Unlikely team wins coveted Cup

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Ever heard of Hødd? Not many people in Norway had either, before the football team from Ulsteinvik, a small town of barely 8,000 inhabitants in Møre og Romsdal county, defeated top-flight Tromsø IL, the clear favourite, to win the Norwegian Cup Final in men’s football in Oslo on Sunday.

Victorious Hødd players celebrated both in Oslo and at home in Ulsteinvik Sunday night. PHOTO: Ulsteinvik kommune

The final of the Norgesmesterskap (“Norwegian Championship,” usually referred to as Cuppen or NM) is held at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo and is traditionally attended by the king and other luminaries. The winners of Cuppen – which pits teams from different leagues against each other in a series of knockout rounds – are given the title of “Norwegian Football Champions.”

Since it’s a cup and therefore not based on a season’s record of wins and losses, it can more easily be won by underdogs – and two weeks ago it seemed that this year’s champions might not even make it to the cup, much less claim victory over Tromsø, which has played almost exclusively  in the Norwegian premier division, known as toppserien, since 1986.

The win has been described as “sensational” and the team’s coach, Lars Arne Nilsen, called the experience “unreal.”

“Fourteen days ago we expected that we’d maybe be playing second-division (the third tier in the Norwegian football system) and possibly even losing in the Cup Final,” Nilsen admitted to NRK with a smile. He noted that there is “quite a contrast” between playing against other hyper-local teams around Ålesund and the chance to qualify for next season’s Europa League, which is what second-tier (Norwegian first division) IL Hødd now has to look forward to after beating Tromsø IL 5-3 with penalty kicks at Ullevaal Stadium on Sunday.

In a typical display of Northern Norwegian gallows humor, Tromsø newspaper Nordlys went for an entirely black front page on Monday, with text reading, “We were actually supposed to celebrate Tromsø IL’s gold cup here – but we didn’t have a Plan B.” They thereby followed the example of Trondheim’s and Bergen’s biggest newspapers, which have previously covered their first pages with black to mourn similar shocking losses by their local teams, Rosenborg and Brann respectively.

Hødd’s 22-year-old keeper Ørjan Håskjold Nyland was hailed as the biggest hero of the evening. After Nyland’s fantastic saves both throughout the match and during the decisive penalty kick round, he received the award for Best Player of the Cup Final from the Norwegian Football Association. Nyland’s contract with Hødd is soon expiring, and his performance Sunday night brought him several good offers. Nilsen has been Nyland’s coach ever since he was a young adolescent, and admits that the driven goalkeeper deserves to play in the elite series. “He can be the next keeper for our national team,” says Nilsen proudly.

‘Young and dumb’
As if Hødd weren’t underdog enough simply by being a second-tier team from a tiny spot near Ålesund, they also just barely managed to maintain their second-tier status by a margin of two goals on the final day of the season. During the Cup Final on Sunday, Hødd maintained a slender one-goal lead until the last three minutes of the game, when Tromsø’s Saliou Ciss made it a 1-1 draw and forced extra time. With no goals in the extra period the game went to penalties, which was when Nyland, blocked Tromsø’s third try from Remi Johansen and watched Ciss miss the goal entirely on Tromsø’s fourth and final effort. Hødd’s substitute player Andreas Rekdal took the final spot kick, which sailed into goal and secured the team’s first-ever gold cup.

“Apparently, nobody told Hødd that they didn’t have a chance to win,” wrote Aftenposten’s sports commentator. When such a small-town team as Hødd becomes Norway’s football champion, it shows “not only that Norway is a strange country for football, but that football is a strange game.”

The combination of “ingrown football culture, good organization, unlimited effort and a hero like Nyland” was enough to make the impossible, possible, it seemed. Tromsø may be the better team, wrote Aftenposten, but that doesn’t mean that Hødd didn’t deserve its reward after an enormous amount of effort and solid performances by its key players. Hødd right-fielder Pål André Helland, the team’s overall top scorer in the cup with six goals, had joked to VG before the finale that his team had a small advantage in that they were “young and dumb” and therefore confident enough to believe that they could win, against all odds.

Views and News from Norway/Emily Williams

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