Norway haven’t reached an international men’s football tournament since 2000. A country with a population of 5.5 million people might not be expected to be high achievers, though Croatia (3.8 million) make a good fist of it, while far smaller European nations have qualified for either the World Cup or the European Championship since.
Iceland (376,000), Northern Ireland (1.8 million), Wales (3.1 million), Republic of Ireland (5 million), Albania (2.8 million), North Macedonia (2 million), Slovakia (5.4 million), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (3.2 million) have made appearances. Neighbours Finland played at Euro 2020, and nearby Denmark, both with similar populations, have played in seven international tournaments since Norway featured in Euro 2000.
That team more than 23 years ago was seeded second in their group behind Spain, but after upsetting La Roja 1-0 in the opening game, they lost to Yugoslavia and were eliminated on head-to-head results. Disappointment is the norm for fans of the Norway national football team.
Norway has no trouble excelling in winter sports, finishing top of the medals table in the 2022 Winter Olympics with 16 golds, just as they did in 2018. No country has finished top more times than them.
Yet Norway is also a football-crazy country. The biggest supporters’ clubs of English giants Manchester United and Liverpool are in Norway. The domestic Eliteserien league is ranked 16th by Uefa, ahead of Denmark, Croatia, Sweden and many other leagues from countries whose national teams have reached major tournaments.
When Norway were drawn in a group with Scotland, Georgia, Cyprus and Spain for the Euro 2024 qualifiers, hopes were high. None of the teams bar Spain have been tournament regulars, yet Norway started appallingly. Their 3-0 defeat away to Spain could be seen as no disgrace but the 1-1 draw in Georgia and 2-1 home defeat to Scotland were.
“Both the first games were in March and Norway’s results in March are usually poor,” former Norway defender Henning Berg, now manager at AIK in Sweden, told The National. “The Norwegian league season runs throughout the summer because of the weather in Norway. Players who play in Norway are not as prepared in March and April.”
The Scotland game, however, was in June. Berg admits that was not down to timing. “Norway were in control, then Scotland scored two goals in the final three minutes.” That win may be decisive in sending Scotland to Germany next summer and keeping Norway out, but the final group game is against Scotland at Hampden Park next month.
Before then, the match against Spain on Sunday night in Oslo is Norway’s biggest game for years. Results have improved since the poor start with three wins against countries Norway would be expected to beat.
Berg picks out one particular reason for the improvement. “If we had the team in the condition that we have now at the start of qualifying, then I’m sure we’d be qualifying," he said. "All the players are now playing regularly for their teams and this wasn’t the case (earlier).”
Norway’s particular problems were in defence, stemming from the fact that the central defenders and goalkeeper weren’t playing regularly for their clubs. They are now. Goalkeeper Orjan Nyland has established himself as Sevilla’s first-choice this season, following Yassine Bounou's move to Al Hilal.
Leo Ostigard, a 23-year-old central defender, has played as much for Napoli this season as the whole of last and started against Real Madrid in the Champions League recently. Another central defender, Kristoffer Ajer, 25, was excellent in nearly withstanding Manchester United’s siege of Brentford’s penalty area last week. He plays after only starting nine club league games last season.
Left back Birger Meling, also peripheral at Rennes last season, is playing Champions League football with FC Copenhagen. Right back Julian Ryerson is first-choice at Borussia Dortmund.
In attack, Erling Haaland had no such problems with his club Manchester City. The treble winner is one of the best strikers in the world, and is the joint top scorer in Euro qualifying with six goals alongside Scotland’s Scott McTominay.
“Haaland massively improves Norway,” Berg said. “He can score from anywhere and with few chances, his physicality is a threat. Norway with Haaland is completely different to Norway without. He can always get goals, even against the best.”
There is some disquiet about Haaland’s reluctance to do media press conferences on national team duty, and his decision to fly by private jet with a bodyguard in a country where egalitarianism matters, hardly helps either.
“Look at Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Sweden,” one football expert told The National. “He spoke at press conferences and used his voice – that of an immigrant who’d risen to the top – to inspire others in his country. Haaland has a different story and he’s a different person, but you have to be careful in Norway.
"We have a word – ‘janteloven’ – which means you are not to think you are anything special, even though Haaland is. Norwegian people didn’t like John Arne Riise driving around the centre of Oslo in a bright red Ferrari.”
Norway is not a one-man team. Creative midfielder and captain Martin Odegaard is one of the best players for a superb Arsenal team. Sander Berg is a Premier League midfielder at Burnley. Striker Alexander Sorloth, a late bloomer at 27, is at Villarreal having thrived at Real Sociedad near the top end of La Liga; he scored recently against Barcelona.
Winger Ola Solbakken is at Olympiakos on loan from Roma, an export product of the Bodo/Glimt success story that shook up Norwegian domestic football. Fellow winger Fredrick Aursnes is one of Benfica’s most important midfielders.
The core of the team are aged around 25.
“Norway produces good offensive players” said Berg, a former defender. “And while there isn’t a huge amount of strength in depth for the national team, there are exciting youngsters like Antonio Nusa at Bruges. He’s 18, he runs at players and is excellent in one-v-ones. He’s not like a Norwegian player.”
Nusa made his national team debut in August.
Berg played for a Norway side that rose as high as second in the Fifa world rankings. They’re currently 43rd, while Norway’s women’s team are 13th.
“We beat Brazil,” he recalled. “Twice. Once in a friendly, once in the World Cup when they were ready for us. There were a lot of us in the Premier League and we had some excellent players.”
Berg played for treble winners Manchester United, as did Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronnie Johnsen. Stig Inge Bjornebye and Oyvind Leonhardsen were at Liverpool, Tore Andre Flo at Chelsea, Dan Eggen played in La Liga.
But that success, he points out, has not so far been repeated because “the players and teams which came after us were not ready mentally or physically to reach the final of tournaments”. He feels this could be about to change.
“The current generation is [ready] and in Stale Solbakken they have a top manager who did superbly with FC Copenhagen in two spells over 12 years before he took the Norway job three years ago," Berg added.
Solbakken does have a talented generation at his disposal. It is one spread around Europe rather than concentrated in England. A total of 23 players from Norway were registered to top-flight English clubs in 1997, the core of the squad played at the 1998 World Cup. But as English clubs cast their nets globally, fewer Norwegians have crossed the North Sea to play in the Premier League.
Yet, the previous Norway golden generation wasn’t only dependent on the abilities of the players themselves. The nation was then at the cutting edge of sports science and video analysis but now others have caught up.
There’s no national training centre and suggestions of a lack of innovation among youth coaches in the country, where the philosophy can be for all children to enjoy football rather than ruthlessly push the best talents forward together – as can happen in Norwegian winter sports.
There’s no easy answer to the league being played in the summer either, which leaves Norwegian sides out of match practice during key times in the otherwise synchronised European calendar. It wouldn’t be easy to stage games in snow-bound Arctic Circle cities including Tromsa or Bodo in the winter under the northern lights. Plus the heating costs to keep pitches snow-free at a lower level would be exorbitant. But Norway is a football country, indoor pitches help and standards are rising.
On the immediate task at hand, Norway are two points behind Spain, who have played a game less, and five behind Scotland, who have also played six. A top-two finish in the group and automatic qualification to Euro 2024 is improbable, though qualification could still come from a third-place finish. Many Norwegians have spent the last two weeks trying to understand how they can qualify from third.
Berg emphasises the scale of the challenge of Spain but is optimistic about his country’s chances, otherwise: “I honestly feel that Norway can beat Scotland away in the final game. Scotland have good players in the Premier League, but Norway has slightly better players and some top stars.”
Norwegians are used to seeing their national side fall at the final hurdle. They may have left it late this time and a poll of public sentiment on VG, the country’s biggest newspaper, shows the public think they have a 31.9 per cent chance of qualifying. But the future of the national side is brighter than it has been for 25 years.