Football coach revives spirits

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He was plagued by the loss of injured players as he headed this weekend into one of the Norwegian national men’s football team most important matches in years. Head coach Ståle Solbakken still thinks his revived squad can “surprise” Turkey’s national team, as they battle for a spot in the World Championships.

Ståle Solbakken, head coach (manager) of Norway’s men’s national football team, at a press conference earlier this season. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Solbakken, who’s done wonders since taking charge of the Norwegian men’s landslaget last December, didn’t expect the powerful Turkish national team to underestimate Norway.

“Turkey’s ‘issue’ is that they of course have prepared themselves, given their acknowledgment that one of our players (Erling Braut Haaland) is one of the world’s most talked-about, and another (Alexander Sørloth) is one of Turkey’s most talked-about players,” Solbakken said at a press briefing earlier this week.

Now both Haaland, who dominated the qualifier against Gibraltar by scoring three of five goals, and Sørloth are among Norway’s players sidelined by injuries, along with others including Kristoffer Ajer. Turkey, Solbakken said, “is surely glad they’re out, but then we have to make sure we surprise them, or present something they can find hard to handle.”

Solbakken’s squad has itself been surprising everyone who’d all but given up on the young footballers who sport the flag on their chests. Norway has posted poor results for the last 20 years, and its last appearance in the World Cup in 1994 is a dim memory for most. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) wrote in depth about what it called “The Norwegian fiasco” in July, when few could understand how a national team with such highly rated international superstars like Haaland and Martin Ødegaard could perform so badly on the pitch.

But then something started happening. Not only did the Norwegians gain attention for what became regular pre-match protests about human rights violations in Qatar (where the next World Cup will be held), they started winning. They ranked second in their qualifying group heading into their second match against Turkey on Friday, behind only the powerful Netherlands.  Within the space a few months, landslaget had begun to redeem itself.

‘Angry, bald and crazy boss’
Much of the turnaround is linked to Solbakken. The team needed “an angry, bald and crazy boss” like the 53-year-old Solbakken, wrote Aftenposten commentator Erlend Nesje last month. “He has, in a short period of time, shown a toughness that we have really never seen in a Norwegian national team boss.”  Solbakken doesn’t mince words at press conferences either, slamming government officials for maintaining Corona restrictions as long as they did and limiting spectators in the stands, and slamming the media, too: “He’s accused us of being cowards,” Nesje wrote, “and we need to tolerate that.”

Solbakken’s no-nonsense approach includes putting enormous demands on team players, Nesje noted, but also giving them lots of support. Previous national team coaches tended to be politically correct, didn’t like being in the public spotlight, were hard to understand or concentrated on technical aspects of the game. Solbakken doesn’t hesitate to say exactly what he thinks.

“Solbakken’s leadership style can be refreshing for us who follow the team from the sideslines,” Nesje wrote, “but it’s absolutely necessary for those who must perform for Norway on the field.”

Players seem to love him, and have responded by pulling together and winning.  Solbakken has delivered some “flaming” speeches to his players, like one in Latvia where he made his men feel like they were playing at Wembley. “He has a natural ability to give pep talks like that,” Mohamed Elyounoussi, who ended up scoring that evening, told Aftenposten. “There’s a lot of passion in him. It’s very contagious, and we need that.”

Whether Solbakken praises or yells, players say he’s always very clear. “Ståle (roughly pronounced “stow-leh”) is a very, very good leader in my opinion,” said player Tom Høgli, who had Solbakken as his coach at FC København (Copenhagen) for three years. “He’s interested in people, and he makes demands.”

Now Solbakken, who hails from a small town in Hedmark, is extremely keen to get Norway into its first championship in years. The team had been on a roll until the injuries cut badly into Solbakken troop. Norway’s former legendary football coach Egil Drillo Olsen, who took Norway to the World Cup 27 years ago, told newspaper Dagsavisen this week that he’s never experienced the kind of injury nightmare Solbakken has to deal with in Istanbul Friday night, and then again at the next qualifier against Montenegro in Oslo on Monday.

“So many central players are out of action,” Olsen said, “but Ståle has been in such situations before and is used to meeting players at a very high level. If there’s anyone who can tackle this, it’s Ståle.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund