One of the major storylines and remarkable stories of the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament has been the fairytale run of Iceland. A country of just 330,000 inhabitants, long-winters and limited outdoor football facilities, is undefeated heading into their quarterfinal match with hosts France.
Iceland’s Euro 2016 journey included a draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side, a victory over the tournament dark-horses Austria and a shocking upset against England.
Remarkably, there is an obscure link between Iceland’s national team and football in Nepal. And it comes via Johan Kalin, the former head coach of Machhindra Football Club, an A-Division club in Nepal. Kalin, who hails from Sweden, has long been an admirer of fellow countryman and Iceland’s head coach Lars Lagerback.
“My coaching style and philosophy is highly influenced by Lagerback,” claims the 39-year-old, “If you look at the way Machhindra was developed and played when I was head coach it was very similar to Iceland.”
In terms of philosophy, Kalin explains that he sees the game in the same way to Lagerback, who previously coached Sweden from 2000 until 2009.
“We both believe in a foundation of defensive organization, a lot of running, strong team spirit and loyal players. That is what I tried to instill at Machhindra,” says Kalin, who coincidentally resides in the northern part of Sweden which geographically mimics Iceland.
“We played 4-4-2 and started to defend pretty low. We used a zonal defense all over the pitch and our focus was on creating 1 or 2 strong chances instead of 7 or 8 weak ones. Iceland did all this to perfection against England.”
Machhindra’s success under Kalin paralleled Iceland’s achievement of rising from 112 in the FIFA World Rankings to 34th in the latest one.
Perennial relegation candidates Machhindra finished a remarkable second in the Martyr’s League ‘A’ Division in Kalin’s lone season in Nepal in 2013-14. The White Lions were victorious in all their Super League matches and were only one point adrift of champions Manang Marshyangdi Club in the final accumulated table.
“Like Iceland we did not have the big names in the squad so we had to rely on team spirit and tactics,” Kalin reminisces, “It took some time for the Machhindra players to buy into the concept and we struggled early, but when everything came together we were a formidable force - just as Iceland has become.”