Anger, disappointment, expectation, nerves – all of these (and more) before a single ball is kicked. It could only be that clear sign that the Norwegian winter is nearly at an end – and a new Norwegian football season is beginning.
On Friday March 18, the Norwegian Premier League (known as Eliteserien, or Tippeligaen after its sponsor) was to kick off its new season with a match between the clubs of Sarpsborg and Molde. Several months ago, this fixture would never have been deemed such an obvious choice as a curtain-raiser, but all that changed when a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjær was appointed Molde’s new manager. Solskjær, who as a player became a legend at English giants Manchester United, is arguably the best-known Norwegian in the world. And now, finally, he is back in Norway.
For Norwegian football, it could not have come at a better time.
Its Premier League has hit something of a rough patch. After a number of fairly high-quality seasons, a series of top players during the past few years have left Norway for higher profile (and warmer) leagues in Germany, Italy, England and Spain, among others. The reasons for this are understandable – the higher the quality of the league, the more attention it attracts from richer and better clubs across the football-mad continent of Europe. The improved performance of Norway’s national team (landslaget) has also contributed to the sudden loss of top talent. These are the problems of success, and for any small footballing nation in the world, it means that the league’s fortunes will peak and trough. Now is almost certainly a trough, at least in terms of established talent on show.
Football on a Friday?
But that doesn’t mean that the footballing calendar isn’t beginning with a mixture of intrigue, interest and excitement. Beyond the international attention that Solskjær’s arrival has garnered, the fact that the new season is beginning on a particular day – Friday – is itself controversial. The new “Football Friday” initiative is much-loved by TV executives, but has met a mixed reaction from clubs and players alike, who are used to weekend matches. Whether the concept will attract greater interest from the public – and therefore more revenue – remains to be seen. For all their complaints, many Norwegian clubs could use the boost, as financial woes continue to dog many. The national football association itself is still coming to grips with the money-related problems, and just this week threatened a number of teams with point deductions in order to punish fiscal irresponsibility.
The particular day is not the only problem with the timing of the season. Many have complained that the games are starting too early in the calendar. With the snow and ice of the harsh Norwegian winter only just beginning to melt away, several teams and football personalities have wondered why the league organizers cannot wait a few weeks until the start of spring proper. The main reason offered for the early start is that the national team has a vital European Championship qualifying match on March 26, just after the first match of the season, and therefore this game can be a warm-up for the international players – but with more Norwegian internationals playing outside of Norway than inside these days, the majority of those involved in the Premier League are not convinced by the organizers’ logic.
Open, unpredictable and exciting
Despite this drama, there is some actual football to look forward to.
Champion club Rosenborg of Trondheim remains the class act in Norwegian football, and the team to beat. It will be an enormous surprise if any club comes close to Rosenborg – but Vålerenga, which plays in Oslo and finished a runner-up last year, will no doubt push them as far as they can, and it is not impossible to imagine the halo over Rosenborg crashing to the ground in the right circumstances.
In fact, beyond these two top teams, the league is as wide open as the Norwegian wilderness. There are around 10 clubs that could, with a bit of luck, join or even eclipse Vålerenga in offering Rosenborg a challenge, but if they are unlucky, they could end up in a scrap for their Premier League survival at the wrong end of the table. There are no “safe” teams, no one is “too big to fail,” everyone must be on their toes, at all times, to avoid slipping up.
It is this openness, and uncertainty, that makes the Norwegian domestic competition so exciting and unpredictable. There are no talents in the league anywhere near as big as Lionel Messi; they are no stars with even a fraction of the international celebrity of David Beckham; but there is a small pack of honest, modest football teams, all looking to make a name for themselves, and all with everything to play for.
From Friday, the curtain falls on the pre-season circus – and it is, simply, game on.