With more Norwegian players leaving every week, Ole P Pedersen explains why the player drain to the English league is causing concern back home
I never thought I would see Norwegian footballers be a major part of English football. But there are now more Norwegian internationals than Scottish in the Premiership: cheap, solid footballers who can run all day, never drink and accept lower wages than their British compatriots.
Post-Bosman, young and talented footballers are streaming out of Norway, in order to get the chance to make some money. Even though a new TV deal, European success for Rosenborg and Brann and a few fatcats are bringing kroner into Norwegian football, a player can still make more in Austria than in Norway, never mind the Premiership.
Players had been leaving Norway for professional contracts elsewhere from the 1950 onwards, but the big export drive only really began at the end of the 1980s. At first, the exodus was welcomed by coaches and supporters. Lillestrom, one of the top clubs of the past two decades, were the prime exporter; their target being to sell one player every season, including Gunnar Halle, Henning Berg and Ronny Johnsen.
But, during the last year, praise has turned to worry. 19- and 20-year-olds are leaving their roots, only to travel to a new club where they more often than not end up on the bench. Clubs lose their star players, and this could lead to a decline in standards.
Clubs either have to promote junior players too early, or have to pay for new players of a lesser quality than the ones that got away. As a result, games will be poorer and spectators will stay away; preferring to watch TV coverage of Solskjaer scoring for Man United or Kvarme defending for Liverpool.
Nils Arne Eggen, the Rosenborg coach, think that Steffen Iversen joined Tottenham two years too soon. By staying at Rosenborg, Iversen would not only have got the chance to play European football, but as the resident star would get maximum attention from the coaches and be able to improve further as a player.
Concern about a decline on the horizon comes when results are good. In March, Rosenborg entertain Juventus in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, while Brann play Liverpool in the Cup Winners’ Cup, having already knocked out PSV Eindhoven. (Only once before has a Norwegian side reached the last eight; Lyn from Oslo in the late Sixties.)
Rosenborg are the dominant club, reaping the benefits of ten years of hard work. Nils Arne Eggen, a former player appointed as coach in 1988, has since led the side to seven titles in nine seasons. They have not done this by producing their own players; in fact, Rosenborg does not have any under-age sides at all; only a junior side and two senior teams. When players in the region reach 14 or 15, they are regularly monitored by Rosenborg. Iversen, played for small clubs in Trondheim before he came to Rosenborg as a junior. Unlike England, clubs get hold of players from the age of about seven. Organized school football is quite rare (even though football is played widely in PE and free time), but tournaments are staged for clubs and County XIs.
With Norway being a vast country, it is difficult for the top level sides to keep track of the promising youngsters. Most have a youth scheme, but very few have notable success. The FA try to improve this, by appointing a group of national coaches responsible for training youth coaches in different parts of the country. Often, though, the best junior work is done at small clubs. Clausenengen from Kristiansund, for example, have produced two of the very best Norwegian footballers lately, Leonhardsen and Solskjaer: they had the same coach, but also the will to develop their talent.
Clubs taking the care to invest in good coaches who can instil a sound training regime with the emphasis on developing players with both skill and attitude is one of the reasons so many Norwegians have appeared on the international scene in the last few years. Strange, then, that this is not mirrored in the national side. Their tactics of trying to bore the opponents to sleep during the 1994 World Cup didn’t work, but after three straight wins, including Switzerland away, the team is again on course for an appearance in the World Cup in 1998.
Egil Olsen, the national coach, has a quite scientific approach to the game. Nothing is left to chance with the national side. Several times a season, the players has to do tests, including oxygen intake, speed, blood samples and body fat. Records are kept, and so Olsen knows that Leonhardsen, for example, is both the quickest player, and the one with the best stamina.
These tests are useless taken only once, but when Olsen has a data series, he can monitor a player’s physical progress, which could help explain, for example, a sudden change of form. Olsen also has an assistant who analyzes every game the national side plays. Each player is told that he had so-and-so many touches, made so-and-so many runs, did this and that. Olsen doesn’t always get it right, however; he claims that converting chances is based on luck and coincidence. That should mean that Andy Cole and Alan Shearer could score the same number of goals over a given period, given the same chances. Unlikely, I know.
Despite the backbone of his side earning their living in England, Olsen has described the Premiership as “the most overrated league in the world”. But Olsen is rarely criticized for such remarks. As far as Norwegians are concerned his results speak for themselves, and, just as in the Jack Charlton era in the Republic of Ireland, journalists who do offer criticism tend to be cold-shouldered.
There is, however, a debate in Norway about Olsen’s football philosophy. Belting balls as far as possible, introducing the 6ft 5in winger and the marathon men in midfield is not what you could call a blueprint for exciting football. Even so, several coaches are copying these tactics at club level, although Rosenborg have dominated Norwegian football for ten years playing in an attacking, pass and move style (it’s a policy laid down by the board; the club’s obligation to the supporters, they say, is to entertain).
With indoor pitches being built, training facilities are improving. At the top level, gone are the days of the feared ice studs you needed on the cold winter days, when the gravel pitch looked more like a skating rink. To improve technique, the Norwegian FA banned full scale pitches for young players a few years ago, introducing 7-a-side football. On smaller pitches, the point of hoofing the ball 50 yards forward more or less disappeared, every player got more involved, and passing the ball became the obvious way of playing.
So, while the Old Trafford faithful are practising their cries of “Ole” and Blackburn supporters applaud another Berg clearance, clubs back home are taking on a big job; to keep producing good players who people will pay to watch, before they, too, are shipped abroad.
From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month