How come tiny and modest sized nations achieve so much more in football than England?

By Tony Attwood

The emergence of Iceland as a footballing nation capable of getting to the European Championship finals made me wonder how they had done it.    Or rather, I wondered if the notion I put forward in 2010 (and which has now regularly been copied by others) as to why England do so badly at international football still held true.

Iceland of course is a tiny nation, where in many cases normal statistics don’t apply.   I actually wrote a series of adverts about visits to Iceland quite a few years back, (I mention them because it was one of my more successful campaigns) and as part of that work did a fair amount of research into what the nation was all about.  Apart from some interesting facts relating to the aluminum industry, and what their banks got up to, (plus the fact that the UK government of George Brown added Iceland to the list of terrorist nations because of the sins of their bankers – a label that I think has never been removed) I found that Iceland has the largest number of published authors per head of population of any nation in the world.

So, I pondered during the interlull, what could it be that makes Iceland suddenly a successful footballing nation as well as being great publishers?

It is a country with a population 0.006 the size of England’s population and by any form of logic it shouldn’t be in the finals of anything, let alone the world’s favourite sport.

Thus it was time to test my 2010 theory to the limit.   That theory said that the key factor that influenced whether a country gets to finals or gets close to winning anything has less to do with the population size, and nothing to do with the number of players playing in the home league, but has everything to do with how many qualified football coaches there are per head of population.

If you take a peek at the table below you will see the populations of of each of four countries under their name, followed by their Fifa world ranking.  Below that the number of first A licence coaches and then Pro licence coaches.

What I wanted to do was to see how many people in each country had a coaching badge, for each 100,000 of the population which is what the column after each country’s name is all about.

Iceland is a remarkable case in that it seems to be packed with people who have the coaching badges.   Nearly 60 people in every thousand have an A licence as opposed to two in every thousand in England.

Iceland /100k England /100k Germany /100k Belgium /100k
Population 329,000 53,010,000 80,620,000 11,200,000
Fifa world ranking 31 9 2 1
A licence coaches 196 59.57 1178 2.22 5633 6.98 773 6.9
Pro licence coaches 13 3.95 203 0.38 1304 1.61 120 1.09

Now this of course has a lot to do with the nature of that society, for it seemed to me, when I did my research, to be a society is based on doing stuff – seemingly whether it is physical stuff like coaching or intellectual stuff like writing.  Icelanders do things.  I suppose when most of the year is winter, that helps.  (And relieves the time spent working in the aluminum factory).

So Iceland is a special case, and they have used this incredible level of coaching ability to defy the normal laws of physics and get into the European championships.   But then I wondered about the other countries.  Thus I compared Iceland with England, Germany and Belgium – the 9th, 2nd and top club in the Fifa rankings at present.

In terms of A licensed coaches England is running at about a third of the level of Belgium and Germany – who are not only neck and neck in terms of Fifa rankings but also in terms of number of A licenced coaches per 100,000 people.

Germany is way ahead with the number of Pro licenced coaches, but still we can see that Belgium has three times as many such coaches per head of population as England does.

Of course I am not the only one to spot this – although Untold was just about the first place to spell the figures out.    An article recently on the ESPN web site noted the figures and asked said “what is behind this notable discrepancy?”

And once again they were in agreement with the original Untold article for they noted the cost.  Here’s what they say…

The standard cost of a UEFA “B” License [in England] — a prerequisite to work at a professional club’s academy — is £990, and it can cost as much as £2,450. In Germany, the cost is €430; in Spain it is €1,100. For the UEFA “A” License, an English coach could pay a maximum of £5,820 — but in Germany it is €530 and in Spain €1,200. Being a member of the FA’s Licensed Coaches’ Club (free to join for anyone with a basic Level 1 qualification) brings the cost down by 25 percent but the prices are significantly higher than on the continent and unquestionably difficult for the average person to afford, unless sponsored by a club.

And why?  Because the FA, as I have so boringly noted so many times, is financially bankrupt and run by morons, protected by the corrupt Fifa’s rule that governments cannot interfere in the running of an FA.

So despite all this do you fancy going on a B License course?   I tried just prior to publication of this piece to find out how and when and the FA’s official site told me

Course Dates

New course dates to be confirmed.

The simple fact is that all the nonsense about having more and more home grown players on Premier League club lists is at best neither here nor there, or at worse camouflage.  It won’t achieve anything.  More trained coaches would do it though.  But the tragedy is that the people running the courses charge an arm and a leg – when they can be arsed to run the courses at all.

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Books in print – available from Untold


  • 18 November 1995: Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1 – during a period in which Arsenal won 4 games in 15.  Bergkamp, in the second of a run of three consecutive games in which he got a goa.
  • 18 November 2009: Eduardo signed a new “long-term” contract with Arsenal. He was really coming into his game at Arsenal when Martin Taylor’s wild and appalling tackle almost ended Eduardo’s career in 2008, but there were hopes he would recover his old form, but he ultimately was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk after just 41 league starts.



14 Replies to “How come tiny and modest sized nations achieve so much more in football than England?”

  1. George Brown never had a Government, Tony, thank goodness.
    The most he achieved was Deputy Leader to the Labour Party under Harold Wilson.
    A right pair, those two. 🙂

  2. Crazy, the FA won’t get much revenue from the training courses if they don’t run many and they are expensive anyway.

    So the answer is easy, reduce the price of getting the licences drastically so the ordinary man/lady training school kids can do it and even progress further. Build up the number of coaches and get better quality kids coming through. It won’t cost the FA much and there is so much money in the game that this would be relatively cheap and easy to do.

    We would have a chance of winning a World Cup at some time if this happened.

  3. Great post agian Tony – i look forward to it being copied and pasted by one or more hacks who will then claim it as their own work!!

    My 8 year old plays for his local team, last season there were 2 development courses cancelled by the FA due to a lack of coaching staff, one was cancelled on the day it was meant to take place, the other, the night before.

  4. CB,
    You’re missing the point. The FA won’t get much revenue. But the FA gatekeeper in charge of selecting who can run courses will get a tidy backhander.
    And so the FA world turns….

  5. Can’t match your evidence, but subjectively here’s another view. The difference between a top performer and an also ran in sport is marginal. A good championship player is almost as good as a good premiership player. Of course that small margin makes a huge difference when other things are equal. But put an Premiership player in an England shirt and a championship player in an Irish shirt and the other things are no longer equal, desire, commitment, work rate etc. It’s because players representing small countries often have these qualities in abundance that they over perform at international level. And because English Premiership players are short in these qualities when the pull on the white shirt they under perform.

  6. Regarding coaching courses, several of my coaches can’t even get on a Level 1 course at the moment. Then, as you note, the costs of more advanced courses become prohibitive for volunteers. Obviously ex-pro’s and professional clubs would be happy to finance this – but people who are already making a significant time commitment as volunteers will often find it very hard indeed to find the money as well.

    As I have said before, the blindingly obvious solution is to heavily subsidise coaching courses. There is more money in the English game than any other country in the world I would suspect – but it seems to be in the wrong places, partly due to the huge mismanagement by the FA.

    An interesting example is Ireland where they only have a semi-professional national league (I think) – but where the (independent) youth clubs are very strong – and produce many professionals for the English and Scottish leagues. I am not sure how they develop their coaches but it would be interesting to find out. Ireland only has a population of around 4mm I think – and have just qualified for the Euros too…

  7. Have the small countries achieved so much more than England?

    Only Uruguay have in the WC in 1930 at home, and 1950 in Brasil.

    Every other WC winner is a perennial footballing superpower, with France as a possible exception.

    As far as Euros go, only Greece and Denmark can be considered small by footballing standards , and in both cases luck had a huge factor in their winning it combined with the golden generation factor, which is the main factor in winning big tournaments if you are a smaller footballing nation.

    Poland came close in 1974 but it ran into German machine and Mother Nature, Hungary before them likewise.

    I’d say England is just another second tier footballing nation but with a huge ego and expectations.

    It is those expectations that crush her chances at the biggest of stages more than anything else.

    Every English player ,as soon as he puts in an above average performance is proclaimed to be world class , especially if he happens to play for Tottenham or Liverpool.

    Spain will soon lose Iniesta, Silva and Buscets and will find itself again back with England as also runs.

    With all the corruption associated with footballing governing bodies, every WC winner on their own soil , England included, should probably come with an asterisk.

  8. It seems some aaa types in the medja need to rag about Arsenal again, and the point they are pushing is that Alexis loses the ball too much. I haven’t read any of these articles.

    It is possible it is true, I haven’t seen data which specifically talks about losing the ball, maybe they are talking about losing a tackle?

    In any event, even if the data is true, I would imagine the medja ex-spurts in question are forgetting to mention just how many times Alexis has been kicked before finally losing the ball.

    But, if someone could provide some honest insight on this, that would be wonderful.

    Oh, it’s a balmy -16C here at the moment. 🙂

  9. I passed my passed my level 3 badge (B)) some years ago.It was about 350.00 then.One problem is not only the cost, but you had to take 5 days off work.I think it is more now.One area that has concerned me is , that many Dads take the level 1 course and are unable to put the many hours it takes to do the level 2.Now the level 1, did not show how to coach basic technique.So you now have many level 1 coaches, who know all about child protection, first aid (that are very important) but are unable to take the next step and and coach many youngsters the basics.The F.A. believes
    everyone will go on to do level 2 and the B licence.Clueless!

  10. True, its ridiculously expensive. I am planning to to my badges in Pune, India. The coaching badge’s this is.

  11. Spain suffered at the last WC because of poor transitions and selections.

    The much respected Marquis like many and most asked too much from players unfit or returning from injury, his campaign was the inverse of Low’s stewardship of Khedeira Schweinsteiger and others who were carrying knocks and niggles leading up t the tournament. The two German midfielders mentioned have paid a high price for not resting that summer, but i don’t think they would be too upset by events. Of course all this would be obvious to anyone with any practical experience of physiotherapy in sport.

    The Marquis would’ve benefitted from picking the best DM in the PL that season alongside Alonso and Busquets who were struggling. Unfortnately said player got hacked off the park by a former Gazcorp employee (no foul called) and we haven’t seen much of him since.

    Spain were a cut above England in the recent encounter and anyone telling themselves any different is simply delusional. Can you compare Walker to the Spanish RB who scored that amazing goal or even to Bellerin? No! Clyne, he’s a better player to be fair, one AFC missed out on and we wish him well.

    Overall the difference was there for all to see.
    How many years ago now was since Untold first looked at the number of coaches?
    How many 24/7 footy hacks have written upon the topic? Why was Keown’s research ignored! How many of these hacks beck and bark at Dyke and the FA’s call?

  12. We must remember to pay tribute to the army of volunteers working at grassroots level. Unacknowledged by the FA is this passion for the game, otherwise there’d be some investment.

    Volunteers can take up a little of the slack as we can see but ultimately the lack of investment and facilities will have an impact when compared with your peers.

  13. There is a lot more involved in the FA’s lack of coaches. Notice the ethnicity of the officials & ask ‘Is it a representative selection of the populous?’.

    When players like Barnes say there is a steep climb to management for some, he is only seeing a small part of the snow capped mountain.

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