“So, when are Norway playing again? Tomorrow?” The waiter at La Coupole, a beautiful restaurant found at Rue des Montparnasse in Paris, not far from Gare Montparnasse, threw his head back laughing, flashing a wide, bright smile. Typical small talk between a waiter and his guests had just gotten personal.
We laughed along with him but couldn’t help feel a bit hurt. At the table beside us sat two Swedish couples, only a few of the many Swedes who, in the days leading up to their opening game against Ireland, painted Paris yellow and blue. We felt a certain yearning.
As a Norwegian, walking around the French capital on the eve of the opening game of the Euros and in the following days wasn’t easy. We were happy to be in France, and happy to be a part of it all, at least to some extent, but we also couldn’t help but feel left out. Seeing people wearing all kinds of national team kits only fuelled our despair. We were at the threshold of the biggest party of the summer, looking at the most beautiful girl in class, knowing that we wouldn’t even get to talk to her or feel the warmth of her skin.
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France is something close to holy ground for Norwegians. It was there, during the 1998 World Cup, that one of the most glorious pages in the book detailing our football history was written. Anyone remotely familiar with Norwegian culture would know Norway as a country with long, proud traditions when it comes to winter sports, the most common stereotype regarding Norwegians being that we are born with skis on our feet.
Ask any Norwegian where he or she was when famous skier Oddvar Brå broke his pole in a duel with the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Zavjalov at the final stage of the relay at the World Championships in Oslo in 1982 and you’ll get a detailed answer. It’s our JFK moment, bar a more positive one, as Brå got a new pole and won gold – along with the Soviets.
Ask any Norwegian with any form of interest in football where he or she was when Kjetil Rekdal, then captain of the national team, was about to take a penalty with Norway’s final group stage game against Brazil tied at 1-1, and you’ll also get a detailed answer.
Draws against Morocco and Scotland in Montpellier and Bordeaux meant that ahead of Norway’s final game against Brazil and the meeting between Scotland and Morocco, Norway, Scotland and Morocco all had the chance to qualify for the knockout stages of the 1998 World Cup.
Brazil had already beaten both Scotland and Morocco, gathering six points and qualifying for the knockout stages as the winners of Group A. That didn’t prevent the reigning world champions from fielding a strong starting line-up in Marseille. Mário Zagallo only made two changes to the team that beat Morocco 3-0, replacing Aldair with Gonçalves and playing winger Denílson instead of César Sampaio.
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Read | Ole Gunnar Solskjær: the super-sub who became an unlikely legend
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It was one of the two called upon by Zagallo who would set up Brazil’s opening goal a little more than 10 minutes from time. Denílson appeared to have lost the ball when stumbling over just at the edge of Norway’s penalty area, only to quickly get back up again and send in a swinging cross to Bebeto, who had an easy task heading Brazil in front. With Morocco 2-0 up against Scotland at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne at the time, Norway’s hopes a place in the Round of 16 were fading quickly.
However, Norway struck back five minutes later, with Chelsea striker Tore André Flo running onto a long pass from Liverpool left-back Stig Inge Bjørnebye before turning Júnior Baiano and placing the ball into the far corner. Flo continued to give Baiano a torrid time. Having lost out to Flo before the equaliser, Baiano then dragged Flo down inside the penalty area, prompting Iranian-American referee Esfandiar Baharmast to point to the spot.
With a place in the Round of 16 on the line and the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders, Kjetil Rekdal stepped up and placed the ball into Taffarel’s right corner. A country unaccustomed to success at major tournaments, Norwegian fans took to the streets to celebrate, both in Marseille and back home.
Four years earlier, at the 1994 World Cup, Norway lost out on a place in the Round of 16 on goals scored after netting one in three games. Two years after the 1998 World Cup, at Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland, Norway and Yugoslavia would both finish Group C with four points, with Norway losing out on a place in the quarter-finals due to their 1-0 loss against Vujadin Boškov’s men.
Norway would eventually lose to Italy in the Round of 16, a game that was also played at the Stade Vélodrome, but on the eve of 23 June 1998, Norwegian fans had more than enough with celebrating their wonderful triumph.
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Fast-forward 17 years from the glorious night in Marseille and you’ll arrive at a far less glorious night in Budapest. Having lost 1-0 at home to a László Kleinheisler goal on 12 November, Norway were in dire need of goals ahead of the return leg of the Euros play-off in Budapest.
What was Norway manager Per Mathias Høgmo’s solution to it all? To field a team without a clear-cut striker, utilising Markus Henriksen, recently signed on loan by Hull, as a false 9. It was a plan that failed miserably. Henriksen scored in the 87th minute, but by then, Norway were already two goals down and out of the tournament.
It was another peculiar choice by Høgmo, who has struggled to find his best 11 in his time as Norway manager. In three years he has used 69 different players, often blaming the lack of a common understanding among his players when results haven’t gone his way. Such contradictions have become the norm under Høgmo, and the Norwegian press and supporters have grown tired of hearing him highlight positives after performances where Norway have been way off the mark for all but very short periods of the game.
With that in mind, it was no surprise that Høgmo said that he was happy with his team selection and tactics after Norway’s 3-0 defeat at home to Germany to kick off the 2018 World Cup qualification. The defeat, which could have been far worse considering how Germany dominated every aspect of the game from start to finish, was Norway’s largest at home in World Cup qualification since a 5-1 loss to Denmark in October 1985, nearly 31 years ago.
Since the Second World War, Norway has only lost by three goals or more in a qualifier or play-off game six times. After the game, Høgmo had the opportunity to admit that there’s nothing to suggest that Norway will able to close the huge gap to the reigning world champions any time soon. Instead, his unwillingness to admit any fault immediately after the game has only widened the gap between him and Norwegians.
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Although there is a feeling that Høgmo isn’t getting as much out of the squad as he should be, Norwegians will be the first to admit that the players he has at his disposal aren’t as good as the ones legendary manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen had at his disposal when Norway defeated Brazil in Marseille in 1998.
Boasting two Manchester United players and two Liverpool players, Drillo’s starting 11 featured only one player from Tippeligaen, at a time when Rosenborg had finished second in their Champions League group the previous autumn, only two points adrift off Real Madrid – who would go on to win the tournament – beating Juventus 1-0 in Amsterdam thanks to a Predrag Mijatović goal.
Among the substitutes Drillo used was Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the striker who one year later would come on in Barcelona to win Manchester United the Champions League. As Claus Lundekvam, who arrived in England less than a month after Solskjær in 1996, and who would go on to become Southampton captain and the Norwegian player with the highest number of games in English football, writes in his biography En Kamp Til (One More Game), Norwegian players were seen as “cheap, attractive and solid buys”.
Compared to Drillo’s starting line-up against Brazil, Høgmo’s team against Germany was dominated by players expected to be involved at the other end of the Premier League table this season, with Hull players Henriksen and Adama Diomande both receiving the nod, along with Bournemouth striker Joshua King. Although they’re all still a few years younger than most of those who started against Brazil in 1998 – a starting 11 with an average age of 28 – it’s seems unlikely that those three or any of the other eight who started against Germany will reach the level of Norway’s 1998 side.
The fact that the Norwegian players in their prime or entering their prime are far off the level of the ones who were in their prime 18 years ago is probably the main reason why so much has already been said and written about Martin Ødegaard.
The youngster from Drammen made his first team debut for local side Strømsgodset in Tippeligaen just six months after turning 15. By the time Ødegaard turned 16, he had notched up a total of 23 appearances, scoring five goals and assisting his team-mates on seven occasions. He had also attracted interest from all but every top club in European football.
In the end, the 16-year-old signed for Real Madrid, where he became Real’s youngest La Liga debutant at the age of 16 years, five months and six days when he replaced Cristiano Ronaldo in their final league match of the 2014-15 season, a -:3 thumping of Madrid rivals Getafe.
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Høgmo has struggled to get the best out of Martin Ødegaard
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Ødegaard’s international career has yet to take off. He became the youngest player to represent Norway when, at the age of 15 years and 253 days, he made his debut against the United Arab Emirates in August 2015, beating Tormod Kjellsens 104-year-old record. Kjellsens was 15 years and 351 days old when, in 1910, he made his debut for Norway against Sweden in Norway’s first ever home game. He also became the youngest player ever to appear in a Euro qualifier when he came on as a second-half substitute in Norway’s 2-1 win over Bulgaria at the age of 15 years and 300 days in October 2014.
Look beyond the numbers and records, however, and you’ll find a youngster who hasn’t been able to reproduce his Strømsgodset form when donning the Norwegian kit. Høgmo has been unsure of where to utilise Ødegaard in order to get the best out of him. When Norway needed a goal at home against Hungary, Ødegaard wasn’t called upon. A week later, with the Hungarians ready to fight it out and defend their 1-0 lead from the first leg, he started the game in Budapest, just to be yanked off after a disappointing first half.
It might also be wise to tone down some of the expectations surrounding Ødegaard and his young team-mates. A few days after Norway’s loss to Germany, the Norwegian ender-21s lost 6-1 away to England, overshadowing a week where the Norwegian youth teams until then had played nine games, winning seven, drawing one and losing one. The heavy loss to England led to an on-going debate regarding the lack of defensive talents among Norwegian youth teams. Some believe that Norway
The heavy loss to England led to an ongoing debate regarding the lack of defensive talents among Norwegian youth teams. Some believe that Norway are at risk of forgetting everything about defensive organisation, which saw them qualify for two consecutive World Cups in the 1990s. That is especially worrying considering that this summer’s Euros illustrated that defensive organisation is as important as it has ever been in international football.
The lack of world-class players in their prime, and the fact that the young players who are on their way up are still that – on the way up and not ready or able to contribute in the same way as they hopefully will be a few years down the road – might be the reason why the Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) has yet to openly criticise Høgmo. After the loss to Germany, the chairman of the NFF board admitted that they haven’t set a target for Høgmo to reach for them to consider the World Cup campaign successful.
It’s easy to see it as an admission that Norway’s chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup are slim. With the nation expected to battle it out against Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic for second place in Group C and a potential play-off spot, Norway’s chances are slim. But if that’s why the NFF haven’t set a target for Høgmo, one could ask why they still have him on board.
It makes Høgmo look like stopgap, an impression fuelled by the fact that FC København manager Ståle Solbakken, who this fall is set to go up against Leicester in the Champions League, recently said that it would be “weird” if he isn’t among the candidates the next time the NFF are set to hire a new Norway manager.
Next up for Norway are Azerbaijan away and San Marino at home. Anything other than six points from those two games will put more pressure on Høgmo’s shoulder, but it’s the away game against the Czech Republic on 11 November that will decide if Norwegian fans will spend the next two years dreaming of Russia, or if they are better off setting their sights to the autumn of 2018 and the Euros two years later.
For now, the 2020 Euros are Norway’s best hope of reaching a major tournament for the first time since 2000.
By Aleksander Losnegård. Follow @AleksanderL16