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ON THE RISE

Why Norway’s national team could be the Belgium of the 2020s

2020 was supposed to be Erling Braut Haaland’s year.

Having joined Borussia Dortmund in January, the 19-year-old striker was seemingly on the cusp of a brilliant breakout season; a hat-trick on his Dortmund debut, a brace against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, the Bundesliga Player of the Month.

Next up, in March, all eyes would be on him as he lead Norway’s attack in their Euro 2020 qualifying play-off game against Serbia.

But by then of course, the footballing world was forced to stop in it’s tracks amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

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Despite the momentary pause, Norway is at the start of something special with a new generation of exciting talent coming through.

With manager Lars Lagerback at the helm – who famously took Iceland to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 at the expense of England – they finished in third-place in their Euro 2020 qualifying group, behind Spain and Sweden.

Norway haven’t played in a major tournament since Euro 2000, where a team that included the likes of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Henning Berg and Tore Andre Flo were knocked out in the group stages.

Since then they’ve been forced to sit back and watch while their neighbours across the Scandinavian Peninsula – Sweden, Denmark and even Iceland – have enjoyed relative success and recognition on the international stage.

But that could be about to change.

Old guard

EPA
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Old guard

Momentum was with them ahead of their crunch play-off tie, with Haaland in red hot goal-scoring form – including 10 goals in the Champions League with Salzburg and Dortmund.

The other genuine star-name of Lagerback’s side is Martin Odegaard, the Real Madrid playmaker who’s currently on a season-long loan at Real Sociedad.

Having impressed with Dutch sides Heerenveen and Vitesse, the 21-year-old is set to spend two years in San Sebastian, although a mighty run of form could see Madrid try to recall the midfielder back to the Santiago Bernabeu a year early.

A current WhoScored rating of 7.29 is backed up by four goals and five assists, while statisticians claim he’s the best playmaker in La Liga this season having been involved in 65% of Sociedad’s goals.

With Madrid’s midfield stalwarts Luka Modric and Toni Kroos each the wrong-side of 30, Odegaard is being earmarked as Real’s next long-term midfielder and he could be widely considered one of the world’s best players in just a few years time.

Making play

Getty - Contributor
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Making play

With two potential world class talents in their line-up, Norway could suddenly find themselves thrust onto the international scene in the next few years – in much the same way Belgium was just 10 years ago.

Like Norway, Belgium were serial-underachievers and missed out on five successive major finals from Euro 2004 until Euro 2012, before their sudden rise in profile thanks to a ‘golden generation’ of talent that included familiar names like Vincent Kompany, Moussa Dembele, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and, more recently, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne.

Red Devils

Getty Images - Getty
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Red Devils

While Norway might not have the same level of players about to break through into their first team, there is still much promise in their team.

Alongside Haaland and Odegaard, striker Joshua King is well-known among regular Premier League watchers as one of the best forwards outside of the traditional top six, while midfielder Sander Berge was linked to a host of big clubs and eventually moved to Sheffield United in January.

Further back, towering defender Kristoffer Ajer has been making a name for himself at Celtic – the club that helped fellow centre-back Virgil van Dijk on his path to greatness – while full-backs Haitam Aleesami and Omar Elabdellaoui are solid and experienced.

Next big thing

Alamy Live News
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Next big thing

Of course, Norway must first qualify for the European Championships, which are set to take place in the summer of 2021.

Serbia will prove to be tough opponents in their play-off game – whenever that might take place.

Sterner tests will come for one of the world’s most exciting and up-and-coming international sides.