CAN NORWAY GET BACK TO THEIR GLORY DAYS IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

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The Norwegian interpretation of football is different to that of their neighbouring countries Sweden or Denmark. Thus, for a period of, time this country was unable to produce more than moderate talents for the football community. In the last two decades, Norwegian football only brought us some notable moderate Premier League talents namely John Arne Riise, John Carew and Morten Gamst Pedersen. These players made the core of the national team but the inconsistency and lack of talent among the squad impeded their chances to compete in the highest level.

Norway weren’t as competent during the qualification campaigns for the European Championships of 2004 or the World Cup of 2006. Group stages of those two qualifiers tested their patience and harmony and both they showed some talent. After the group stage, Norway became the underdogs and had to defy the odds against two dynasties of European football. Unfortunately, Norway was no match for the Raúl-led Spain in Euro 2004 play-off despite having the likes of Tore André Flo and Steffen Iverson in their prime. For the 2006 World Cup, Czech Republic’s golden generation managed to beat overcome the Norwegians with Vladimír Šmicer and Tomáš Rosický on the scoresheet.

Norway learned a lot from these qualifiers, but it was clear that there was a gulf in class and quality between the two teams that held them back. Spain and Czech Republic had several names on their teams’ reserves lists that could easily have been part of the Norwegian starting eleven.

Euro 2008 was a good place for them to rebuild. They had a favourable draw in the qualifying group with Turkey and Greece their strongest competition. The journey was smooth, but a mess in the end denied them a place in the finals. A devastating home loss to Turkey, largely due to a mistake from goalkeeper Håkon Opdal meant that Norwegian football would go into further shambles.

11 years after the loss in the Ullevål Stadion, Norway is still struggling on the international scene. The country still hasn’t made it to the finals of a major tournament, and the FA has taken an initiative to change their fortunes.

The Norwegian FA appointed Lars Lagerbäck who was the chieftain of Iceland’s Euro 2016 success. One of his aims were to promote players from the youth ranks to the senior team, but since taking the reins of the team, he’s hardly made use of Kristoffer Ajer, one of the country’s brightest players of this era, instead preferring more experienced names. His short tenure in charge of the national team hasn’t been all that fruitful, but there is still optimism.

Some of the up-and-coming Norwegian footballers point to a comparatively brighter future. Martin Ødegaard has had an inconsistent time with Real Madrid, but still at the age of 19, he still has loads of time to come good. And in addition to the aforementioned Ajer, the likes of defender Andreas Hanche-Olsen (21) and midfielders Sander Berge (20), Iver Fossum and Martin Thorsby (both 22) paint an encouraging picture. These names have constantly been under the radar at top European clubs and there is hope that they will fulfil their potential with the national team.

The young guns also impressed in their recent defeat of the German U21s that featured prominent names such as Felix Passlack and Benjamin Henrichs. This was a far cry to the senior team’s most recent clash with the 2014 World Champions which ended in a 6-0 thumping. Now with a youth side brimming with potential, the coaching staff and management has to decide whether to proceed in the future with their exciting youngsters or stick with the senior side that has often failed to impress.

And even after this current generation is promoted to the senior team, there’s hope that the next crop will be just as good. There’s a whole host of youngsters that have been in the spotlight lately. The likes of Hugo Vetlesen, who is an 18-year-old midfielder that plays for Stabæk and his 19-year-old teammate Abdul-Basit Agouda who leads the line have caught the eye. In addition to that, Molde forward Erling Braut Håland and Aalesund’s Jens Hauge are also interesting. These players have represented the national side from the U15s level and this harmony could come good.

The failures of the national team can perhaps also be attributed to the dynasty created in the domestic league. Rosenborg is starting to run the show in the country, and that juggernaut doesn’t seem like stopping anytime soon. Having one the league in every season since 2015, stopping Rosenborg seems a difficult task. And the economics favour them too. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, Bergen and Trondheim will be amongst the seven richest cities in the world by 2025 and since Rosenborg are based in the latter, their financial side seems secure.

The club have also made a move to secure their on-pitch futures, buying some of the league’s most promising stars including Samuel Adegbenro and Anders Tronsden from Viking FK and Sarpsborg 08 last year. Furthermore, their establishing their dominance from outside as well – they loaned out several stars to Bodo/Glimt of the second-tier in Norway and they won promotion with ease last season.

In a situation like this other clubs have no option but to use their academy and scouting system in order to compete with Rosenborg. The industry of football withdrew their money from Norway long time ago and as the national team was struggling, this was the perfect opportunity for the clubs to pay attention to their academy and scouting. Yet, the results of these drastic changes are yet to be seen.

Apart from the long-time champions and their frequent rivals Molde, all clubs in Norway face some sort of financial struggle, as a result, progress seems significantly difficult. However, many in Norway can take inspiration from the up-and-coming Sarpsborg, whose plan has worked them wonders and helped them qualify for European competition. Although their finances are similar to others in the country and having lost some star names to bigger clubs in recent seasons, they invested their money smartly and are secured in the Norwegian top-flight with an indication that they can make a title challenge in the coming years.

Most of the club’s signings fall under the age of 28 and some of the players they’ve sold including Krepin Diatta, who moved to Belgium with Club Brugge, was of interest to several clubs in England including Liverpool and Southampton. The club has stuck to their plan of developing from within rather than investing heavily and that has reaped great rewards for them, with the future looking intriguing.

Another two clubs following a similar model and growing from within are Stabæk and Lillestrøm. Both outfits use their scouting network to get promising talents from Africa. Stabæk has been involved in purchasing Ivorian footballers with the likes of Luc Kassi and Mande Sayouba. Combine them with the aforementioned Agouda and Venezuelan defender Ronald Hernández and they’ve got a fine team. Lillestrøm, meanwhile, have Nigerian wonderkid Ifeanyi Mathew.

It is worth mentioning that Stabæk developed several names to go on and represent their national team and did not purchase full internationals. The moves show the faith they’ve displayed in their talent and for the story for both these clubs is that they’ve been aided financially as well through future sales and potential sell-on clauses that save their status.

Before analysing the social benefit of football, the registration rules of the league must be made clear. A team in the top-tier can register a maximum of 25 players, where at least two should have spent at least three years in the academy before they turn 21. The rule is evident in some respect throughout Europe, but this move highlights the emphasis the FA is trying to put on youth academies and developing from within to avoid financial calamities.

The social benefit from football for Norway is incomparable to economic benefits. Norway used football to integrate immigrant children and this has proven to be a good project. According to sources, 16.8% of the country’s total population is immigrant and integrating them is a vital role for the sake of the society. As the rules of the league do not consider them as foreigners since they were raised in Norway, they are equal on the pitch. They get the same level of education and attention in the academies and have a chance to develop their skills.

The perfect example of this is Ghayas Zahid. He is of Pakistani descent but had his academy education at Vålerenga. Last season, he went to APOEL Nicosia in Cyprus and had the opportunity to play in the Champions League against the likes of Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund. Those games carried a special significance as he became the first footballer of Pakistani descent to get exposure in Europe’s premier club cup competition.

Another great example is Rafik Zekhnini who is currently playing for Fiorentina. His Moroccan descent was not an obstacle for him to develop his skills and he went to Italy when he was only 19. Despite his age, he played 52 Eliteserien games and scored eight times while assisting the same number as well. These players have greatly benefited from the rules and regulations of the Norwegian FA as it has changed their lives and is impacting more than these two fine examples.

All things considered, Norway have fallen far behind their rivals in recent years. From Henrik Larsson to Zlatan Ibrahimović, Jon Dahl Tomasson to Christian Eriksen, Sweden and Denmark have evolved and found the modern-day hero they’ve been longing for while Norway have not. This seems likely to change as the great carousel of talent coming through has been encouraging, while the Norwegian FA’s decision to help a club’s finances has come good as it not only secures them off the pitch, but on the pitch as well. There is hope that Norway can get back to their old success, and this is a brand-new era for the country’s football.

BY SINA KIRATLI