The year was 1994. Wet Wet Wet spent 15 consecutive weeks atop the UK singles chart; Forest Gump scooped six gongs, including Best Picture, at the 67th Academy Awards; Bill Clinton, a year into his first term as President of the United States, banned the sale of assault weapons. The year was marked by momentous occasions – not least of all in the footballing world.
Hristo Stoichkov, Bulgaria’s mercurial talisman claimed the Ballon d’Or by nearly a hundred points, while Brazil reaffirmed their status as kings of the beautiful game by clinching the World Cup – the first to be held on American soil – but there was one sliver of news that escaped the attentions of many, except those who called the forested, fjord-riddled northern reaches of the Scandinavian peninsula their home.
Norway, a nation of only 4.3 million people at the time, had clambered to a record high of fourth in the FIFA world rankings – yet this was no fluke. Under the stewardship of Egil Olsen, who was an early proponent of video analysis, Norway were a nation transformed. Olsen, ever the pragmatist, argued that his players did not have the ability to beat superior teams, so they had to play, as he put it, “smarter”. One of his fundamental principles was that of ‘å være best uten ball’, which roughly translates to ‘to be the best without the ball’. Thus, under Olsen, Norwegian footballers developed a reputation for running harder, longer and faster than other players, both in and out of possession.
Olsen soon attracted the sobriquet ‘the professor’ thanks to his analytical methodology in determining the most efficient way for his team to win matches. This often manifested itself in unusual tactical decisions at the time, such as playing hulking six-foot-four Jostein Flo on the wings to function as a wide target man, or relying heavily on direct, counter-attacking moves to reduce the chances of losing the ball in his their half.
It was a profitable time, not just for Norway but all of Scandinavia: both Sweden and Denmark rounded off the top six, enjoying their lofty and somewhat incongruous surroundings in the company of international heavyweights Brazil, Germany and Argentina.
For Norway, this foray into the upper reaches of the FIFA rankings was anything but brief. Throughout the 1990s, Løvene regularly troubled the top ten following two successive World Cup qualifications as, for the first time in their history, they progressed beyond the confines of the group stages. For Norwegians, they were living in a golden era. Exports from this ruggedly beautiful yet sparsely populated Nordic nation flocked to the Premier League, becoming mainstays in footballing powerhouses such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham.
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With the inimitable and irascible Olsen, the single-minded director of a feature film that had no right to span an entire decade, at the head, a cast of unexpected stars began to blossom. There was Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ronny Johnsen of Manchester United fame, Stig Inge Bjørnebye and Øyvind Leonhardsen at Liverpool, Alfie Inge Håland and Gunnar Halle across the Pennines in Leeds, as well as the aforementioned Jostein Flo at Sheffield United. Further south, London was littered with Norwegian talent: Frode Grodås, Steffen Iversen and Erik Thorstvedt at Tottenham, Erland Johnsen and Tore André Flo at Chelsea; even Southampton could boast Egil Ostenstad.
In this bountiful era, the English Premier League and Norway had a symbiotic relationship. Norwegians, stereotyped as physical specimens with indomitable spirit and an unquenchable work ethic, conquered England with all the ease their ancestors had when the Viking longboats had set sail across the North Sea a millennium ago. And, just like their forebearers, these contemporary Norse warriors found their fair share of plunder and glory. Many became household names in England and beyond.
Yet, as the decade came to a close, the heroes of yesteryear began to retire and would soon slip from memory. As Robert Jordan once said, “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”
The golden era of Norway – that had seen some of its luminaries claim Champions League glory and which had seen its national team record a momentous victory over world champions incumbent Brazil – slowly faded with the dawn of the new millennium. By the end of the 2010s, Norway were 32nd in the world rankings, and with the culmination of this decade, they sit a lowly 44th. The nadir had come in 2015 when they plummeted to 83rd, keeping company with the likes of Jamaica, Panama and Saudi Arabia – a far cry from the halcyon days when Olsen’s men rubbed shoulders with Germany and Brazil.
Løvene haven’t qualified for a major international tournament since Euro 2000, regularly falling at the final hurdle of the playoffs. As for the World Cup, they’ve not once got out of their qualifying group. It has been a full generation since the flame of Norwegian football was kindled so brightly and then smothered; those who bore aloft this blazing beacon have since retired and had children of their own.
It is not uncommon for footballing legends of antiquity to produce sons who go on to rise anew from the ashes of their father’s names: Cesare and Paolo Maldini, Johan and Jordi Cruyff, Peter and Kasper Schmeichel. They are sprinkled throughout the annals of history, a motley medley of successes and failures. But in Norway, a curious mass resurrection of footballing talent is occurring. A number of royal lineages have been raised in concurrence. The golden generation of the 1990s are renewed once more in blood and ability within the class of the 2020s.
For Norwegians, the progenitors of their most successful period have resurfaced in the boots of their children. This time, however, there is a growing sense of optimism, of anticipation, unfurling as if some timid bud at the frail coming of spring following a dark winter that spanned two decades. These are not Norwegian footballers cast from the same mould as their fathers; these are modern Løvene, raised on artificial pitches with year-round access to high-quality coaching.
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Just like their ethnolinguistic cousins in Iceland, the Norwegians have been cultivating a wave of new talent where an emphasis has been placed on the technical side of football needed to thrive and succeed today.
In 2019 alone, no fewer than five direct descendants of Norway’s 90s generation appeared for the nation’s array of youth sides: Emil Bohinen, son of former Nottingham Forest, Blackburn and Derby defender Lars; Markus Solbakken, son of former Wimbledon midfielder Stale; Kristian Thorstvedt, son of former Spurs goalkeeper Erik; and Thomas Grevsnes Rekdal, nephew of former Rennes and Hertha Berlin midfielder Kjetil. Then, of course, there is perhaps the most prodigious of the lot, Erling Braut Håland, son of former Leeds and Manchester City defender Alfie Inge, who has been devastating defences across Europe for RB Salzburg.
Emil Bohinen, a regular started for Eliteserien side Stabæk, has already attracted the attention of Premier League clubs. Composed on the ball, the deep-lying playmaker is regarded as an exciting prospect who possesses an accurate range of passing and superb vision. Kristian Thorstvedt, who scored ten goals for Viking last season, is a powerful runner with an equally powerful strike, and has already recorded four goals in his first six caps for Norway’s under-21 side. Markus Solbakken has played 84 times for OBOS-ligaen side HamKam and has 25 international caps at youth level, while Thomas Rekdal, the youngest of the five, was signed by German side Mainz in 2019 following 30 appearances for Eliteserien side Fredrikstad.
This promising batch of youngsters have the expectations of an entire generation on their youthful shoulders. Between them, their fathers and uncles amassed 321 international caps and represented their country at three major international tournaments. If there is any European nation gearing itself towards the future, it is Norway.
For the most part, they have removed the manacles of convention and are championing a new breed of footballer. As seen in the likes of Martin Ødegaard, Sander Berge, Morten Thorsby and Mats Møller Dæhli, technical ability is paramount. The previous predilection for promoting physicality, determination and work rate has been phased out in favour of an emphasis on developing ball skills and playing in tight spaces at speed. This, in part, is down to the increased availability of all-weather pitches, something considered a luxury in the 90s, but also to the shifting perception of Norwegian coaches.
Norway are not producing diminutive wingers and midfielders in the vein of Spain and Italy: they are breeding super-footballers of sorts, comfortable with the ball at their feet and forward-thinking, but still powerful in stature – physical giants. A tantalising blend of ability and athleticism. Berge, Thorsby, Thorstvedt and Håland all stand over six-foot-two in height, all of whom are prone to attracting the obvious cliché, “Good feet for a big man.”
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And it is no accident that the sons and nephews of Norway’s greats of yesteryear are making progress through the ranks. Stale Solbakken was manager of English club Wolves and is currently in his second spell in charge of Danish giants FC København. Kjetil Rekdal has been managing in Norway’s Eliteserien for the best part of two decades, while Lars Bohinen has held several roles in Norway’s second tier since 2012. They are ingrained in the fabric of the domestic game.
Historically, small, wealthy nations have always found it harder to produce elite footballers. Brazil and Argentina, with their large populations and ethnically-diverse populaces, are leading exponents in world-class footballers; Germany and Spain, too, with their large talent pools, are renowned for their production lines.
How, then, is Norway managing to produce such a wealth of talented, homegrown footballers? The increased access to improved coaching and better facilities are both key factors, but the influence of the 1990s generation upon their prodigies cannot be underestimated. As Lars Bohinen told The Athletic: “There is something where you think the players have something they inherit from the parents. If you look at Erling Braut Håland, he’s intelligent, polite, driven … when you have those traits, as well as the ability, that’s a good combination to have.”
Not only is this promising batch of youngsters benefitting from the plentiful opportunities afforded to them, they are exposed to the added, and often unquantifiable, wisdom imparted by their fathers and uncles, all of whom know what it takes to succeed at the highest level under pressing circumstances. That, it must be said, is invaluable.
Currently, Norway have their best chance since Euro 2000 to qualify for a major tournament. A hungry squad, comprising relatively young footballers like Sander Berge, Jonas Svensson, Kristoffer Ajer and Ole Selnæs, are a playoff semi-final against Serbia away from Euro 2020. Though this might be a step too far for a squad which only contains five players who have more than 30 caps, the future looks promising. Qatar 2022, when the likes of Ødegaard, Berge, Thorsby and Håland will be approaching their primes, could pose Norway’s most realistic chance of qualification – especially when you consider the raft of generational talents itching to break into the first team and join them.
By and large, nations use the mistakes of the past to inform their actions in the future. Germany and Spain, for example, revolutionised their approaches from the grassroots up following pivotal moments of failure and underachievement in the 1990s and 2000s. As such, both countries dominated the second decade of the new millennium. But for Norway, it is paradoxically the opposite that is true.
This small, northern nation, which enjoyed one extraordinary era of success in the long history of football, have taken the words of the Greek philosopher Plato to heart: “There is no harm in repeating a good thing.” And repeat they have.
By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90