The 2020 Eliteserien is topped by the new stars of Norwegian football, Bodø Glimt. Despite finishing second last season, nobody expected Glimt to get anywhere near first place.
They had sold their best players and the additional burden of European football, yet Glimt won their opening 10 games, beat champions Molde 3-1 and opened up an even bigger lead than in 2019. Because of the Covid pandemic, crowds were limited to 200 until October, rising to 600 since, but it's a classic underdog story and media around the world are rushing to cover their success.
But Glimt have been on the radar for some time. In July 2019, Manchester United were due to play Kristiansund in a pre-season friendly in Oslo. Jan Age Fjortoft, the former Norway and Premier League striker, invited this writer for lunch in a hotel reception where a newspaper on the desk showed Bodø Glimt top of the table.
Fjortoft explained why a tiny club from the Arctic Circle sat there and not the usual suspects like Rosenborg, Molde, Valerenga or Brann Bergen. He described their fine youth system, a first team comprised mainly of local boys, talented management ... but that everyone expected Bodø to fall away.
The story warranted further research and it did not disappoint. Glimt – meaning "flash" – were top of the Norwegian league despite having to sell three of their best players to survive. Two more academy graduates were scheduled to be sold and would have followed Alex Tettey at Norwich City and Norway’s national team captain, Stefan Johansen, at Fulham.
Contact was made with Bodø, and people of interest in the city of 55,000, and a visit planned for the derby game against Tromsø – based a mere 350 miles and 10 hours to the north by road. Travel by train is not possible since Bodø is the most northerly point of Norway’s domestic train network. It’s the end of the line stop – or the start if you speak to locals.
Seven weeks later, my plane landed at Bodo’s surprisingly sizeable airport, which civilian planes share with NATO fighter jets. Bodø’s military history is a long one and it was heavily bombed in the Second World War.
The Berg brothers, Orjan and Runar, football royalty in Bodø, were waiting to say hello at the airport. When Norway's biggest tabloid VG compiled a derby day list of the 60 best players from Northern Norway, the Bergs took four of the top five places with grandfather Harald first and father Orjan second.
Harald, 79, was a superb striker who played for Lynn Oslo and scored twice against Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final. Both games were played in Barcelona because it was winter in Norway. Barca went through on away goals … in their home stadium.
There was time for a quick look around the city, which boasts one of the world’s strongest tidal currents located in the Atlantic. It’s a short walk to the Aspmyra Stadium to talk at greater length with the Bergs.
We passed a flag for Liverpool FC flying from a house. English football is hugely popular in Norway, where Liverpool and Manchester United have over 40,000 paid up members of their official supporters clubs – or more than one percent of the country’s entire population each. With more games on television both domestic and international, average attendances continue to decrease in the Eliteserien to just over 5,000.
At the stadium, there is a black and yellow flag depicting the Bergs as a mafia-style family, a tribute from The Yellow Hoard fan group, but they are a humble, gentle family whose home is a whiteboard house by the tiny city centre. Harald’s three sons played football in the grounds of the brewery opposite their home until a caretaker put a sign up saying ‘No Football Games’. That sign is now displayed proudly in the main stand of the Aspmyra.
Bodø’s home ground will win no awards for beauty. Four uneasily juxtaposed stands seat 7,354 – more than enough for their pre-lockdown average of 3,400 – the 13th best in a 16 team league, though the hardcore fanbase is a loyal one and the club stands at the heart of the community. Twenty pensioners meet every day in the main stand to socialise and help out.
That impressive main stand seats 3,000, there’s nothing behind one goal bar a block of apartments, open seating behind the other and an old stand built in 1963 set back on the opposite side of the field.
As well as that defeat to Barcelona, Harald explained how he had come back to Bodø to play the final seven years of his career until he was 40. When his Bodø side won the Norwegian cup in 1975, it was more than a trophy.
“They thought we were primitives up here,” explained Orjan, sporting director and former footballer of Bodø Glimt. “We were direct, we spoke our minds, but we were not primitive. They used to advertise flats for rent in Oslo but say ‘no people from the north of Norway’ on them. We were bullied, they thought that we were only farmers, fishermen and some still think that we are. We weren’t allowed to play in the national league until 1971 because they felt we couldn’t compete with teams from the south of Norway.
“That cup win gave us identity,” added Orjan's brother Runar, Glimt’s all-time appearance holder. Runar explained that after 1975, football surpassed skiing as the most popular sport in the north of Norway.
The third footballing brother, Arild, had passed away months earlier aged 43 after years of struggles with illness and injuries. “Arild chose to leave us,” read a statement from his family. The Berg family politely requested that we don’t speak about Arild; it was all too raw.
Orjan was a mainstay in Rosenborg’s success (the strongest team in Norwegian football for much of the last 25 years with 20 titles) and his son Patrick had broken into the Glimt first team and recently made his full Norway debut.
Unlike Patrick’s father’s generation, he can train indoor in the winter since before 1991, Glimt’s players trained in the snow with spikes on their boots. Now, the team play on an artificial surface and train on an indoor one in winter.
Bodø Glimt have never been Norwegian champions, but the team had finished second four times since 1977 and twice won the Norwegian cup. They also dipped between Norway’s top flight and second tier and have been relegated three times since 2005.
Given their history, nobody expected them to be at the top of the league in 2019.
“Everyone predicted them to go down,” said journalist Simen Pedersen, but they were top until the final third of the season, when serial winners Molde went past them.
“I’m a little bit surprised that we were second in the league, but we have really hungry players,” said manager Kjetil Knutsen, who arrived in 2017 after promotion and saw them finish 11th in 2018. “But the level in training has been high. We drew 14 games in 2018 but we needed to learn to win right from the pre-season.”
They did that, despite selling three of their best players the second place finish in November 2019 was celebrated, with the league places in Norway coveted as a gold, silver or bronze, all of which see a rare European foray.
So why were Bodø, with one of the smallest budgets – a tenth of the biggest Norwegian clubs – doing so well? As well as a good youth system where players come from all over the north of Norway, the team use a 4-3-3 system for every game. They press high, counter high and score a lot of goals. Players were bought to fit into their system, not necessarily because of their individual talents. They always think they can improve them and the manager buys into all of this.
“Kjetil Knutsen and Bodø Glimt is a very good match,” Orjan Berg said. Knutsen also pointed out one of the secrets of their success was taking some of the best players from Norway’s second tier where he’d worked for so long. Players were attracted to the club because they’d seen other Glimt stars move on. Glimt knew their place in the food chain and were not frustrated at losing their best players.
“Absolutely not,” Knutsen said. “Selling players to bigger clubs means that other players look at us and see us as a club where they can develop.”
Knutsen was focused, paid little attention to the media and the noise surrounding the club. He is able to concentrate on the job since his family were in Bergen, two flights away.
“I shut the noise out and focus on my job, to work hard every day,” he said. “If I start to read things it will disturb me. Social media? No chance, I don’t like it. My job is to develop players, to work hard.
“I’m a little bit lonely, but it allows me to focus. For me if you are giving 98 per cent then it’s not enough.”
Glimt set great store on the contribution of Bjorn Mannsverk, a former fighter pilot (there are no shortage of them locally and you can see and hear NATO jets taking off and skimming the nearby snow capped mountains). He has been the team’s mental coach since 2017 and players are open with him.
"He's very important, he partly explains why players reach their potential in Bodø Glimt," Orjan told The National this week. "He makes the players more free to perform. They don't think about scoring a goal, winning a game or keeping their place in the team. They are free to express themselves."
While the team are proud of recruiting locally and of their north of Norway identity, there are six British members of staff and English is the language spoken around the first team.
Gregg Broughton, formerly of Luton Town and Norwich City, is the academy director. He wanted a change of life with his family after 20 years of English football and liked how Glimt put young players in and around the first team.
First team physio is Liverpudlian Mike Brown who has worked with Hull City and Notts County. He and his family love living in the Arctic Circle amid the 24 hours of daylight in the summer (the opposite is true in the winter), though he’s sad he can’t use his Everton season ticket.
Tom Dent is a coach for the players aged 16-19. He’s also fluent in Norwegian and will take charge of a Norwegian second tier team in January. Everyone at Glimt is delighted for him.
Last season, Molde, who had lost their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the start of the pre-season, surged past Bodø and were champions – 14 points ahead of Glimt, who had lost their two top scorers to the Dutch and Egyptian league and won only two of their final 10 league games. They also lost their Brazilian goalkeeper Ricardo to the Turkish league.
Still, Knutsen was named manager of the year and the Holland-bound Kaon Evjen player and young player of the year. And Patrick Berg was becoming an international.
“He’s very good,” said his proud father, Orjan. “I played in the same position as him and I can see myself in some of the things he does. His passing quality is really excellent and he controls the game better than anyone in the family.”
Having a stadium with tiny stands has also helped, since fans can peer over them or stand on adjacent buildings. Glimt were unbeaten until the 21st league game and have won all 12 of their home games. They are now destined to win the league for the first time ever.
“Yes, we are surprised,” Orjan said. “But we have just done more of the same. “It’s a natural development. The team is a little better, the players a bit older and sharper. We lost players, just as we did in 2019 when we lost our captain, central midfielder and striker and top scorer. Before this 2020 season we lost a winger, midfielder and just replaced them with good players, some of them local, and we’re always looking to develop players.”
And Bodo Glimt do make players better.
“You have to work very hard,” Orjan said. “And the mentality is that when you speak to our players after the game, we don’t speak about results, only about performance.”
“They loaned Sondre Fet, a benched first division midfielder (from a struggling team) and he's been brilliant all season,” explained journalist Pedersen. "The system is the key to success here but if someone said they expected this before this season, I don't think people would believe them. I did not expect this. It’s an astonishing achievement to win the league.
"I'm amazed by what Kjetil Knutsen and the team has managed to do with this team, remarkable. Years back it wasn't that fun supporting Glimt, but now the entire country has fallen in love with them. To watch Bodø/Glimt in the Champions League next year would be surreal and is something I only thought was possible on Football Manager. Even there it's incredibly difficult.”
Glimt entered the Europa League this season and won their opening two matches before meeting AC Milan away in the third round qualifying. They did what any self-respecting minnow would do on their first trip to one of football’s great cathedrals and attacked Milan. They took the lead before losing 2-3.
“It’s the only game that I have ever re-watched in my entire career,” Orjan said. “When a game is over I’ve finished with it, but I rewatched the Milan game. We outplayed AC Milan in their own stadium in the last 15 minutes. It was pretty shocking to see AC Milan on their knees.”
Jens Petter Hauge, a 21-year-old winger who assisted both goals, became a target for Milan there and then. He moved to Milan last month on a five-year contract and has already played four games for the Rossoneri.
Orjan has known Hauge since he was 12 and was not surprised he moved to Milan. “He doesn’t have limits and nor do we. I’m so proud not just at our results but the way we are doing it. It’s a new step for Norwegian football.”
That new step has now been achieved: Glimt secured a 2-1 win at Strømsgodset on Sunday to become Norwegian champions for the first time.
Bodo’s 22 wins have put them level with Molde’s record for a season and they're only three points off the highest ever Norwegian total of 71 with five games still left to play.
Covid restrictions mean there can’t be a gathering to celebrate and the trophy won’t be presented until the final game on December 19, but excitement is high. Special drinks have been produced in the town, while the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra will record a special version of the song celebrating the north of Norway which is sung before every game.
Is Orjan confident that he can keep this team of champions together?
“I’m confident we WON’T keep it together,” he laughed. “We’re going to lose our best players and so many of them are so young. They’re 21 and 22 and they’re among the top players in Norway. That’s brilliant. We’re making dreams come true for players from the north of Norway.”