It is the evening of 21 June. Beneath a duskening summer sky in Arnhem, Norway and Slovenia play out the final moments of an anxious 0-0 draw in Group C of Euro 2000. For Norway, the knockout stages beckon, while Slovenia’s hopes hinge on breaching a staunch Nordic backline.
Urgency dogs both sides. The Norwegians cannot keep the ball far enough from their own net, but neither nation can retain possession, and they resort to a barrage of desperate long balls that grow increasingly more frenetic with each second that slips by. The clock has ticked past the 90-minute mark and the allotted two minutes of injury time have all but expired.
From a free-kick, Norway launch a final ball deep into opposition territory, where a beleaguered Steffen Iversen contests the header without success. His frustrated response – to fling his arms in the air and appeal futilely to the referee – is representative of a nation wracked with worry. Norway appear to have missed the opportunity to exert any influence over their own affairs.
Hurriedly, Mladen Dabonovic in the Slovenian goal fetches the ball from where it has rolled out of touch and returns the favour, thumping a kick downfield where the green-shirted Slovenians and the red-clad Norwegians contest one last, exhausted duel, urged on by their respective supporters, both of which have sat through 90 minutes of endeavour without reward.
As if in mercy, the final whistle blows and brings to an end a fitful match. Though both sides had begun the day with hopes of reaching the round of 16, neither, in truth, had approached the game with the sense of adventure necessary to precipitate their advance.
The Norwegian players do not sink to their knees with relief or hug one another in jubilation, for the atmosphere on the pitch is one fraught with tension. Though the gathered supporters chant and sing in the stands even at this proverbial eleventh hour, uncertainty ripples through playing and coaching staff alike, who exchange apprehensive glances, speaking to one another behind furtive hands cupped over their mouths.
As it stands, Norway progress by the slimmest of margins. A 0-0 draw in their final game is enough to take them through to the round of 16 as group runners-up behind Yugoslavia, who, at the culmination of Norway’s fixture, are 3-2 up against third-placed Spain. The minutes that follow the final whistle are interminable, as Norway wait for confirmation the Yugoslavs have beaten the Spaniards.
During this period, the television cameras find Norway manager Nils Johan Semb deep in contemplation. On a pitch thronging with players, coaches, officials and camera operators, he appears a lonely man. The dreams, the fears, the hopes of a nation can be found in every line of his furrowed brow. Deep in contemplation, arms folded across his chest, he waits. Silently, he waits.
Into his hands the Norwegian FA entrusted the safekeeping of their most successful national team side in their 94-year history. Cultivated by Egil “Drillo” Olsen throughout the halcyon days of the 1990s, this is a side in bloom with Premier League stars, from Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Henning Berg to Tore André Flo and Stig Inge Bjørnebye. In its perfect furrows, Olsen sowed the seeds of a generation, one which his apprentice Semb has become the sole tender of.
But in the heat of this Dutch summer, they are wilting. It is Norway’s first appearance in Europe’s elite international competition following two stellar showings at the 1994 and 1998 World Cup finals, and Semb has fettered his side with the manacles of caution. Too rigid, some say, too conventional, too defensive. Too safe. “Norway play for draws!” detractors cry – and much to their chagrin they are vindicated.
On swift, portentous wings, the news from Liège filters through. Gaizka Mendieta has equalised from the spot for Spain in the 94th minute. The chanting in the stands dwindles, is replaced by a prickling fear. Murmurs sprout like mushrooms after rain, pockets of anxious fans turning to one another in disbelief. As the news spreads around the stadium, the players on the pitch become aware. Their efforts against Slovenia have been in vain.
Barely a minute later, while the Norwegians are still reeling, news comes of another goal. Hope, however, is fleeting. Yugoslavia have not regained the lead, but rather succumbed to a Spanish team hellbent on progressing. Alfonso Munoz has scored in the 95th minute to complete a remarkable turnaround for the Iberian outfit. With the last kick of the game, the Real Betis striker has condemned Norway to an ignominious exit.
Rushing to Semb for a reaction, one press photographer captures an image that has since been preserved in Norwegian footballing folklore for time immemorial. It shows Semb collapsed on all fours, his shoulders slumped, head bowed in despondency, his gaze seeking scant solace in the turf between his hands. Permanently frozen in this one still frame is the demise of Norway’s golden generation, who perished on a warm summer evening in Arnhem.
Few could have predicted it at the time, but Euro 2000 marked the last time the world would witness Landslaget at a major international tournament. It has been a long, lonely two decades in the wilderness, but to understand the magnitude of Norway’s shortcomings on that warm summer evening, one must return to the dawning of the previous decade and the foundations of Norway’s golden generation.
Before the appointment of Egil Olsen in October 1990, Norway had failed to qualify for a major international tournament since 1938. For over 50 years, while their nearest neighbours Sweden and Denmark waxed in strength, Norway’s standing in the global game stagnated.
Often, they languished at the bottom of World Cup and European Championship qualifying groups, and their moments of import were fleeting: a 3-0 win over Yugoslavia in 1965, a 1-0 win against France in 1968 and a famous 2-1 win over England in 1981 were but glimpses of watery sunlight in an otherwise gloomy sky.
Despite the magnitude of these sparse victories, these were mere crumbs for a nation that feasted on football. Norway’s national league dates back to 1937 and their oldest club, Christiania FC (now defunct), was established in 1885. It is no secret that the sport has always been popular in this corner of Scandinavia, but this adoration had never truly been replicated on the international stage.
Unsurprisingly, then, given a long history of underachievement, what Olsen inherited was a team impoverished of confidence and lumbered with an outward perception of lacking both in ability and application. In his playing days, Olsen had acquired the nickname “Drillo” thanks to his position as a winger and his proclivity for embarking on winding, solo runs.
An eccentric character who collected far fewer caps than his obvious talent warranted due to the national team coach of the era, Willi Kment, disapproving of Olsen’s scruffy appearance and left-wing views, he set about dismantling the paradigm within which Norway had operated for decades and adopting a radical new philosophy.
Norway, he asserted, did not possess the personnel to challenge the top international teams on footballing grounds alone. The climate was not conducive to playing all year round, and the advent of indoor or all-weather pitches was thus far contained to the northern town of Bodø. Therefore, he argued, the national team needed to adopt a system and an approach that fitted the players he had at his disposal – and what Norway had was players that were stronger, fitter and worked harder than their contemporaries.
Having worked with the under-23s, Norwegian footballers were if not familiar than at least cognizant with Olsen’s methods. Accordingly, in his first game in the dugout for a friendly against a Cameroon side that had reached the quarter-finals of Italia 90 just three months prior, Norway demolished their visitors 6-1.
Between 1990 and 1998, Olsen was successful in transforming the fortunes of his nation, so much so that his own nickname became synonymous with the Norwegian national team of that era. “Drillos”, they were dubbed by the media, and they became renowned beyond the borders of Scandinavia for their unique brand of dynamic, highly physical football. To describe his team’s philosophy, Olsen coined the phrase “å være best uten ball” which translates roughly to “to be best without the ball”.
He despised static players and so harnessed the Norwegians’ inherent athletic capabilities to create a team based upon two founding principles: firstly, players, particularly attacking players, should never stop moving, so as to overwhelm opposition defences with multiple angles of attack; and secondly, transitioning from defence to attack with direct, aerial balls reduced the possibility of Norway losing possession.
It was an astute tactic that is the antithesis of modern football ideology but which worked exceedingly well given the wealth of tall, athletic footballers in the national set-up who could win individual duels against their typically smaller and weaker opponents.
Olsen’s approach was one he applied at all levels, regardless of ability or standing. During a PE lesson in the early 1990s at the local high school where his then-girlfriend worked, he subjected pupils to his counter-attacking tactics. Even in 4 v 4 scenarios, he made them run all-out attacks once they won the ball to the point of exhaustion. In Drillo’s eyes, to be static was to be ineffective.
Outside – and occasionally even within – Norway, however, it was a style that attracted its fair share of criticism for its perceived lack of finesse and disinterest in playing grounded, intricate football, but what was never in doubt was its efficacy.
In 1995, Norway ascended the FIFA rankings to an all-time high of second, and indeed spend the entire decade inside the top 20. During this time, they reached two consecutive World Cup finals – a record for the country – beat Brazil twice (on one occasion at a World Cup, no less) and scored five goals or more in a single match no fewer than 11 times.
It was a successful period whereby Norwegian footballers profited from a strong national team and high demand from foreign leagues for their services. Mainstays like Ronny Johnsen, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Henning Berg, Stig Inge Bjørnebye, Tore André Flo, Steffan Iversen, Erik Thorstvedt, Frode Grodås, Kjetil Rekdal, Alfie Håland, Vegard Heggem and Jan Åge Fjørtroft all plied their trade in England’s Premier League to great acclaim.
Thus, the tragedy of Norway’s ill-fated Euro 2000 campaign lies therein. Although Olsen had stepped down in 1998, his legacy had been continued by his apprentice, Nils Johan Semb, who inherited a strong squad teeming with continental talent. Almost half the 22 who travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands had boarded the plane to France two years earlier.
After two World Cup appearances, Norway were expected to perform well at their first-ever European Championship. As predicted, qualifying was a success: Norway topped their group, winning eight out of their ten fixtures and scoring 21 goals in the process. Flo, Solskjær and Iversen found themselves in ominously prolific form, while the loss of Manchester United’s Johnsen to a debilitating knee injury was offset by the emergence of Vegard Heggem and André Bergdølmo who flourished with the increased playing time.
In stereotypical Scandinavian fashion, Norway’s hopes for the tournament were duly tempered by pragmatism. Supporters professed a due amount of respect for both Spain and Yugoslavia, and even though there was no clear expectation to go past the group stage, Norway possessed four top-class strikers in Solskjær, Iversen, Flo and Carew and still had “Magic” Erik Mykland, the hero of the France 98 campaign, running the midfield.
Therefore, when the time came, Norwegians flocked to Belgium and the Netherlands in their thousands, first setting up temporary residence in Rotterdam with far less belligerence than their ancestors had with their longships in the ninth century.
Landslaget began their maiden Euros campaign against Spain side replete with the likes of Raúl, Fernando Hierro, Gaizka Mendieta, Santiago Cañizares and Juan Carlos Valerón. It was a game the Norwegians were hardly expected to win, and therefore Semb set up his side accordingly in the 4-3-3 formation reminiscent of the Drillos he had inherited from Olsen.
Rather than quick wingers occupying the flanks, he elected to field six-foot-four Tore André Flo and six-foot-one Steffan Iversen. As was traditional of Norway at the time, the full-backs were expected to hit long, diagonal balls up-field to the opposite flank to allow Norway to progress rapidly up the pitch via their strapping faux-wingers.
It was from one of these that Iversen loped into the box to contest a header with an onrushing Jose Molina, who had sprinted from his ball, nonplussed with yet another long ball threatening his precious area. He was caught flat-footed by the athleticism of Iversen, who easily won the duel, his header looping into an empty net to secure Norway a famous if unorthodox win over their Iberian opponents. Verdant and timid, there was sudden hope.
Norway had harboured dreams of progressing, but certainly not at the expense of Spain. A victory over the group favourites set them in excellent stead for their imminent encounter with Yugoslavia (the progenitors to Serbia and Montenegro, and not to be confused as a successor state to Soviet Yugoslavia), who were an unpredictable opponent.
The hordes that had followed the national team south to the Netherlands then decamped to Liège, where they occupied a particular street in a fashion more reminiscent of the Vikings of yore. By 10:30 every night, the eager Norwegians had drunk every pub dry. They thronged the few hotels they could find, with some even taking to sleeping on benches and in bushes rather than travel back to Norway and miss their team’s game against Yugoslavia.
However, the supporters’ hopes of another shock victory were dashed when Semb, cautious that his side had already secured a precious three points, selected an ultra-defensive line-up against what he perceived to be a threatening Yugoslavia side. It was as though the Norwegians were afraid to attack despite their obvious strength up front.
It was to be a dour day in Liège, for Yugoslavia opened the scoring inside six minutes through Savo Milošević. With his gameplan out of the window, Semb opted against foraging for an equaliser, and instead settled for a narrow loss, refusing to eschew his ultra-defensive approach in favour of focusing on a weak Slovenia side in their upcoming final fixture. Ranked as they were a full 21 places below Norway, the Slovenians were seen as frail and ripe for plunder.
Still jubilant in spite of this, the Norwegian supporters, who had suffered through an uninspiring loss to Yugoslavia, filled the terraces of the GelreDome, expecting their potent attacking quartet to puncture a feeble Slovenia defence. After all, nobody had expected them to beat Spain, they had only narrowly lost to a dangerous Yugoslavia side and Slovenia had conceded four goals already in the tournament.
Instead, much to the Norwegian fans’ dismay, Semb inexplicably refused to abandon the cautious approach which had seen them stumble against Yugoslavia. It was, as those who witnessed the game attested, a fatal stroke of ill-preparation, one which cost Norway dearly. The draw would transpire to be scant recompense, for Spain scored twice in the final seconds of their game against Yugoslavia and progressed at the Norwegian’s expense.
Although Semb remained in his post following the disappointing display at Euro 2000, where many felt he had squandered the wealth of talent he had at his disposal, it was during his tenure that the golden generation perished seemingly forever. He clung onto the Norway job until 2003 when he was replaced by Åge Hareide who then endured a disastrous reign that made Semb’s look positively vibrant in comparison.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Norway declined so rapidly following the demise of their golden generation under Olsen in the 1990s, but theories abound, each of which possesses at least a kernel of insight.
There are many that believe Norway’s prowess on the field diminished considerably with the rise in the phenomenon of sports science. As other nations placed an increased emphasis on fitness and off-the-ball running, as well as recovery and physical preparation, the Norwegians’ inherent physical advantages were reduced.
It coincided with a drastic drop in the number of Norwegian footballers in the Premier League. Where once Norwegian footballers had been famed throughout the 1990s for their stamina, strength and work rate, this was now a prerequisite of every professional footballer.
This, coupled with Norway’s inhospitable climate, at least in a footballing sense, meant that where other nations made enormous strides in coaching, Norwegian players were confined to indoor football halls for a third of the year and their development from youth level upward languished. It is only during the last decade, which has seen an emergence of more technically proficient footballers, where Norway has begun to truly embrace the kind of all-weather, artificial pitches that allowed Iceland to train year-round and thus improve the fortunes of their own national side.
There are others, however, who believe Norway’s dearth of success in the post-golden generation years owes much to the lack of identity, or more accurately, the ever-changing identity. Under Olsen – and to some degree, Semb – Norway were a team of hard runners, who counter-attacked very directly from a solid defensive base, utilising tall, powerful forwards to win a large percentage of aerial duels.
Following the explosion of tiki-taka in Spain which spread across Europe through the apostles of Pep Guardiola, the Norwegian FA decreed they would focus their efforts on transforming the national team into one which played attractive, possession-based football. Lacking the coaching and youth infrastructure to accommodate this radical shift in play, the idea was soon abandoned and replaced with an emphasis on winning at all costs.
This uncertain foundation was particularly evident throughout the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s, when Norway were absent from every major tournament and plummeted in the FIFA rankings to a lowly 88th position. Bedfellows with the likes of Zambia and Luxembourg Norway certainly should not have been.
Another theory contends that Norway abandoned, or at least stopped producing, defenders. At their zenith, they were abundant with elite stoppers like Johnsen, Berg, Bratseth and Veggen, and enjoyed a repository of competitive goalkeepers such as Grodås, Myhre and Thorstvedt. Since the 1990s and early 2000s, they have struggled to reproduce defensive assets of comparable quality, with perhaps only Brede Hangeland having played at anywhere near the same standard.
There is some irony, then, that Norway are now enjoying a renaissance on the international stage in an era where their finest players are not defenders but attackers. The likes of Erling Haaland, Alexander Sørloth, Jens Petter Hauge and Kristian Thorstvedt mean Landslaget – under the right conditions – have become perhaps their most aesthetic watch in years.
The demise of Norway’s golden generation that occurred on a balmy evening in Arnhem in 2000 is still a sore point, but there are signs it is being resurrected in different garb two decades later. The Norway of new is not a side of Drillos, but it is a side that still owes much to their namesake’s legacy. They are every bit as fast, every bit as strong and every bit as durable – except this time, the magic and wizardry Olsen possessed in his playing days is finally present in the national team he came to define many years ago.
Perhaps lessons can be learnt from Euro 2000, and the next time Norway find themselves in possession of a stellar crop of talent, there will be no tragic swan song – only the opening verse to a long and harmonious tune.
By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90
With thanks to Mads Julius Anderssen, Erik Bjørbæk, Jonny Eilertsen, Vidar Jørgensen and Andreas Seipäjärvi.