The Golden Boot is safely in Norwegian hands and soon the Premier League trophy will be too… Man City’s Erling Haaland and Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard are spearheading the footballing revolution after years of struggle
- Erling Haaland netting five in a Champions League game is Norway’s new normal
- Now Martin Odegaard’s Arsenal face Haaland’s Man City in an important clash
- Odegaard and the towering striker represent the rise of football in the country
There are some who have already grown used to Norway’s new normal. Take last month’s Champions League clash between Manchester City and RB Leipzig, when Erling Haaland netted five goals and broke another European record.
The verdict of Norway manager Stale Solbakken? ‘I’ve seen it before,’ he joked to Mail Sport the following day. Another senior figure in Norwegian football was equally nonplussed: a typical Tuesday, they laughed.
Now just another Wednesday awaits as Arsenal – led by Martin Odegaard – visit Haaland’s Manchester City in the biggest game of this Premier League season. The Golden Boot is already safely in Norwegian hands.
The Premier League trophy could soon be, too. Not bad for a nation of 5.5million people, where Odegaard and Haaland have been spearheading a revolution. Just over a decade ago, after years of struggle, Norway revamped its football culture.
The country’s domestic league now outperforms its Nordic rivals, Norway sends more players to Europe’s top clubs and, under Solbakken, Odegaard (captain) and Haaland (vice-captain) are leading their pursuit of Euro 2024 – a long-held target after two and a half decades in the international wilderness.
Erling Haaland (pictured) netting five in a Champions League game is Norway’s new normal
Haaland’s Manchester City and the Premier League-leading Arsenal of Martin Odegaard (No 8) face off on Wednesday evening in the most important game of the entire domestic season
The superstar duo are spearheading a footballing revolution in the country of just 5.5million
Last June, after Haaland’s double secured Norway’s first win in Sweden since 1977, Odegaard put on ‘The Haaland Song’ in the dressing room and Solbakken squad serenaded their matchwinner. ‘I’ve not really seen that before,’ says one observer. ‘You don’t do that if you don’t like him very much.’ This success trickles down.
‘Kids in school now run around with Norwegian names on their shirts,’ says Leif Overland, the chief executive of the Norwegian Professional Football League. ‘They didn’t do that before.’ Overland was there when Odegaard made his league debut aged just 15.
He remembers Haaland’s Eliteserien bow, too, when the 17-year-old scored four for Molde. By then, Norway was already in the midst of change.
Norsk Toppfotball – an ‘interest organisation’ for teams in Norway’s top two divisions – had helped alter the country’s football foundations. The spark? ‘We were so bad,’ Overland says.
Inspiration came from across Europe. ‘We looked a lot to Portugal, Belgium, Croatia, Switzerland, Denmark,’ explains Kenneth Wilsgaard of Norway’s Centre of Football Excellence.
Three key tweaks were introduced: More money was spent on developing young players and youth coaches; Academies were built and a national youth series was established; Loan rules were altered to maximise playing time for young players.
‘We tried to turn the ship around but it takes time,’ Wilsgaard says. Norway have failed to reach a major tournament since 2000. They haven’t had a team qualify for the Champions League since 2007. Unfortunately? ‘That decline continued all the way until 2017,’ when Norway sunk to an ‘all-time low’.
Now, though, the signs are encouraging. Norway’s national team are not expected to reap the full benefits until around 2028. But over recent years the number of Norwegian players in Europe’s top five leagues has grown.
Norway hopes their two star men can lead the Scandinavian nation to a major tournament
The Premier League trophy may be in Norwegian hands if the Gunners beat City on Wednesday
So has the revenue from selling players abroad. Both Haaland and Odegaard spent time in this new system but there is an acceptance that their success is ‘unique’ – the result of exceptional talent, mentality and support networks, too.
‘We’ve built a foundation where young kids can grow and develop in a good way,’ Wilsgaard says, ‘And they get inspiration from Norwegian idols at a level we’ve never had before.’
Solbakken’s pool of technically gifted players has swelled but he fears the country has ‘slept’ on the need to produce more defenders, and that Haaland masks a lack of powerful No 9s.
He leans on his two superstars – both drive standards by example; Haaland leads with ‘one per cent fear’. He builds his team around them, too.
‘Stealing’ ideas from City and Arsenal, tweaking positioning and the players around Odegaard and Haaland to replicate the pivotal roles they play for their clubs. In crucial matches such as on Wednesday night.
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