CONWAY — What do Iceland and the Mount Washington Vally have in common?
Surprisingly, quite a lot. Giovanni Pacini, an elite National Soccer Coaches Association of America Master Coach, and Dave Hart, technical director of the MWV Soccer Club, spent a week in Iceland last month. The trip came about after the two attended the United Soccer Coaches Convention last January.
“We went to a presentation by this guy, Vidar Haldorsson (author of the book ‘Sport in Iceland — how small nations achieve international success’),” Hart said. “He was a professor who wrote a book about why are Icelandic sports doing so well these days. He did a great presentation of talking about what’s going on there.”
Pacini is helping MWVSC with the Olympic Development Program on the regional level.
“After (Haldorsson’s presentation), I was thinking, ‘Geez, there’s a number of things that we have here,” Hart said. “One, really long winters. Two, a small pool of players to work with. Three, they’re not really connected to anywhere. They’re sort of on an island in the North Atlantic, so they’re a bit remote, and we are kind of remote here, sort of removed from the hub of soccer culture. And, their community is very strong in Iceland. Our community is pretty strong here. All, of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s kind of the same, a lot of similarities (between the Mount Washington Valley and Iceland). That’s pretty cool. We should go there Giovani.’ Two weeks later, he said, do you want to go?”
Iceland, with a population of 320,000 people, qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2018, and reached the quarterfinals, when they lost to France, the home nation and eventual champs, 5-2.
Pacini arranged the trip, connecting with Haldorsson, who put them in touch with the Football Association of Iceland (also known as KSI).
“We went for a week and it was soccer from morning to night,” Hart, the Kennett High boys' soccer coach, said. “It was unbelievable. It was the most incredible soccer experience I’ve ever had. The access that we had was amazing.”
Hart and Pacini went to two soccer clubs and saw the inner workings of their programs.
“We also got to sit down with KSI officials at the football association headquarters,” Hart said. “We got a tour; saw the national coach (Eric Hamren) there; sat with a guy who is in charge of youth development; sat with a guy who coaches the U16-17s, and we just talked soccer. We talked about what they are doing and what we’re doing in the United States. It was just insane, in a good way. We got tours of the clubs. We got to watch the training sessions. Then we got to watch games at night. We went and watched basically semi-pro to pro teams, both men and women.
He added: “The quality is extraordinary. It’s high, high-level soccer.”
Hart and Pacini had the same question, how are they doing this here?
“I think it’s a couple of things,” Hart said. “One, they’re playing and coaching for the right reasons. It’s not about trophies or medals, it’s about having fun and playing with your friends and learning about the game. It’s basically the opposite of what the U.S. has instilled with a win at all costs mentality and every club for themselves. There, their clubs get together and talk and share ideas. In the United States that does not happen.”
Hart found the Icelandic people to be “very humble and resilient” during his trip.
“They believe in community and believe in playing for something bigger than yourself,” he said. “The national team plays for each other. That’s not something that you can necessarily train, it’s more of a mindset that’s supported by everyone in the country. It was just an incredible experience.”
Hart said all of the coaches in Iceland “are highly licensed” at either UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) A or B levels.
“From being a U6 player to the national team,” said Hart, “you have a UEFA licensed A or B coach with you. Think about the quality of coaching that you get when you’re six years old. It’s amazing.”
Hart said there is also a connection between the upper and lower level teams.
“If you’re like a U17 national team coach, they want you to work with U6s, so you actually work on two teams,” he said. “You’re working with six-year-olds and working at the highest level of the men’s soccer team. Having that integration helps both the younger players, who say, ‘Oh, my God, he’s my coach and I see him on TV.’ And, ‘He’s my coach and he’s coaching that national player,’ and that national player will come down and talk to the U6s, it’s very accessible. Everybody sort of knows each other and it’s achievable. If a U8 is looking at a player playing at the highest level and knows their name and the highest level player knows their name, talk about all boats rising at the same level. I think that is huge.”
Can we do that here?
“Yes. We’ve taken some of the older girls and went and helped with the Sunday soccer (youth play),” Hart said. “A couple of older girls will go and help the younger players, they love that connection.”
Last year, (MWVSC Executive Director) Kelly Gagnon took a group of younger girls to a University of New Hampshire women’s soccer match and afterward, the Wildcats met with the MWV youngsters.
“It’s that kind of thing but it has to happen all of the time with a concerted effort to do that, bridge that gap,” Hart said. “If their experience is good they are going to stick with it into their college years. I think the cultural aspects, the humility that they have, the resilience they have and they know who they are as an Icelandic player. They know that they are not Barcelona. They know they’re not Real Madrid but they know that they can run hard and work hard. They know they’re not going to be the best skilled but they say, we can defend, we can attack. So, can every player run and can ever player work hard? Yes, every player can run and every player can work hard. If they can do that and do it as a team, they can be hard dot beat.”
Hart added that there is a different structure, too.
“We have pay to play models here,” he said. “There, everyone is welcome and the fees are really low. They play almost year-round; they have a lot of indoor facilities now which helps with the winter conditions; and the club pays a portion of the fees, the parents pay a portion and town pays a portion. The towns pay for the facilities to be built and clubs run them. Now they have indoor facilities, beautiful indoor facilities. Not just soccer but they have swimming pools and that type of thing. The government built small turf fields, like 115 around the country near schools. What they are encouraging is street soccer — just go play. The government is invested in it. It ends up (costing) about $100 a year (per child).”
Hart said the Icelandic children train four days a week opposed to the two days that MWVSC does. They play 35-40 games per year while MWV plays a quarter of that.
“When you have government support and some funding to help; you have these small-sized pitches; you have the indoor facilities; you have the coaching licenses; you have the cultural and the community coming together to support each other, it becomes like this soccer heaven.”