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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

U21s show Drillos how it’s done

The Norwegian national football team for young players (U21 landslaget) didn’t win their European Championships in Israel on Saturday, but still caught lots of attention in football circles by coming ahead of the likes of Germany and England to claim third place.

Harmeet Singh, who plays his football for Dutch side Feyenoord, is just one of the players who has been vital to the U-21s' success in Israel. PHOTO: Benutzer Steindy / Wikimedia Commons
Harmeet Singh, who plays football for Dutch side Feyenoord, is just one of the players who has been vital to the Norwegian U21s’ success in Israel. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons/´Benutzer Steindy

U21 landslaget was comfortably defeated by the championship holder and favoured national team from Spain in their semi-final match. Nonetheless, while pessimism increasingly surrounds the full national team known as “Drillos” after coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen, Norway’s up-and-coming youngsters are now the talk of European football following their impressive displays. Their own coach, Tor Ole Skullerud, also got lots of the credit, and lots of media attention over the past week.

An unexpected thrill
Under-21s’ football is seen as an opportunity for young, talented footballers to gain experience on the international stage before progressing to full international sides. Those who are 21 and under at the beginning of qualifying are eligible to play until the end of the tournament finals.

Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who plays for Molde, also played an important role during the U21 European Championships. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/
Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who plays for Molde, also played an important role during the U21 European Championships. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/

Norway’s under-21s reached the finals in Israel after an impressive qualifying campaign over the past two years, which culminated in victory over France to join European giants like Spain, Italy and Holland in the tournament.

The Norwegians were drawn in a tough group, alongside the hosts Israel, an England side full of budding Premier League stars and an equally-fancied Italian outfit. After being unlucky to only draw against Israel in their opening game, in which numerous refereeing decisions went against Norway’s U21 squad, the players rallied to shock their bigger-name rivals England in a thrilling 3-1 victory. A draw against the Italians in their final group game, which Norway was just seconds away from winning, earned them the semi-final tie against the formidable Spaniards. Like most other nations in the tournament, the Norwegians had no answer to Spain’s dominant possession football, though, losing 3-0.

Vindication for the ‘revolution’
Receiving the bronze medal remains a huge boost to Norwegian football and a vindication of an increased focus on youth development. The Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) is also keen to help these maturing players as their careers continue, especially with top clubs in England and on the continent making lucrative transfer offers.

More than 100 big-name clubs were said to be following developments at the tournament in Israel. Nils Johan Semb, head of NFF, spoke to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) about the potential “revolution” this breakthrough could cause, promising to help “continue the development” of players as they moved on to the next stage of their careers. One of the most sought-after players on the team, midfielder Stefan Johansen, described how his “exciting generation” was something Norway “has missed for awhile,” while brushing off rumours linking him to English Premier League club Everton.

Looming talent drain
In some respects, the success of the U21s may be a double-edged sword. While the likes of Johansen will soon grace the full international side, which is badly in need of reinvigoration after an underwhelming World Cup qualifying campaign so far, many currently play their football in the Norwegian league and may leave. Another midfield talent, Magnus Wolff Eikrem, is expected to leave Norwegian champions Molde very soon following his superb displays in Israel. With the Norwegian league already suffering from the loss of its biggest names, the drain away may now accelerate.

Many Norwegian football fans will be forgiven for seeing this as a price worth paying for success. Indeed, many of the U21 team’s best players at the championships already ply their trade at foreign clubs in Germany, Holland and Belgium. Several have also already been picked for the full international side. Although the tournament ended on a sour note with news that striker Marcus Pedersen had been the victim of a random attack in an Israeli night club on the night of their final game, the future seems brighter for Norwegian football.

Views and News from Norway/Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

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