If they dream of playing in a World Cup they know it can come true because their national team is going. On Friday, Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify, was drawn with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.


The latest achievement has left many wondering if the island nation of nearly 340,000 people is benefiting from its investment in the sport, or is it only temporary success? Speaking with The Associated Press at the national football stadium, Laugardalsvollur, former Iceland manager Gudjon Thordarson said the investment was paying off. "Place Iceland's seven indoor halls in Coventry," he said, mentioning an English city with a roughly matching population, "and just wait and see what happens over, say, 15 years." What has already happened, according to Thordarson, is that when Icelanders were able to play soccer year-round, the rest of the sport became more professional. Coaching became a paid part-time job with required qualifications, instead of a volunteer role given to any involved parent.


Iceland has 460 coaches with a UEFA B license for training children up to the age of 16, or one per 740 people. Hakon Sverrisson, who left his job as a math teacher to become head coach at the Breidablik club, said he wanted the best coaches to stay with the youngest players because "that's when they learn the most."


Vidar Halldorsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, argued in a recent book that in an era of big money the Icelandic team preserves an amateur spirit of friendship and sacrifice "while the elite teams have been weakened by greed and individualism." The Icelandic players have relatively modest careers as professional footballers - team captain Aron Gunnarsson, for example, is with second-tier Cardiff in the English League Championship. "Together the players are ambitious and supportive," Halldorsson said, "and always willing to put the team first." The success is not "sport specific," he said, pointing to top-class performances by the Icelandic handball and basketball teams. "Icelanders have not forgotten the 'play' in sports," Halldorsson said, "and with that they champion the values the larger teams have lost in recent years."