“The first time he came to Molde, I didn’t think he was the whole world,” recalled Ruben Gabrielsen earlier this year when asked about the emerging teenage prodigy exciting Norwegians for the first time since a certain Martin Ødegaard broke onto the scene. “But suddenly he developed in a way I’ve never seen before. After that, he has not looked back. He is much stronger than he looks, much faster than he looks. He is a beast.”
A fitting sobriquet for the 19-year-old Erling Braut Håland who, this year, launched his own devastating raid on Europe since leaving Scandinavia behind. Like the Northmen of yore, his assault has been ruthless, and much like the Vikings that set sail across the North Sea over a millennium ago, his arrival was completely unheralded, taking much of the European football scene by surprise.
A well-taken hat-trick on his Champions League debut for Red Bull Salzburg – the first Champions League debut hat-trick since Wayne Rooney for Manchester United in 2004 – was certain to grab headlines around the world the moment he stepped off the pitch.
The first arrived in under two minutes, a powerful, rifling shot; the second a precise left-foot finish. Within 35 minutes, he had completed his maiden continental hat-trick with an opportunistic penalty-box strike. Suffice to say, however, this is a man accustomed to taking home the match ball.
Already in his fledgeling season in Austria, Håland has plundered 17 goals in just ten games. His hat-trick against Genk in the Champions League group stages happened to be his fourth of the campaign. Speaking after the game, Håland’s teammate, Zlatko Junuzović, remarked: “His goalscoring run is incredible. I’m so happy he scored three today. People said: ‘Okay he’s scoring for fun in the league, but wait until he comes to the big stage’. Then he goes and scores another hat-trick.”
It has been over a thousand years since the fabled Ragnar Lothbrok swept the coasts of western Europe in search of gold, but already Erling Håland is writing his own story fit for the ages. With his bewildering combination of physicality and surprising nimbleness, he is transforming football fields into scenes of slaughter. The defenders of Austria’s Bundesliga have already found it difficult to contain such a powerhouse of a young man, and the hapless custodians of the Genk goal were just as flummoxed.
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Yet, though most of Europe is just awakening to the threat posed by the burgeoning Norwegian, his reputation has been growing steadily over the last 18 months back in his homeland.
You’d have been forgiven for thinking that the son of the somewhat infamous Alfie Inge Håland was going to struggle to cut it in the harsh and unremitting world of professional football. Following 16 goalless games in Norway’s second division for his boyhood club Bryne in his debut season, as well as an unsuccessful trial with Germany’s Hoffenheim, things were looking tough for the then-16-year-old Håland.
However, it was a transfer to Eliteserien side Molde, managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, that marked the beginning of the transformation from boy into beast. Despite a rocky first season where he scored only four times in 20 games, Håland excelled in his second. He scored four times as many goals, eventually ending the season with 16 in all competitions. Under Solskjær, famed for his dedication to the art of finishing, his lethality in front of goal was honed.
It was during this second season that the scouts of some of the bigger clubs began to catch wind that something was stirring on the frost-wreathed shores of Scandinavia. In July 2018, a young Håland scored all four goals against unbeaten league leaders Brann in the first 21 minutes of the contest. Having singlehandedly dismantled the strongest team in the league in front of a Manchester United scout, Solskjær soon confirmed the club had rejected bids from several unnamed European sides.
Eventually, after starring for Molde, the elite intensified their attempts to secure Håland’s signature, but his final destination pointed to a young footballer who, despite the increasing attention his abilities were granting him, had his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Eschewing offers from Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen, Håland opted for Red Bull Salzburg, whom he considered a better fit for this stage in his career. “I was obviously flattered by Juventus being interested,” he said in January, “but I thought that it was too early to go there. Salzburg was the club that suited me the best and they were the ones who wanted me the most. There is more of a chance of playing here.”
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With his father, Alfie, offering him sage counsel – as well as the guiding hand of super-agent Mino Raiola – it seems the youngster has his sights set on marauding smaller targets before he sets sail for the glittering monasteries of some of Europe’s more lucrative clubs. “First of all, I’ve got to become better than my dad, and he had 181 Premier League games,” he said earlier this year.
In fact, the Premier League is a destination the young Håland very much has in mind, since he was born on British shores during his father’s tenure with Leeds. In an interview with Norwegian newspaper Aftenpostern, Håland declared his desire to one day win the title with the club. Remarkable, then, that a 21st-century Norwegian has his heart set on the county of Yorkshire, the very place the heathens of the ninth century first claimed as their own.
But the striker, looking already a man with his imposing stature until you look upon his youthful features, is reticent when it comes to his chances of developing into the “one of the best strikers in the world”, as his Salzburg teammate Maximilian Wöber predicted. “That’s the dream yes, but a dream I share with a million other young players in the world.”
Still, in spite of this inherent humility, it would be prudent to remember that this is already a man for whom scoring goals has developed into something of a second nature. On 30 May 2019, Håland wrote himself into the history books at the Under-20 World Cup with an astonishing nine goals for Norway in one game against a wretched Honduras side that didn’t quite realise what had hit them. In fact, such is his lethality at youth level, Håland boasts 30 goals in 44 games across all age groups beneath the senior side.
When you scour the world for the very best in footballing talent, it is the favelas of Brazil, the streets of Argentina and the sun-drenched academies of Spain that hold the most answers, yet in the case of Håland, it is by way of a small, coastal fishing town in western Norway. Perhaps, though, if a modern raider intent on conquering Europe club-by-club was going to come from anywhere, it seems fitting that it was Bryne.
For most footballers, a hat-trick on their Champions League debut would probably be the crowning achievement in their careers, yet for the young Håland, this seems more like an opening chapter than a closing one. If the Norse poets deign to update the sagas of old, maybe one day there will be a tale for Erling Braut Håland all of his own.
By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90