The boys from the Land of the Midnight Sun are not out to change the course of history, but make one of their own.
It is the 13th of June. Spain kick off their campaign at Euro 2000 against Norway at the Stadion Feijenoord in Rotterdam. It is a big game at an international tournament. A feeling that Norway haven’t experienced in too many years in their history. Their appearance at the Euros that year was only the fourth time that they had qualified for a major tournament.
Although the Nordic warriors pulled off a stunning victory in Rotterdam that day courtesy of a looping header from Steffen Iversen, the rest of the tournament did not go well.
Of the remaining two games, they lost one and drew one and were once again out of a major tournament.
Two decades down the line, Norway are on the brink of qualification to the Euros once again and this feels like their best chance in a long time. First Time Finish spoke to Jonas Giæver, well-known Norwegian sports journalist, about the country’s present, past and future.
Bad luck amongst several factors for Norway in the past
“Norway were known as the ‘Giant Killers’ in the 90s because we were so far ahead of everyone when it came to physical training and nutrition.”, recalls Jonas.
So why is it that Norway have come up short in all of their conquests to international tournaments since 2000?
” It’s a big question, a complex question. We’ve had really bad luck, that’s one thing. We’ve been really close on a few occasions.”, Jonas explains.
“In the 2000s, the world surpassed us a little bit. We were at a standstill despite having incredible talent.”
John Arne Riise, Brede Hangeland, John Carew, Morten Gamst Pedersen, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Steffen Iversen were some of the big players who were in the side during those early years. Nevertheless, it just never seemed enough.
“It was a good team, obviously with a few flaws here and there, but we just weren’t able to develop at the speed that other teams were. We were lacking perhaps, a global superstar. If you compare us to, for example, Sweden, they had Zlatan for all those years. We also didn’t have the quality of players that, for example, Denmark had.” recalls Jonas.
Another reason that Jonas put their failures down to, is a sense of complacency as well.
“Denmark expected things from their national team. Whereas, we felt after a while that we weren’t expectant, but we were hopeful, so it became a sense of complacency. It is one of the ingredients for the soup of why we’ve never qualified for a tournament in Twenty years.”– Jonas
Lars Lagerbäck can live with expectations
Current Norway manager Lars Lagerbäck is a vastly experienced manager on the international scene. Most famous for taking another Nordic nation Iceland to the Quarter-finals of Euro 2016, the Swede was entrusted with the responsibility of taking Norway to a major tournament.
Lagerbäck’s appointment is a significant one because it is a long time since Norway have had a foreign manager. A country of many cultures and ethnicities themselves, Jonas says that the Norwegian public ” are very open to having a foreign manager.”
“It’s very important that the manager would ingrain himself/herself in the Norwegian, because we are a peculiar culture.”, explains Jonas.
The expectations are different now from the team within the Norwegian public. And in Lagerbäck, they have a manager who can live with those expectations as well. The Swede’s long and storied career has seen him take several countries to important achievements with a solid approach. It isn’t fancy, but he gets the job done.
Grassroots developments have led to rise of recent talents
Norway’s current roster of stars contains more talent than there has possibly ever been. Martin Ødegaard was the first, then followed the likes of Alexander Sørloth, Kristoffer Ajer, Sander Berge and more recently, the enigmatic Erling Braut Håland. The emergence of these stars is the greater focus on the grassroots development of football in Norway, which has had a positive effect overall.
” We have something called the National Team School – which is a grassroots project where the federation has looked at young players and tried to embed them at an early age.”, says Jonas.
When it comes to grassroots football, it’s important to be able to play football year round. It is important to have the pitches with the right quality to help young talents hone their skills. While Norway hasn’t always had the pitches to support grassroots development, things are changing now.
“In the past 20 years, there’s been a lot more artificial pitches, which means that we can finally play year-round now. Obviously, there’s been a greater professionalism in how we embed youth players in.” explains Jonas.
Ironically, this has also been one of Norway’s greatest criticisms that there hasn’t been enough professional focus on grassroots development in the past. Which is why, it’s easy to wonder if some of the current stars have come through the ranks, almost on their own.
“You have to remember that few of the players we’ve mentioned are sons of former footballers or have football in their family.”
The fathers of current stars like Håland, Ødegaard and Sørloth have all been professionals playing at the highest level in the past. Which is another factor that’s helped them develop from an early age.
Great mix of new Norwegian culture coming together
Immigration has been at the center of several important discussions in recent times. And there are few countries who have done as much for immigrants as Norway have.
The ethnicities in Norway are from all over the world. Immigrants from countries like Afghanistan, India, Philippines, Pakistan and several others make up a significant part of the new culture that’s coming up in the Nordic country.
Several players in the current setup and past setups have had diverse ethnicities. This speaks to the greater diversity at large in Norway. It also underlines a new culture in the country.
“There is a great mix of everything that’s finally coming together as a blend of not just the new national team, but of Norwegian culture as a whole. For my generation, we are seeing a reflection of ourselves in the national team.”– Jonas
Football is a uniting factor for the country
Although the country’s national sport is cross-country skiing, football is undeniably massive in Norway. It is a uniting factor in Norwegian society at large.
Norway’s capital Oslo is the biggest city in the country. It is host to several different cultures and ethnicities. Growing up, for many like Jonas, who is half-Moroccan himself, football was more than just a sport.
“Football is a binder. It is what unites us. It became a way to showcase not only your skill but also your heritage as well. Football has been a very uniting factor in a way.”, explains Jonas.
The pandemic of Coronavirus has impacted countries severely across the World, and Norway’s grassroots football felt the effects as well.
“They’ve locked down the grassroots football now. If you play in the third division and lower, you cannot play (because of the Coronavirus). It is a huge dampener on our society. Because football is so important in being a uniting factor.” says Jonas.
Current Norway team creates excitement for the Norwegian people
Jonas grew up playing with Elabdellaoui, in the same neighbourhood, both of them would play in local pitches as kids. The current Galatasaray defender is one of several stars across the board for the Nordic side that are creating excitement in Norway.
” For most of the country, we’re proud of the team as a whole and that’s a important thing to mention about Lars Lagerbäck. He’s gained a lot of criticism a for this, but he’s done something which is clever, which is, every single time, he picks the same group of players.”, highlights Jonas.
The idea behind Lagerbäck’s methods is to create a sense of togetherness, familiarity and unity within the national camp. Whilst this may not be the most widely acceptable practice, it is something that Norway needs now.
With stars like Håland in the senior setup and young startlets like Jens Petter Hauge coming through the ranks, it’s hard not to be excited. There are others like Tokmac Nguen, who is doing exceptionally well at Ferencváros. The winger is one of several unique players who can stake a claim to be a part of this exciting new chapter of Norwegian football.
Håland and Ødegaard are once in a lifetime talents
The rise of Håland is an unprecedented one. Few have taken elite level European football into their stride like the spearhead from Yorkshire has done. While Ødegaard had to take a longer route to the top, few can argue that these are two generational talents that Norway have in their hands.
” He (Håland) started off as a big hope like Carew, but he has already surpassed him. Look at his Champions League record and what he is doing in the Bundesliga now. We’ve never seen anything like it before.” exclaims Jonas.
It sometimes feels he is too good to be true, but Håland is a player who brings that feeling from his game. Jonas recalls a story from the striker’s days at Molde FK.
“He was 17 and he came on against Vålerenga and played against Felipe Carvalho, who is huge and is built like a brick wall. Håland came on and pushed him around like he was nothing! I’m looking at this and I’m just amazed.”
” Then I remember meeting for the first time in the mixed zone. I’m not the tallest guy, and he comes walking into the mixed zone and he’s massive.” recalls Jonas.
” I’ll never forget the day when I met him the first time, I remember thinking this guy is just, WOW.”
Healthy support system a big reason for positive growth
When Håland made the decision to move to Dortmund, it was widely lauded as a sensible move. The German club needed a dominant striker up front and he needed regular first team football. He had the choice of clubs like Juventus and Manchester United who had been following him eagerly, Solskjær especially.
“He(also has people around him that really cater to him. He has his father around him and he’s very level-headed. He’s a guy that much like Ødegaard himself, they’re very focused on their development. They don’t have to make the big best move all the time.”, explains Jonas.
This points to the experience passed down by their fathers who were professional footballers as well. Ødegaard is finally settled into a big club even after taking the long route.
This is not something that fazed the dazzling playmaker, which points to a strong mindset as well. The support system around players like him and Håland has ensured that they are always grounded and level-headed.
” The last ones that would believe he is a flop, is Ødegaard himself. Yes it took maybe a year or two longer than some would expect, but he did it and he made it. I don’t think you can call him a flop anymore.”, says Jonas.
Future safe in the feet of young leaders like Ajer and Østigård
Leo Skiri Østigård is another name of a young talent that generates a lot of buzz in Norway and Norwegian media in particular. On loan at Coventry City from Brighton and Hove Albion, the central defender is tipped to have a bright future by Jonas.
” A lot of people, me included, think he is going to be the future national team captain. Because he is a leader and he is very untraditional in the way he plays. He’s already one that people are speaking about because we lack a good center back pairing.” highlights Jonas.
The current national-team setup contains another young defensive star in the form of Kristoffer Ajer. The Celtic star is one who is on the tabs of several big clubs across Europe. The expectation within Norwegian media is that him and Østigård could possibly become something like Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué are for Spain.
How far can this team go?
Having said all this, the question remains, how far can this team go and what is their glass-ceiling?
” I think it’s very funny. Whenever I speak to foreign journalists about our team, everyone’s like, ‘ This is the new Belgium!’. You have to remember, we just want to get to a tournament.” says Jonas.
” We just want to experience what countries Sweden, Denmark, Iceland have experienced and what Finland are going to experience. We have waited twenty years for that. Whereas everyone is talking about us being a contender,we’re like, ‘Hey! We just want to get there!”
Jonas is cautious with his expectations and is firm that the team will reach a major tournament and after that, “anything is possible.”
The team severely lacks experience and which is why it is important that the expectations remain grounded.
The feelings towards this team on the rise are one of hope and cautious expectation. A manager who knows how to deliver results and with players who can change the game, anything is possible.
” Let us make a tournament and we will be happy!”– Jonas