Never before has a Norwegian football player done so well, attracted so much attention or earned so much money so quickly as 22-year-old Erling Braut Haaland. Now the coach of Norway’s national team has stepped in to defend Haaland from questions over his good fortunes at the Manchester City football club, and whether the club’s owners are using him to “sportswash” them against charges of massive human rights violations and repression in the United Arab Emirates.
“I’ve never met them, so I don’t know them as such,” Haaland said at a press conference in Oslo on Wednesday as the Norwegian team prepared for upcoming matches against Slovenia and Serbia. Haaland was responding to a question from Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) over what he thinks about the club’s owners he now represents.
Haaland went on to claim that NRK’s reporter made some “quite strong accusations” about Manchester City’s ownership to which he couldn’t “say much.” When NRK went on to question Haaland about whether Manchester City’s purchase of him is part of an agenda of sportswashing, Haaland responded by saying he’d been a fan of Manchester City his whole life. “My father has played there,” Haaland said, “I have scored 14 goals and got a good start to the season. It’s the sports aspects that I think about. Once again I made a good club choice when it comes to the coaches, players, this and that. I’ve been a City fan and that’s how it’s been. When I went to City it was to develop myself as much as possible in a positive manner.
“I have a dream, like many others, to be the best in the world.”
He already has been ranked by newspaper Aftenposten as the best player Norway has ever produced. “It has never happened earlier,” wrote commentator Lars Tjærnås this week. “It will probably never happen again … that a Norwegian football player on the men’s side turns out to be the most attractive player that all the clubs in the world want to tie up with.”
Manchester City won the bidding for Haaland, with a huge offer that Norwegian magazine Kapital estimates has already earned him NOK 130 million since he signed on from July 1. Kapital, which compiles the lists of Norway’s wealthiest citizens every year, also estimates that Haaland will earn another NOK 220 million per year over the next five years from the club alone. Sponsor income will come in addition.
“Manchester City is a club that has no limits economically,” Harry Arne Solberg, a professor specializing in sports economy at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, told NRK on Thursday.
Demonstrated for human rights last year
At Wednesday’s press conference, Haaland didn’t seem to care where the money is coming from, preferring to concentrate purely on football instead. Others find it challenging to reconcile how Haaland can be part of a national team that publicly opposed human rights violations tied to the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, while playing for a team owned by one of the Emirates’ rulers. Amnesty International and other organizations have documented a lack of such rights in the Emirates along with a lack of free speech and equality and miserable working conditions for migrant labourers. The United Arab Emirates rank as among the strictest dictatorships in the Middle East, where violence against women is allowed and infidelity can be punished by whipping. The Emirates have also been accused of war crimes in Yemen.
Last year Haaland was among Norwegian players wearing T-shirts that called for “Human rights on and off the pitch.” This week he was criticized after the press conference for not acknowledging abuses tied to his new football club’s owners. “Haaland is getting his pay from one of the world’s most brutal and violent regimes,” Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who specializes in the United Arab Emirates, told newspaper VG. McGeehan formerly headed an organization advocating workers’ rights in the region.
Coach defends Haaland
The national team’s coach, Ståle Solbakken, came to Haaland’s defense, warning against putting too much responsibility for political issues on his star player. “I’m not saying he should be protected from such questions or that he shouldn’t have to answer them,” Solbakken said at another press conference in Oslo on Thursday, “but I think that some of them are out of proportion.”
Solbakken worries there will now be “a feeling” that “an Erling Haaland should be responsible for or take part in debate … over a huge political question that is so much bigger than whether some young men … or the world’s best managers (are part of) a club that’s part of an approved system, the Premier League, or international football. To me, that’s overkill.”
Solbakken, whose team failed to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, added that reporters should be allowed to raise questions about football as a “gigantic business … but if you do, it’s not Erling who should be the starting point to set the right lines.”
Haaland’s Norwegian coach also took issue with another article in VG that quoted a man who claims to have been tortured in a UAE prison as saying he was disappointed in Haaland’s choice of clubs. “I think that over the line,” Solbakken said. “Is it really Erling he should be disappointed over? I think that’s stretching things very far.”
Some of Haaland’s Norwegian teammates also came to Haaland’s defense, with Leo Skiri Østigard telling NRK that “it’s difficult as a football player to know about what’s going on. I think he answered the questions well. He should first and foremost concentrate on what’s happening on the (football) field.”