NEWS ANALYSIS: Embattled Norwegian football bosses won a reprieve after the men’s national team finally won a match heading into the weekend. As they prepared to face Germany Monday night, though, the drama surrounding both men’s and women’s football continued to escalate, not least after the powerful men in charge were accused of being arrogant under fire from star player Ada Hegerberg.
Spirits rose among players, fans and not least football’s vast male-dominated bureaucracy when the men’s team beat Azerbaijan 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier on home turf at Ullevaal Stadium Friday night. The victory came too late to boost Norway’s chances of getting into the World Cup itself, but it was a badly needed victory if only to boost morale. Commentators noted that the men’s team played better than their opponents from Azerbaijan in all aspects, and that raised hopes for fans and new coach Lars Lagerbäck. He’s widely viewed as the only bright spot in Norwegian football at present, and his goal is to finally get the men into championship competition for the first time since 2000.
After the women were knocked out of qualifications for their own European Championships next year, the country’s goal now is the men’s European Championships in 2020 (Euro2020). Even Germany’s coach Joachim Löw said before receiving the Norwegian men in Stuttgart Monday night that thinks they’ll do much better under Lagerbäck’s leadership. Löw said on Sunday that the Norwegian men underperformed during their unsuccessful run-up to the World Cup, and that Lagerbäck can pull them put of their slump.
Football bosses under fire again
The future is not so bright for Norway’s other football bosses, after another round of conflict and criticism, this time involving Hegerberg last week. It got so bad that football commentator Ola Bernhus wrote in newspaper Aftenposten during the weekend that he hopes Lagerbäck can also “pound some humility” into the men running Norway football federation NFF. It’s needed, after Hegerberg, who plays professionally for Lyon and recently won awards as best football player in Europe and the world, got so frustrated with them over their allegedly poor communication with players and unwillingness to accept or respond to criticism that she withdrew from the women’s national football team last week.
That shock was followed by more, when the men at NFF responded first by saying they couldn’t understand Hegerberg’s decision and then by all but insulting her. Pål Bjerketvedt, secretary general of NFF, dismissed Hegerberg’s critcism by claiming there was indeed room for criticism and free exchange of opinion within Norwegian football. He went on to call her decision, at the age of 22, to quit the national team as “unwise.”
Terje Svendsen, president of NFF, insisted that “all groups” were being heard in an evaluation of what went wrong in the Euro2017 run-up. Then an irritated Nils Johan Semb, who carries the title “top football chief” in Norway, followed up with an attack on Hegerberg because she had allowed herself the right to criticize them without being concrete enough. Bjerketvedt agreed, calling her criticism “rough and tough” but “not concrete enough that we can clearly respond to it. We are a bit surprised her criticism is coming now, and not earlier.”
It all left the impression, according to Bernhus, that the administrative leaders of football in Norway don’t think they’ve made any mistakes. They claim their preparations for the women’s Euro2017 (which failed badly) were good enough, that all players were free to offer their opinions and that there was nothing to criticize. Others disagree, to put it mildly, which is why Norwegian football has been characterized as “in crisis” for months, even years, on end.
‘Change in culture’
It’s far from the first time that sports bosses in Norway have been called “arrogant” and much too powerful. In football, the men have been lurching from crisis to crisis for years in a slide that some link to a “change in the culture” among both players and managers that began in the early 2000s. Well-respected former heroes like Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ståle Solbakken are quoted in a new book about the national team by journalist Birger Løfadli as saying that former top players like John Carew and John Arne Riise lacked leadership abilities and did not take their roles on the national team seriously enough. Riise is quoted as saying that “it’s possible I was both spoiled, overpaid and newly wealthy,” but told newspaper VG that it was “the greatest honor of my career to get to play for the national team.” He said he was “hurt” by the criticism from two of Norway’s most-respected “football profiles” in history, and linked his purchase of a Ferrari, his expensive watches, “strange” haircut and tattoos as being “a young guy who was a product of his surroundings” and the opportunities he received.
NFF sponsors are now complaining about the huge gap between the money spent on men’s football as compared to women’s football. Top officials of Norsk Tipping, the state lottery system that supports sports in Norway, recently wrote that Norwegian football “can’t be best-served” by the inequality between the two branches. From an early age, they claimed, girls’ and boys’ interests must be handled more equally.
‘No hard feelings’?
Hegerberg and many others in Norway were even more upset by the NFF men’s reaction to her criticism, and that they claimed they were “surprised” by her decision to quit the national team. They’d had plenty of warnings about her discontent. “When they publicly claim they haven’t heard (earlier) criticism, or that I hadn’t raised questions, it’s not to be believed,” Hegerberg, who has excelled abroad but felt she “didn’t fit” into Norway’s own team, told state broadcaster NRK. “The problem isn’t that they don’t understand, or that this was a shock, but over whether they’ll recognize the points and criticism I have lodged. It’s up to them to take this seriously. There’s nothing more to say about it.”
Football followers like Bernhus think the NFF men in charge need to say a lot more, admit they have problems and then fix them instead of making them worse. He called on Semb early last summer to show more leadership and lift Norwegian football out of its “dark hole.” The victory over Azerbaijan Friday night helped, but many claim the men at the top still need a reality check. Bjerketvedt, the secretary general of NFF, said he hoped Hegerberg would return to the women’s national team, adding there would be “no hard feelings” from his side. He arguably should be more receptive to the feelings that remain very hard on her side.
(UPDATE: The Norwegian men’s team ended up being humiliated in Stuttgart Monday night with a 6-0 loss to the German team. More calls went out for the resignation of football chief Semb but he rejected them, at least for now.)