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4 Agile Practices Found in Iceland's Success at Euro 2016

If you haven’t heard about the success of the men’s Icelandic national soccer team at the European Championship in France, it probably means that you’ve been living under a rock lately.

Long story short, the Icelandic team made it all the way to the quarterfinals in the European Championship 2016, eventually losing to the hosts, France. That’s a brilliant effort if you acknowledge the fact that only 330,000 people live in Iceland and it’s the smallest nation ever to qualify for the Euros.

Being an Icelander myself, I couldn’t resist writing a short blog post on how the Icelandic team did it.
When we think agile, we tend to think of development teams. Is that really so? Because the Icelandic National team seems to owe their success to the following four key agile factors:

1. Clear vision and teamwork

Back in September 2011, the national team was ranked 131 in the Fifa world ranking. The team was struggling and many Icelanders believed that qualifying for a major tournament was a far out unrealistic dream. Having failed to qualify on 23 occasions and being one of Europe's smallest nations, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Iceland.

In October the same year, Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson were hired as coaches for the Icelandic national team. In the coming 30 months that Lars and Heimir were in charge, the Icelandic national team’s went from 131 to their all-time high of 23 in the Fifa world ranking in July 2015.

The team almost qualified for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil and finally managed to qualify for European Championship in France. The team's success at the Euro’s might even take them as high as top 15 when the new rankings are announced after the tournament.

Since the arrival of Lars and Heimir, the belief in the team has been evident and they are showing greater confidence than before. Lars is known for his disciplined approach and his vision for the team was clear from the beginning.

The players had a choice to adjust to Lars’s rules or not be selected in the team. Following the new appointment of the coaches, results improved drastically and the players started believing that they could do the unthinkable - reach a major tournament.

Eidur Gudjohnsen, a key member of the Icelandic team and a former Chelsea and Barcelona player, said it best:

“I played my first game (with the national team) in 1996, and I’ve never seen as good an atmosphere within the Icelandic national team as today.”

2. Play to your team’s strengths

When Lars and Heimir took over the team, they were fully aware they didn’t have the world's best players at their disposal. The key to the team’s success was a well organized team playing strategical football.

Playing to Iceland's strengths, the team played excellent defense and relied on counter-attacks and set-pieces. Lars and Heimir have both said in the media that they believe Iceland is not be best in the world but it may be the most organized one.

"We try to always repeat what our [strengths] are in the practice, and every team has to have some connection to this." - Lars Lagerbäck

This approach was praised by many around the world, though it wasn’t always popular with Iceland's opponents. For example, one of the world's greatest players, Cristiano Ronaldo, was quoted after a 1-1 draw, with Iceland in the opening game for the Group F.

“I thought they'd won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end, it was unbelievable. When they don't try to play and just defend, defend, defend this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.” - Cristiano Ronaldo

Boy, was he wrong.

Iceland continued to enjoy success in the Euro’s by placing second in the group ahead of Austria and Portugal. The following game was in the knockout stages against one of the world’s biggest footballing nations - England.

Iceland carried on its winning traditions in the Euro’s and won the match 2-1 against all odds!

3. Prepare for the unknown

Once we’ve entered the knockout stages of the tournament, it’s even more vital to keep an agile mindset because the following opponent remains unknown until a few days before the match, which makes preparation difficult.

Player injuries and suspensions also come into play, which can alter team efforts. That’s where an agile state of mind can be helpful. Having the ability to adapt to change is important in all success.

"I think it's really vital for a small country like ours to keep the continuity going. So don't change that today and this tomorrow, just build on what we are doing slowly." Heimir Hallgrímsson

If you think about it, it’s really not so different from an agile development team. As we iterate on a specific process, we will most likely see better results each time, and that’s exactly how the evolution of the Icelandic national soccer team has been in recent years.

4. Strong leadership

With the Icelandic team having had discipline issues with a few players in the past, it was clear that Lars had the players’ respect from day one and is reflected in the way the players carried themselves on the pitch. Their focus has been evident throughout Lars’ and Heimir’s reign. Even the self belief and confidence in their own abilities, which probably hadn’t been there before, was apparent.

Having clear guidelines is a huge benefit for any team and can play a big role in achieving goals.

Iceland’s participation in the Euro’s ended with them losing out to France 5-2 in the quarter-finals.

[callout class="tip"]The Icelandic national soccer team’s triumph shows that anything can be achieved with the right mindset as long as the team is well organized and everyone is working towards the same vision. [/callout] 
We’ll end this blog on a video of the team doing their famous viking slow hand clap. Enjoy!