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Can Haaland and Odegaard take Norway back to international prominence?

As Erling Haaland and Martin Odegaard prepare to face each other when Arsenal take on Manchester City in a huge game in the Premier League title race on Wednesday, back in their native Norway there is optimism that the star duo are about to make the country a footballing force again.

Not since Euro 2000 have Norway qualified for a major tournament, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Tore Andre Flo were leading their attack.

Odegaard was 18 months old and Haaland had not yet been born as Norway defeated Spain but failed to make it beyond their group.

That was the end of the country’s footballing heyday, after Norway had reached successive World Cups, defeating Brazil en route to the last 16 at France 98.

But things appear to be changing, with the national team reaching the play-offs for Euro 2020 and falling just short in their attempt to make last year’s World Cup.

Qualifying for Euro 2024 begins next month and Norway appear slight favourites ahead of Scotland to come through their group alongside Spain.

Haaland, 22, has dominated headlines in the Premier League where he is the top scorer by a distance, averaging over a goal a game for City since signing from Borussia Dortmund.

Barely 16 when he joined Real Madrid, Odegaard struggled to live up to the hype there but is now leading Arsenal’s charge for the Premier League title.

“Martin Odegaard, what a player, what a season. World class. He is a leader on the pitch for Arsenal. Great for them, great for Norwegian football,” Roar Stokke, a commentator for broadcaster Viaplay, tells AFP.

“Odegaard and Haaland are such an inspiration for other players and an inspiration for Norwegian football.

Stokke makes the point that two world-class players is simply “a good start” for Norway and that they need a strong team around them, which may now be emerging.

The national team, ranked 43rd in the world, have a pool of players performing in some of Europe’s leading leagues.

‘Positive vibes’

Among them is Julian Ryerson, the 25-year-old right-back who recently joined Dortmund from Union Berlin.

Alexander Sorloth, 27, has been in excellent goal-scoring form for Real Sociedad, although how the big striker can play in the same team as Haaland remains to be seen.

Then there is coach Stale Solbakken, formerly of Wolverhampton Wanderers and who took over in late 2020.

“There are a lot of positive vibes around the team and I think the manager is a factor,” Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a former sporting director at local club IK Start who has carried out the same role at Monaco and Israeli outfit Maccabi Haifa, tells AFP.

“Solbakken might not have produced results just yet but he is still a very positive, engaging figurehead. He dares to be ambitious and does expect us to qualify.”

The national team is undoubtedly on the up, but what about the domestic league?

It is 15 years since a Norwegian club made the Champions League group stage, when Rosenborg of Trondheim held Chelsea away, bringing an end to Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge.

Bodo/Glimt, the modest club from north of the Arctic Circle, came close to reaching the Champions League proper this year, losing in the play-offs.

New TV deal

Their performances in Europe, and those of current champions Molde, are encouraging, as is the fact that the Eliteserien -– which starts in April and runs through the summer -– recently agreed a new six-year television deal with domestic broadcaster TV2 reportedly worth over $500 million.

Yet keeping talented players for long is a challenge.

Haaland starred for Molde before joining Red Bull Salzburg at 18. Odegaard only played a handful of games for Stromsgodset.

The latest transfer window saw several Norwegian sides sell players abroad for large fees, including Ivorian forward David Datro Fofana, who joined Chelsea for up to £10 million ($12m) from Molde.

Stokke says the size of the country and the climate are obvious handicaps.

“The population in Norway is around five million. Winter is for four to five months and our football season is shorter than anywhere else,” he points out.

Meanwhile the current struggles of record 26-time champions Rosenborg perhaps do not help.

“If one club has the infrastructure and the draw and the culture of possibly getting back into the Champions League and staying there it is them but there is a serious rebuild to be done there,” says Karlsen.


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