As featured on Guardian Sport
In the 1990s, the Norwegian national team was one of the most respected sides in world football. Known for their physicality and ruthlessness, they knocked back the likes of Brazil and England. Since that time, however, the Scandinavian nation has been chasing the tales of a bygone era.
September 4 will by no means go down as a marquee date in Norwegian football history. What was once known as a feared and intimidating arena, Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo, Norway’s capital, was, for 90 minutes, turned into a German playground. The world champions toyed with the Norwegians. It finished 3-0 to the Germans, but in reality it could have been much more.
One must indeed respect the football genius of this current German team, but the sheer dominance installed another emphatic nail in the coffin that is surely becoming the demise of Norwegian football.
In the famous story Peer Gynt, written by Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen, one of the more famed lines from the title character goes “no one becomes a prophet in his own land”. The line is quoted from Luke 4:24 in the Bible, and might as well be one to summarise the current situation surrounding the Norwegian national team. Because, currently, there are no leaders, there are no chiefs, and there are no prophets.
Having failed to deliver during yet another qualification, the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) released a statement saying that they believe in current manager Per-Mathias Høgmo. Furthermore, during an interview with president Terje Svendsen, Norwegian TV 2 quoted him stating there are no minimum expectations for the current manager going into the qualification to the 2018 World Cup.
Norway’s two first matches in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers have since been the aforementioned loss to Germany, followed by a 1-0-loss away to Azerbaijan. Perhaps the most worrying fact is that losses to the likes of Azerbaijan are no longer surprising to most fans. They’re hurt, but they expect it nowadays.
The last time Norway made its presence during a tournament was Euro 2000 in the Netherlands and Belgium. They defeated Spain through a great looping header by former Tottenham frontman Steffen Iversen, drew with Slovenia and lost to Yugoslavia. The end result was that the Norwegians went home early.
The once famed Viking nation, known for pillaging and conquering its enemies, have yet to be seen on foreign waters for eight European Championships and World Cups. Stating that there are no minimum expectations has since been as the closest thing to blasphemy towards the Norwegian people, who are eager to once again break bread with the world’s elite. After all, Norway was once among them.
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How long will Norway fans have to wait for another moment like this?
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FIFA launched its world rankings in 1993. During October of that year, Norway were second in the world – behind a Brazil side that featured the likes of Romário, Bebeto and Dunga. A defence built around familiar names such as Rune Bratseth, Ronny Johnsen and Henning Berg laid the foundation for a midfield filled with hard-working, combative, yet technically superior midfielders, from the likes of Erik Mykland and Øyvind Leonhardsen to Ståle Solbakken and Kjetil Rekdal.
To top it off, Norway featured wonderful attackers and individualists such as Jan Åge Fjørtoft, Lars Bohinen and Tore André Flo. Norway were a team you had to reckon with, perhaps not always amongst the world’s elite, but a team which found itself regularly frustrating and upsetting the bigger nations.
Today, Norway rank at number 70, just behind Trinidad & Tobago and just ahead of Benin.
The issue has perhaps not been a lack of talent, though many will consider the recent era as being very boring; it speaks volumes that a generation featuring the likes of John Carew, John Arne Riise, Brede Hangeland and Morten Gamst Pedersen never made a tournament. Some will say it was bad luck, and sometimes it was. Several will remember goalkeeping howlers from the likes of Thomas Myhre against Turkey, but the feeling is one of inferiority. Norway have gone from believing they could beat anyone to now expecting defeat when faced with the biggest of countries. The Germany game underlined this growing sentiment.
The lack of leadership, in terms of the federation, the manager and team, have all been pointed out. The lack of cohesion is another factor. Norway faced Hungary in the playoff for Euro 2016, a matchup most Norwegians really believed would favour them, but they found themselves outwitted by the Hungarians. After losing 1-0 at home, Per-Mathias Høgmo set his team up without a recognised striker for the return leg in Hungary. He also allowed Martin Ødegaard, 17 at the time, to start in what was perhaps the biggest game in recent Norwegian football history. Bold moves that would have been hailed as ingenious had it succeeded.
It didn’t and Høgmo and his leadership have since been under intense scrutiny. Norwegians have also found themselves wondering how a manager, who seemingly is not able to lead Norway to a tournament, is reported to earn more money than colleagues like Erik Hamrén (former Sweden manager), Chris Coleman (current Wales manager) and Adam Nawalka (current Poland manager).
Høgmo was installed as Norway’s manager in 2013, and despite seeming innovative at first, it has not worked out. Norwegians have been left frustrated with his decision-making, style of play, but most of all, oddly, his rhetoric. So much so that several media outlets have highlighted terms such as “performance culture”, “block movement” and “educational dimension” as bizarre examples.
Having managed several of Norway’s youth team, alongside the women’s side, he has also managed clubs such as Rosenborg and Tromsø in Norway. Though he seemingly has had belief and understanding in his process and the way he has wanted to mould Norway into his style of thinking, it has not worked.
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Per-Mathias Hogmo has been a controversial leader
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Høgmo told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet in 2014 that, “Our players need to be ruthless. If we are to succeed at getting to the tournament (Euro 2016), and be able to win a medal in Russia (World Cup 2018), then we need to be much better than we have been. And we work towards that every single day.”
As of 9 October, he has lost 52 percent of his 33 matches in charge and won only 27 percent. Needless to say, he has not succeeded.
The issues above Høgmo are also well discussed, with the whole of the federation being in complete disarray. Former president Yngve Hallén quit his job following the issues at FIFA and UEFA, in which Hallén voiced his support over the now suspended UEFA president Michel Platini.
However, most Norwegians will probably relate Hallén to the controversial exit of legendary manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen. He was the man who in many ways constructed and built the swashbuckling side that captivated Norwegians in the 1990s. His return to the Norwegian national team in 2009 was nowhere near as successful, yet his departure is still seen as something of a disgrace to a true Norwegian legend.
In September 2013, Hallén and NFF general secretary Kjetil Siem told Olsen that the board had elected to hire Per-Mathias as his successor, and that they wanted him to take over with immediate effect. At the time, Drillo was preparing for the final two qualification matches for the 2014 World Cup, against Iceland and Slovenia. The whole thing turned into a huge mess and Olsen has yet to have had any compensation from the NFF following this.
Norway’s greatest ever manager was, in effect, seemingly thrown out despite having delivered the most memorable moments in recent history. Despite Norwegians not being too fond of Olsen’s second run as manager, the treatment he received is something the majority have deemed unworthy, and has put a huge dent in the NFF’s credibility.
The controversies surrounding the Norwegian Football Federation have not stopped since. Norwegian magazine Josimar revealed earlier this autumn that Kjetil Siem, who now works closely with FIFA president Gianni Infantino at FIFA, might have lobbied for Aleksander Ceferin to become the new UEFA president. Terje Svendsen, the current NFF president, has since supported Ceferin’s candidacy.
Further revelations by Josimar suggest that this could tie in with a promise Ceferin made to the Nordic countries that they will host the Euros in 2024 or 2028 should they back him as president. Ceferin and the NFF have since denied this. However, it still leaves many wondering about what is actually going on in Norwegian football. Controversy was rare during the old regime, in which the primary focus was on making Norway the best footballing nation it could be. Somewhere along the line, that bubble burst.
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Read | Ole Gunnar Solskjær: the super-sub who become an unlikely legend
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The team is in disarray, the manager is under scrutiny and the board is seemingly not gaining any popularity with the people. Despite all of this, there is hope for the Norwegians in the shape of what is coming.
The next generation of players have already shown their potential at international level. The under-21s won a bronze medal at the 2013 Euros, and several of these players have now taken the leap up to the national team. Names such as Omar Elabdealloui (Olympiacos), Joshua King (Bournemouth) and Håvard Nordtveit (West Ham) have all become mainstays in the current Norwegian setup.
The current under-21s feature a certain Martin Ødegaard of Real Madrid. Despite there being doubts about him at senior international level, the belief in Norway is solid around the kid from Drammen. He represents the new generation, the future, and the belief that Norway again can bug the big boys. And he is not alone.
Eighteen-year old Sander Berge of Vålerenga was the subject of a bid from Everton in the summer, but his club elected not to sell. Ole Selnæs of Saint-Étienne is a classy midfielder who switches between the under-21s and the senior team alongside former Cardiff City playmaker, Mats Møller Dæhli. Mohamed Eloyounoussi (Basel) and Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic) are also names to look out for, and players who will no doubt be moving up to the main national team in a few years. These players carry the talent, the promise and the excitement that Norway is currently looking for.
Are they the answer? No, not by any stretch of the imagination. But they do underline that despite all the gloom and doom, there might be light at the end of the tunnel. The irony is that the majority of those promising players are not old enough to have seen Norway at the grandest stage. Ødegaard was born in December 1998, meaning he was not even alive to see Kjetil Rekdal guide home the penalty that defeated Brazil at the World Cup in France. He will now be looking to create his own legacy with perhaps one of the most exciting group of players Norway have had in quite some time.
The shadows of the past still loom over Ullevaal Stadion. The pictures of Norway defeating the big teams around the world still grace our television screens reminding us of a bygone era – one that now seems a mere fantasy, something we perhaps only dreamt. It was a time when Egil Olsen’s men would, on a consistent basis, wow the Norwegian crowd, not necessarily through beautiful football, but through commitment and hard work.
Norway understands its limits, though it will not accept being sold short. The past 20 years have seen arch-rivals Denmark consistently making championships, while Zlatan Ibrahimović and Sweden have also been a reckoned force. Even Iceland showed this summer that there are no more excuses for not making it to the big time.
Norway face a date with destiny in a World Cup qualifying group with sides like Germany, the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland. It seems a herculean task to make it to Russia in 2018 from that sort of group and, with the current challenges in mind, not many Norwegians see it as a possibility. For now, they will have their memories and their dreams. When the next Euros come along, should they not qualify, it will have been 20 years since the last time. A fate most Norwegians are desperate to avoid.
By Jonas Giæver. Follow @CheGiaevara