On Friday, the 29th of May 2020, Algo Legal hosted its second leadership session with Heimir Halligrimsson, the head coach of the Qatar Stars League club Al-Arabi and the former head coach and manager of the Iceland football team under whose leadership the team qualified (for the first time ever in history) into the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Iceland, from where Halligrimsson prevails, is often known as the land of fire and ice and just as contradictory are his two career choices. Being a part time dentist and a full-time soccer coach, he possesses a skill set so unique, that we are doubtful any other national coach can replicate.
“We played football as kids. Football has always been my passion, but I needed to study, I needed to do something with my life.” he says. He recalls how he had initially signed up for computer science but switched to dentistry when he realized that mathematics was not his cup of tea. He completed his 6 years of education, but always continued coaching alongside.
Sandeep Kapoor, Algo’s founder and managing partner took this opportunity to gain a few insights into Heimir’s path and understand his challenges, obstacles and motivations that eventually led to his success.
When you started out as the national coach for the team, what was your thought process at that time? Also, what were the challenges that you had to face?
I think everyone on their first day of a new job feel a bit insecure and I am not going to lie, I did not come in with everything planned. But I had a good mentor, who was a former Swedish coach, and we believed in the team which consisted of a young squad with a lot of ambition and talent. When we came in, Iceland ranked at 138, and by the time we hit 2018, I think we were at 23! But the first thing we need to do when starting anything new is to have a vision because we need to see ourselves somewhere and second most important thing is to have a plan. Our initial vision was to go to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. This was a difficult vision to sell because Iceland had never been even close to doing this. But when we played against Croatia and sadly lost the playoff, because of which we could not qualify, so much more belief was created as we were so close in our first try. This also helped us plan our behavior because we knew where we wanted to go from there.
How do you bring together a level playing field for everyone and make sure that there is no special treatment for special players?
I believe that when you start to work you will find the identity of your team. For example, we knew that our team did not have the best players in the world. We decided that instead of being semi good in 10 out of 10 areas we would like to become the best in maybe 5 or 6 areas out of 10. We created an identity that connected to the identity of the Icelandic people and we instilled values that the players displayed on the pitch, in meetings and in interviews. These values included hard work, joy, discipline, focus and an Icelandic word which translates to “stepping into battles with all your heart”. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who plays as an attacking midfielder, was the star performer in our team, but he was also the hardest worker in the room. If we had a half an hour session, he would stay twenty minutes longer, if we had shooting practice, he would shoot at least 30 more than any other guy. He really exemplified our core values and when your highest profile player is so hard working, who in the team can be lazy? So, I think in a team or a company, it is the people who make the values shine, that are the most important.
We have already discussed the importance of planning and being prepared, but what was the special preparation that was done against the English team, given that they were ranked in the top 10 teams and Iceland was at 138?
By this time, we had already defined our identity, we knew what we were good at and where our strengths lay. When you have done this, you do not need to prepare differently against different teams. We had highlighted six areas around which we worked, which were that we wanted to be the most organized, hardworking, disciplined team with the best defense and set play while displaying the best team spirit. So, our philosophy even against good teams like England and Argentina was that even if we had the ball for 20% of the time and we stuck to our identity, we could still score. And England honestly did not prepare well against us, because we scored from the same set piece as we did in the tournament. We had grown up watching England play football, we knew all the players inside out. We went into this game without fear and knowing that we had to win because only then would Iceland support us. And that game will probably go down in the annals of Icelandic football history.
What do you think about the video assistant referee (VAR)?
In some countries it has been a disaster, but I think it is inevitable and you cannot fight something that is inevitable; you must help it grow. So you can complain all you want, but in the end we will have no referees since it’s all going to be automated and I am not going to fight it because everything new beats resistance.
Which is the toughest country you had to face?
It was France. After we beat England, we played France; the game finished in halftime, and we were out of the competition. The reason was because they were better than us in our identified areas, they were physically stronger, they were faster, more skillful and were aware of the landscape, so they did not underestimate us.
What are some other sports other than football and golf that you enjoy playing?
There’s handball, tennis, badminton, and there’s wrestling. In Iceland, because of the extreme weather conditions, its mostly indoor sports that we can engage in.
Iceland did very well by bringing in indoor football fields. So, what was the main thought process going on at the time of designing this program?
This was not one person’s decision; I think one thing led to another. Owing to the weather conditions, i.e. only 4 hours of sunshine in the winters and daylight 24/7 in the summers, we have indoor arenas for all sports. Wish I could say that some guy said – ‘let’s do it this way’, but it all just happened.
How are you innovating the coaching process in these challenging times, given the Covid-19 outbreak?
Most coaches sent the players home and instructed them to practice from there. But we saw an opportunity in these times. We worked one-on-one with our players. For 2 months we had 4 or 5 coaches on three pitches so we could serve all the players on a one-on-one basis. And when we calculated, we had done 230 plus sessions in 52 days which came up to an average of 7 sessions per day.
What is your view of the Viking clap, the mighty chant, and how did this philosophy come into being?
That is also a reflection of our upbringing and this is a small island, so everyone is involved. In fact, you feel much stronger when everyone is involved. I wish I could say that this was invented in Iceland, but it was the Scottish team that started the practice.
What do you say to the players right before the match? What is your mantra?
I do not believe in making big American speeches, because it’s always difficult to do better than your last speech. And one of my mentor’s taught me to plan the week before the game such that the day of the match should be the day off. I do that and all the players are different from one another and I think the best thing to do is to give each player the freedom to prepare himself in the way he thinks best for himself. This has worked for me.
Who is your favorite player?
My favorite player is Sammy Lee, who was a legend at Liverpool. Then there’s Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon. All these players are very hardworking. It is inhuman how these three players work, how they eat, how they sleep, how they rest and how they train. It is amazing.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Are you planning to go back as Iceland’s national team coach somewhere in the future?
My philosophy is to enjoy where you are and if you do good, it will lead to something better. I think this is healthy for me, because if I look too far ahead, then I stop enjoying being where I am.
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