From a scrawny kid to a future Ballon D’or winner this is the story of Erling Braut Haaland from Yorkshire to Borussia Dortmund.
Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. We’ve all felt it. Those eternal seconds as you watch the ball arc through the sky, bolt past the goalkeeper and nestle into the net with a big loud whack. The unbridled joy which ensues. The tight embraces and the wild cheers. Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. Whether it’s on the playground at school, Sunday League or football cathedrals like Anfield and the Signal Iduna Park, it’s addictive. Once you get a taste you can’t stop craving more.
Erling Braut Haaland had his first taste just like the rest of us somewhere on the playground and once he did he couldn’t stop.
Twack. Whoosh. Thump. The goals just kept coming. From Leeds to Norway, Salzburg and Dortmund. Twack. Whoosh. Thump.
Brummundal is about 140 miles north east of Oslo. It is a small and densely populated town on the eastern shore of the meandering lake Mjosa. It isn’t necessarily a footballing hotbed.
The town’s football stadium is enclosed by towering hills on either side wedged in between the rare expanse of flatland. The view is picturesque though, especially in the fall, as the mountains mingle with the blue sky and the trees bunch together like a bouquet of flowers in a myriad of colours.
In September 2015, as Molde FK scout John Vik sat in the stands he had no time to take in the scenery. He was watching a kid intently. This kid was special. He was something else. He eyed the goal like a hawk. He was someone who would get the heart racing and send tingles down your spine.
On the pitch the game being fought was a fierce derby match between the best teenagers from Norway and Sweden. The Swede-Norse derby is not really a hostile rivalry. It is more of a brotherly competition fought with venom and steeped in elitist pride which transcends every age group. The clashes can be intense and winning is an absolute must.
Vik has a good eye for talent. He’s brought many good players to Molde and he worked for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Cardiff City too, but this scrawny kid was unlike anyone else he had seen.
‘Mentally he looked on a different planet. It’s the first game you play on the homeground, you have the national team shirt on, your parents and family are in the stands. There’s a lot of pressure. And some players hide a bit then, they just play simple football, nothing extra, but he did not hide at all. He looked like he was born for that kind of stage,’ John Vik tells the First Time Finish.
The kid was Erling Braut Haaland.
In the second half when the Norwegians prepared to re-start the match, Erling stood in the centre circle and caught the Swedish keeper standing off his line. He didn’t hesitate and unleashed a powerful shot on goal. Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. It flew over the ambling goalkeeper and nestled into the back of the net.
When John Vik recalls the memory he stills seems in utter awe.
‘As the second half was about to start, I saw him talking to his teammate and I thought no he’s not going to try that, but Erling put the ball straight into the goal. It wasn’t the technical part that was impressive, but rather the balls that he even dared to try something like that.’
The impression Haaland left on the Molde scout remained ingrained in his memory.
‘He has a head that is different than other boys, he is so unafraid and that’s why I became so interested in him.’
At the end of the game John shook hand with Erling’s father and told him he was going to follow his son.
‘I watched him as much as I could, especially for the national team.’
About a year and a half of relentless scouting later, Molde and Erling would finally join forces in what John describes as the ‘perfect’ union. Remarkably the club had very little competition for the Norwegian starlet.
‘I didn’t want to sell him but I spoke to a lot of top English clubs during the national team games and I told them to keep an eye on him and they said; no, he’s just a target man, nothing special . So we didn’t have competition from abroad.’
‘In the end we invited him to training, showed him the club, he met the gaffer (Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) and we showed him that we could be a decent place for him to go. We signed him peacefully, when the push came to shove no one else showed up.’
Moving all the way across Norway to the other side of the country was a huge learning curve for Haaland.
Imagine leaving all your mates behind when you’re just 16 and living on your own. Most kids that age can’t even make their own breakfast or do their own washing. Your mum does everything for you and the only thing you have to worry about is playing on the Xbox or Playstation and finding a way to buy booze. Not Erling though, he had to grow up fast.
‘I remember speaking to him on the training ground and I asked about his living situation and he told me he lived alone and I asked him about his laundry and food and he just looked at me funny. I do it myself, he said. You think I’m an idiot?’ Vik recalls.
Torbjorg Haugen the Molde FC team cook smiles when she recalls her memories of Haaland’s arrival at the club to DW Kick off. She exudes compassion and that motherly love which Haaland probably still missed at that age.
‘He was a small, somewhat skinny boy, who came to the stadium. He grew a lot in between the period he came and left. He needed a lot of food. He came to me and asked, can I get some food to take home? And I gave him food because I could see the boy needed it.’
Molde’s Fitness coach Borre Steenslid agrees with Torbjorg.
‘He ate like a horse.’
However it wasn’t just in height that Haaland grew during the period. The 16 year old was skin and bone at the start but Steenslid took him under his arm and spent extensive hours with Erling in the gym to improve his bulk and stature and to ensure his excessive eating turned into muscle.
John Vik recalls the period as a frustrating one for Erling. The huge physical changes happening to his body made it difficult for Haaland to train and Molde were extremely cautious to make sure he didn’t come to harm.
‘He was really impatient, because we wouldn’t play him at the start, he didn’t get games, he just had to train alternative for a long time. But the medical department felt that the best thing for him was to take it easy for the next maybe six months and slowly, slowly put him back into football.’
Throughout it all Erling was driven. You might think Erling had it easy having come from a football family. His father had been an accomplished international footballer for Manchester City and Leeds United and a celebrated icon in Norway after all. But it’s not that simple. In this sport you don’t get things handed to you. And if anything being the son of an icon only comes with added pressure. Living in your father’s shadow growing up can be tough. There’s aren’t many sons of footballers who surpassed their fathers’ achievements.
One thing for sure though, football ran through Erling’s veins. He grew up consumed by it. It was everywhere. His second playground was Elland Road and then Maine Road. At weekends, he’d hear the roaring crowds as an infant and that’s bound to leave a mark.
Alf Inge Haaland certainly believes that his son’s upbringing helped to instil a professional attitude in the youngster at an early age.
“I think maybe he’s learned a few things from me, you know, mentality and stuff, the will to win.” Alf Inge Haaland told Bundesliga.com
Eventually Haaland’s hard-work paid off at Molde. Socially he settled into the club with ease John recalls and soon he was impressing people on the pitch too.
‘He was a kid who was longing to express himself, people loved him at the club.’
Once his growth spurt had stopped and the gruelling gym regime finished, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was so impressed he called the teenager ‘all muscle.’ And when Solskjaer is in awe of your talent and ability, you know you’re going places.
In his second season, as Haaland grew in physique, Solskjaer could simply not keep him off the pitch.
Erling was still just 17 years of age at the time, but his fighting spirit was infectious. He caught the eye when he netted four goals against SK Brann. Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. Rinse and repeat. It took him just 17 minutes. The feat earned him international recognition and it attracted interest from high profile clubs. Scouts from clubs like Manchester United and various other teams would visit his matches from week in week out.
He was just a kid but he was already Molde’s best player. It was clear he wasn’t destined to be in Norway for long.
In the summer of 2018, he came narrowly close to guiding the Norwegian outfit to the Europa League group-stages, scoring four goals and registering one assists in five matches but was unable to prevent a narrow 4-3 aggregate loss to Zenit St Petersburg.
When he received the Norwegian young player of the year award in 2018 there were no eyes batted in Norway. By then, Haaland had ascended Martin Odegaard’s throne as the country’s greatest footballing hope. When he accepted the award, with a beaming smile and exuding confidence, he told Nettavisen the following.
“From an early age I have said to myself that I want to be the world’s best football player. I don’t think I’m alone in this world. I think both painters, carpenters and lawyers have said that too, but not many are. I’ve always had it in mind that I want to be the best in Norwegian history, play at the national team and things like that.”
In those words he encapsulates the essence of his success. Haaland’s mentality is that of an elite athlete. He is a born winner. He has that hunger and that passion. The kind you had on the playground as a kid. Remember how difficult it was to lose? How hard it was afterwards with your friends taunting you. You never wanted to let it happen. You would give it your all to make sure it didn’t. Even if it involved dirtying your perfectly clean trousers that your mum had just washed the day before. Haaland never lost that. He’s still that kid at heart.
From Molde, he went to Red Bull Salzburg, where he scored a hat-trick on his Champions League debut and 29 goals in 27 matches before departing for pastures new in January. At Borussia Dortmund he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down netting another hat-trick on his debut. Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. He makes it look easy.
He scored nine goals in a single U20 World Cup match. That’s playground level and that’s how Haaland plays football. He’s just a kid at heart. He already matches up impeccably to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and the Brazilian Ronaldo at the same age. (See table below)
Haaland’s a rare talent. Probably one of a kind. At 20 years of age he has the world at his feet. He has been compared to the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he has the potential to leave behind a similar legacy.
He is at the right club to improve. Borussia Dortmund play free-flowing attacking football which will always present him with ample opportunities to score.
And he only needs to be given one chance. Thwack. Whoosh. Thump.
He has already mastered the art of goalscoring. Haaland knows where to find space, which technique to use to convert the ball into the back of the net and when to drop deep or go surging forward.
He is menacing too. His bulky frame makes him a defender’s nightmare. Often players with such physique lack pace or technical ability, but Haaland has both.
In the future, there is no doubt he will end up playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Dortmund will be probably be a temporary lodging.
With Messi and Ronaldo only a few years away from inevitably dwindling from their peak, if Haaland continues his goalscoring form, he will be one of the favourites to win the Ballon D’or upon the conclusion of their hegemony.
Thwack. Whoosh. Thump. He scores at Anfield. He scores at the San Paolo. He scores at the Signal Iduna. He scores everywhere he goes.