The best place to take the temperature of a nation’s love of football is always in the schoolyard, and in Norway there has been a sea change. Partly it’s the colors – sky blue is everywhere these days – but more subtly is the fact that, more than ever, there are Norwegian names on the back of children’s jerseys.
The country has always loved English football since it acquired the television rights in the 1960s, and the Premier League is something of an obsession. But the fact that two of the main players in this year’s compelling title race are playing for the Norwegian national team has made things personal. Martin Odegaard is the captain of Arsenal; Erling Haaland is the superstar of Manchester City. And on Wednesday night they collide in the heart of a game at the Etihad Stadium that will likely decide who wins the Premier League.
Odegaard’s rise was sudden and then stuttering. He grew up in Drammen, a small town 20 miles west of Oslo, where he caught the eye of coaches from the age of 11. His father, Hans Erik Odegaard, was also a footballer and Martin played for his father’s coaching team before joining top local club Stromsgodset aged 13.
He made his professional league debut at the age of 15 and was soon courted by top clubs including Manchester United and indeed Arsenal. He chose Real Madrid but struggled to make his mark at the world’s biggest club and a series of loans followed.
One of those loans was to Arsenal. “I spoke to Mikel Arteta on a Zoom call and he told me all about the project,” Odegaard wrote in Players’ Tribune. “At the time, Arsenal were not doing well. They were way down like 15th on the table, but that meeting… I honestly defy anyone to walk out of a meeting with Arteta and not believe everything he tells you.
“He told me his plan, everything he was building. He knew exactly what he needed to change at the club. He told me all about these amazing young players on the team: Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe, etc. He told me how he wanted me to fit in and how he was going to improve.
“I had this strong feeling that I was onto something really special.”
That loan became a permanent transfer two summers ago and it’s certainly been special ever since, with Odegaard taking over the captaincy and playing virtually every minute as Arsenal’s chief midfield creator this season. And in any other era, he would be Norway’s top star.
This, however, is the era of Haaland. Even Odegaard is in the shadow of Haaland. It is Haaland who fills the last pages of Norwegian newspapers, and although Odegaard is their national captain and Haaland his vice, it is the giant striker who really carries the weight of the expectation. After almost a quarter of a century without qualifying for a major competition, Norway expects – even demands – that they reach Euro 2024.
Haaland also had a footballer father and was born in Leeds while Alfie Inge Haaland was playing for the club. The family returned to their hometown of Bryne, a small town near the west coast of Norway. when Erling was three years old. He was a sporting phenomenon from a very young age, setting records in the long jump and dominating on the handball court, but it was his goals on the soccer field that marked him out as truly exceptional.
Like Odegaard, Haaland made his league debut at 15, but his journey diverged from there. While Odegaard followed the bright lights to Real Madrid, Haaland took a more low-key step to one of Norway’s top clubs, Molde, where he became their top scorer and won the league’s young player of the year award.
Carefully guided by his father, Haaland took a steady path, spending a prolific year in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg (28 goals in 22 games), and then three outstanding seasons with Borussia Dortmund (86 goals in 89 games), a club of great renown. for giving young talent the opportunity to flourish on the European stage. Manchester City called, and 48 goals in 42 games, with the chance of winning an historic treble, would suggest it has worked out pretty well so far.
Haaland remains almost permanently linked with a move to Real Madrid, the club he dreamed of playing for as a child. Perhaps Odegaard can also finish one day at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, with a point to prove. They certainly mesh well for Norway and have a good relationship, always speaking fondly of each other – Odegaard and Haaland need each other as much as their country needs them.
But at least for now they are enemies in one of the most captivating Premier League title races in years. Norway is as trapped as Manchester and North London. Whoever wins will decide the color that will fill the school patios in the coming months.