Erling Braut Haaland, the 22-year-old Norwegian who’s risen to international fame and glory as one of the world’s best football players, made a surprise visit this week to the sports hall south of Stavanger where he spent lots of time as a child. It was time to come home after weeks of whirlwind victories for his pro team Manchester City, but a disappointing performance for his national team.
Sports commentators are still trying to figure out why Norway’s men’s football team is still doing poorly even with two superstars on board: Haaland and Martin Ødegaard of Arsenal. The team collapsed again during the final minutes of an important qualifier last weekend (this time against Scotland) for the European Championships, and then allowed in a goal in the final minutes of Tuesday’s qualifier against Cyprus. End result: a 2-1 defeat to Scotland and a 3-1 victory over Cyprus.
At least they won the second of the two qualifiers, but the chances of actually playing in Euro 2024 next year remain slim. Their best hope is to come in through the proverbial back door, reports news bureau NTB, depending on Norway’s ranking in the Nations League.
There wasn’t much jubilation at Norway’s national stadium, which was unusually sold out for both matches. Many clearly wanted to see Haaland and Ødegaard in action on home turf, but them both of them disappointed the press and fans by losing and then failing to show up for interviews right after the match.
It was left to the national team (landslaget)‘s coach Ståle Solbakken to face reporters and try to account for the loss to Scotland. He faced criticism over his decision to swap top players near the end of the match and admitted that he’s responsible for “a meager harvest” of the points needed to qualify for the European Championships.
“It plagues me, mostly on behalf of all the others who are working around the clock for this,” Solbakken told reporters. He added that the loss was one of his worst setbacks ever, but he still thinks “we have done a lot of things right and have a ‘go’ in the group.”
Solbakken apparently felt forced to send both Haaland and Ødegaard out to face reporters the next day, allotting just 10 minutes with the two highly protected and now very wealthy young Norwegians, though. Questions reportedly were restricted to national team issues.
All three (Solbakken, Haaland and Ødegaard) repeatedly stressed that “this kind of thing can happen in football,” with Haaland and Ødegaard claiming they felt they’d done their jobs. Haaland and Ødegaard appeared uncomfortable and somewhat arrogant, with Ødegaard even claiming that he didn’t really care what “everyone else says and thinks right now.” Haaland, who’d arrived in Oslo on a private jet after celebrating Manchester City’s major victories this season, defended Solbakken’s swaps, saying that bringing in “fresh legs … isn’t wrong.”
Both claimed they still have confidence in Norway’s national team, which hasn’t made it to championship play for more than 20 years.
Haaland, who has to hear his name mispronounced constantly in England, could finally smile when he was later met with nothing short of adoration by the children working out at Jærhallen on Wednesday. Several several ran right up to him and hugged his legs when he made a surprise appearance at the hall used by his old club, Bryne Fotball Klubb. He took time to chat with the boys and pose for photos, and tell them that he just wanted “to watch you train a bit.”
The hall has just undergone upgrading and Haaland was also there for its reopening. “This hall has meant a lot to me, of course,” he told NTB, “both for football and socially. I’ve been here since I was a little kid. The hall made me a good football player and the person I am today.”
The children loved it, also when Haaland (pronounced “hoe-lahnd”) was made an honorary member of Bryne FK.