The growing resurgence of Norwegian football

by Tom Bennett

It seems difficult to believe that it was only in 1993 when Norway were standing right next to Brazil in the FIFA World Rankings. They stood second-place after topping a World Cup Qualifying Group containing both England and Holland. This marked a period of transformation for the Norwegians as they qualified for three major tournaments during the decade and even returned to second-place in the rankings in 1995.

It is somewhat surprising to know that Norway’s lowest-ever ranking came in 2008, only three years ago, where they sat 58th in the table. But recently we have seen a new resurgence in Norwegian football. Today they sit 12th in the rankings table despite not appearing in any major tournament since Euro 2000. Surprisingly they are ranked above nations such as France, Russia and Cote D’Ivoire and their current crop of players look eager to qualify for only their second-ever European Championships finals.

During the 90s, scouts were going mad about young Norwegian talent and were searching Scandinavia for the very best they had to offer, in order to bring them to more competitive European clubs. Erik Thorstvedt was the first to make the move, coming to play for Tottenham Hotspur and he was only the start of a flurry of players including Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Unfortunately for Norway, as the end of the decade approached so did the run of success and despite qualifying for Euro 2000, Norway struggled and have not produced the same level of talent ever since.

Many established European countries have large-scale football academies which have bought a wealth of success to countries like Spain and Germany. Norway prefers to operate a system in which the responsibility lies with the individual clubs to operate their youth system the way they want. The Norwegian system has no school teams, with each town having several clubs that are completely open to anyone who fancies a game. This open-door policy encourages a lot of female players to get into the game. The success of this is shown in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings as Norway have maintained a respectable position since the rankings were established in 2003. They currently sit tenth place above such nations as Holland and Italy.

The geographical location of Norway means that northern parts of the country are covered in snow. This has led to massive investment in artificial pitches. This has been taken to the extent that Stabaek FK currently play in a newly-developed indoor stadium, thus with a roof permanently throughout the season. Since 2005, 100 new artificial pitches have been built every year in Norway and over 15 indoor arenas annually.

One of the major differences in Norwegian youth football is that they do not start playing 11-a-side until under 13 level. In England, youths start playing 11-a-side football as early as the age of 10. This has been heavily criticized in England as it encourages kids away from the passing game and more towards the long-ball game as they ‘hoof’ the ball due to the large scale of the playing area.

In Norway, kids that are good enough are drafted into the national pyramid scheme where there are local, regional and national training schemes. Players with the ability will be drafted into their local scheme and whilst playing for their club will train three times a week with a professional coach in a  group of similarly-talented players. As players develop, they will progress up the pyramid until they eventually reach the national youth teams and represent their country.

The success of such sides as Rosenborg made Norway famous throughout the nineties. Rosenborg were considered a true force in European football and put Norway on the map as a serious footballing nation. Perhaps the decline in the European presence of Norwegian clubs could be to blame for their recent international form? Many mediocre foreign players signed for Norwegian clubs at the start of the millennium but since the downfall of Norwegians clubs playing regularly in European competition they have been less attracted to the Scandinavian nation. This has given youngsters the opportunities at the clubs that they so desperately need in order to make Norway a reasonable international force.

Norway recognizes that some players do not bloom until much later than others. This is something that other major European countries do not have time for. In many countries it is simply about getting the best talent at the time onto the pitch and developing them until they are no longer good enough. When they cannot play up to the standard of others they are immediately released and receive little support to get back into the game. The system in Norway is the complete opposite and is something that they pride themselves on as they do not give up on players and are fond of seeking out some “late bloomers”. One prime example is Portsmouth’s new signing Erik Huseklepp. He did not sign a professional contract until he was 21-years-old. Having failed to stand out at a younger age, persistence paid off and he is now a fully-fledged Norway international after a spell in Italy with Bari.

Norway’s domestic flight requires each squad to have at least two home-grown players in their 25-man squad. This number will hopefully be increased each year with the goal that clubs will resist offers from top European sides in order to keep their players for future progress.

The Norwegian development model will never be world-class, but it seems that with an ever-improving infrastructure and more and more investment going into the game, Norway’s brightest prospects will be in high-demand all over Europe and maybe one day Norway can return to their all-time high World Ranking of 2nd where they were in 1992.

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