Euro 2016: Iceland thrives with unusual coaching partnership

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PARIS >> Trying to explain how Iceland has unexpectedly reached the European Championship quarterfinals, coach Lars Lagerback recalled some early managerial advice.

"Doing it simple is to be a genius," Lagerback was told by then-West Ham manager Ron Greenwood on a visit to London in the 1970s.

Before Lagerback could continue his answer at a news conference on Saturday, the man sitting two seats to his left chipped in with a question of his own.

"So you're a genius?" Heimir Hallgrimsson asked.

"You said it!" Lagerback responded in a flash to Hallgrimsson, his co-coach with the Iceland national team.

It was a glimpse into the convivial and flourishing managerial partnership behind Iceland's stunning progress at Euro 2016 ahead of the Nordic nation's quarterfinal against France on Sunday.

In a sport where one dominant leader is seen as an essential ingredient to controlling a dressing room, Lagerback and Hallgrimsson are jointly masterminding Iceland's first-ever appearance at a major tournament.

In the 67-year-old Lagerback, Iceland has a wily managerial veteran of World Cups and European Championships with his native Sweden. The 49-year-old Hallgrimsson is a part-time Icelandic dentist whose previous coaching was at IBV Vestmannaeyjar in a domestic league featuring no professional clubs.

"The experience from that guy has helped a lot," Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson said Saturday, pointing to Lagerback before switching a thumb in the direction of Hallgrimsson. "And the more technical computer stuff has come from him. They blend in really nicely together."

It's an intriguing dynamic, but one that furthered Lagerback's career when he shared the coaching responsibilities at Sweden with Tommy Soderberg. Together they returned Sweden to the international stage, reaching the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup and the quarterfinals at Euro 2004.

Now, Lagerback is seeking to go one better with Iceland with a semifinal place on offer if host France can be beaten at the Stade de France. The Icelanders are unbeaten after four games, with a group-stage draw against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal followed by England being knocked out in the round of 16.

"Four eyes see more," Lagerback said. "We try to work really equally. It's also extra important for me as I have been lazy, as I haven't learnt the (Icelandic) language."

Although the coaches stress they are on equal footing, Lagerback assumes the primary role without necessarily realizing it at times.

"Do you want me to answer that?" he responds when asked about the partnership.

But when the duo is asked about France and Hallgrimsson replies first at length, Lagerback follows up by saying: "I can't put it much better, so I rest my case."

When Euro 2016 ends for Iceland — and that might not be for another week if Iceland reaches the final — Hallgrimsson will have the managerial reins all to himself. He is trying to extract as much managerial acumen from Lagerback before then.

"Iceland is a country where there's only amateur football. The coaches who are coaching there are amateur coaches," Hallgrimsson said at the training camp in Annecy before making the trip to the French capital.

"To have a guy coming to Iceland with all (Lagerback's) international experience ... teach us how to do things is priceless. And he's leaving that legacy and knowledge in the hands of the Icelandic FA."

Such partnerships have not always thrived in soccer.

Liverpool's gamble to use a management partnership to end a trophy drought in the 1990s quickly fractured. Former France coach Gerard Houllier was brought in to link up with incumbent Roy Evans but the ex-Liverpool player left after four months.

"Maybe at one stage (the players) didn't know who was the boss — who they had to refer to," Houllier said of his ill-fated partnership with Evans.

But for Iceland, two heads are proving better than one.

"You can go to both and speak to both," said Gunnarsson, the Iceland captain.

But who has the final say in the dugout?

"We use the Swedish way," Hallgrimsson said. "We talk until we agree."


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