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Norway wheeze to an unsatisfying World Cup conclusion

Glorious history, meh present, Norway can be so much more

Norway v England: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

With a historical dominance when it’s comes to women’s football, it’s no secret that Norway have been in relative disarray for a long time. Maybe it’s too much to ask consistent greatness from a nation of less than 6 million, but there is no question, the footballing nous possessed by Scandinavians usually makes up for their diminutive populace.

The country has effortlessly produced all-time great like Hege Riise, Ann Kristin Aarønes and Bente Nordby. The players have usually been brought up on a diet of football, with the English Premier League a household staple for Norwegians. A simple love of the game enough to drive young girls into youth teams and onto the domestic league (Toppserien).

In years past this was enough to ensure quality players with somewhere to ply their trade albeit, in a part time fashion. But as those players have aged and retired, the league not developing along with the rest of Europe, the NFF (Norges Fotballforbund) have sat on their hands, letting the team sag.

Formerly a frequenter of major tournament finals, the Football Girls have been left behind. Enjoying a short boom under Eli Landsem after failures with Åge Steen and Bjarne Berntsen (whose poor man-management put the kibosh on what could have been a successful tenure) at the helm, the team has usually done well to reach the later stages, however unconvincingly. After the 2013 European championships when a fresh crop of players were breaking into the team, the heartbreak of losing the final to Germany didn’t seem so grave; the future nothing but bright. The team should have gone from strength to strength under Even Pellerud – the man in charge for part of Norway’s most prosperous run – but things turned sour.

More changes at the top

The 2015 World Cup was a jarring one for Norway, 2011 still held their most disappointing finish at a World Cup [as they failed to get out of the group] but in a balmy day in Canada, the Scandinavians unravelled. There was no Plan B, barely any substance or style for the team to call upon as England overturned a deficit to run out 2-1 winners. Pellerud’s second spell at the wheel was over as Norway said goodbye to experience on the pitch too, with a routine round of retirements that followed the end of a major. Trine Rønning, Solveig Gulbrandsen and Lene Mykjåland departed as Norway looked to rebuild.

The man tasked to rebuild, Roger Finjord, lasted a year before being ousted.

His eventual replacement, Martin Sjögren started out well enough with the squad. With an initial goal of reaching the 2020 Olympics, a tournament Norway had long been absent from, Sjögren’s first year in charge was not without issue. The 2017 Euros were a wash-out, the team failed to get out of the group stage for the second time in their history, not earning a point or scoring a single goal over the three matches.

Even through the ups and downs in their history, the Euros were where Norway flourished and even in 1997, when the Football Girls didn’t progress from the group, they still managed to pick up a win [as well as a draw] and score five goals. But 2017 was the black mark against the team, the fall-out something that’s been dragged and drawn out ever since.

With all the focus on Ada Hegerberg, those within the squad have been peripheral, the conversation around Norway hashed and rehashed, talking about the absent star. Her absence the repeated line, her complaints about the culture in the team and lack of room for expression often forgotten.

France

Having navigated the banana-skin qualification group with the European champions, Norway looked… okay. The team had turned a mental corner in besting the Netherlands but their performances on the pitch still left questions unanswered. Too many players were played out of position, blunted during matches, others out of form but preferred to those performing at club level.

On the surface, the team’s results were okay, not brilliant but maybe not cause for concern but if you looked deeper, the issues were there. With Caroline Graham Hansen, Guro Reiten, Ingrid Syrstad Engen et all in the team, they should have been running teams ragged – even accepting their defence was an Achilles heel – yet they weren’t. One of the brightest prospects in Toppserien, Reiten was barely noticeable in a Norway shirt, Graham Hansen often struggled, trying to be both a winger and a centre forward at the same time, the Wolfsburg woman the poster girl for Norwegian woso after the departure of Hegerberg.

A stubborn manager – or just a manger willing to give something all the chance in the world to work – Sjögren would often persist with ideas that didn’t work. His squad selection and formations proof enough.

An iffy team, few expected Norway to reach the quarter finals this summer – going one better than 2015 – and although their performances weren’t always the best, they seemed to be growing in the tournament. However, failing to knock Australia out within 90 minutes (and not for want of opportunities), the team looked mentally and physically exhausted by the time they faced off against England in Le Havre. Putting in their worst performance of the tournament, the team whimpered out of the World Cup, barely making a sound as England ran them over.

The key influencers for the Football Girls all but invisible against the Lionesses, the brightest spark, one of the younger players called up by Sjögren. Battling the tide, Karina Sævik did all she could against a team of professionals, the part-time 23-year-old without help from her teammates.

Norway v England: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Lining up against 11 full time professionals, the team Sjögren put out contained four pros, three of who lined up in the backline, two naturally out of position. The gap between the nation of less than 5.5 million, with a subpar home league, against a team from a nation ten-times as big, with a booming home league. Part-timers against full-timers, the result should have been a foregone conclusion but the gap between the potential of the two was nowhere near as big as the scoreline. The Norwegians still the more technically proficient nation, with the more naturally gifted players.

With Tokyo 2020 in mind at the end of 2016, the team’s failure to be one of the last three UEFA teams standing means they’ll be away from the showpiece sporting event for a third successive tournament.

Sub-par in France, the team and the managerial structures will have questions to answer over the coming months. It might well be a reach to say that this Norway team – including the younger players breaking through in Toppserien – could go on and win a World Cup, but there is no question the team is far better than they’ve shown. Whether there persists a stifled climate with little room for takhøyde – as suggested by players over the years – or not, from the outside looking in, something just isn’t right about the under-performing team.