up, discussing player selection, formation and tactics with them.

He has kept up this tradition even as Iceland has shot up the rankings, and hundreds of supporters now turn up to hear him speak. He still embraces these occasions, and feels they give supporters a sense of shared ownership of the team and their journey.

“Are polished press releases, speeches and articles (often filled with dense jargon) actually conveying the wrong tone and message?”

Government agencies can surely learn from how Hallgrimsson engages citizens and stakeholders in a manner that is transparent, relatable and authentic. Are polished press releases, speeches and articles (often filled with dense jargon) actually conveying the wrong tone and message? By making initiatives and schemes come across as “I did this for you” rather than “let’s work on this together”, unnecessary pressure can be placed on government agencies, and citizens who want to be part of and support the process can be inadvertently excluded.

Success is not a magic trick

Success is not magic. The story of Iceland tells us some of its ingredients: long-term planning and future thinking, cross-sector collaboration and transparent, authentic public communications.

As manager Hallgrimsson said, speaking at a 2015 convention, “What’s changed for us? Our coaching, our facilities, the way we train. There’s an explanation for all of it. And when you break it down, it makes sense.” — Leon Voon

(Picture credit: Flickr/Jose Ignacio OrangeTree)

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