Norwegian club football is in a worse state than ever. What’s to blame? An ongoing obsession with English football for starters. Here’s Andreas Hoyer.
It was Norwegian football’s proudest moment, Kjetil Rekdal’s perfectly executed penalty to beat Brazil in the decisive game of the 1998 World Cup group stage. It was only the second time Norway had even managed to get to a World Cup. Now they had come back from 1-0 down to beat a much-favoured Brazil side and set up a last sixteen date with Italy. Just as the Germans have their ‘miracle of Berne’, we Norwegians have our ‘miracle of Marseille’.
Thirteen years on, the glory days are long gone. The Norwegian national team have now failed to qualify for a major tournament since the European Championships in 2000, the latest disappointment being the failure to qualify for the 2012 Euros. In club football it’s even worse. Rosenborg, who used to be one of the competition’s most reliable participants, haven’t hosted a Champions League game since 2007. Not that any other teams have either. In fact, Norwegian teams have been performing so poorly in Europe that UEFA ranks the leagues of Slovakia, Cyprus and Belarus higher. For a league that grew accustomed to the success of Rosenborg, and even had two teams in the Champions League at one point, it’s an embarrassing achievement.
The obvious question: where did it all go wrong? The answer partly lies with English football. Or to be more precise, it is the problem of a Norwegian obsession with England.
To anyone already questioning the premise: yes, it really is an obsession. Ever since the first English football game was broadcasted on TV in the late 1960’s (Wolves vs. Sunderland on November 29th 69 to be exact) Norwegians have been crazy about English football. Every Saturday at 4 o’clock, slightly winter-depressed Norwegians could tune in to catch a chosen game from the then First Division. When the domestic league only ran from April to October it was perhaps understandable that everyone took to it. It seemed every slightly football enthusiastic Norwegian found an English team to support - Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United, even Stoke or Wolverhampton - they all have surprisingly decent followings in the remoteness of Norway.
By no means has the interest dispersed in more recent years. As many no doubt can testify, hordes of Norwegians head for the UK every weekend. Their main goal: taking in a Premier League fixture at Anfield, Emirates or Old Trafford.
The downside to the obsession is however not merely down to UK cities being crowded with tall, blonde and blind-drunk Norsemen on a weekend trip more reminiscent of a stag-do than a family day out. It also has its grim effects back in the homeland. Norwegians have always had a cultural inferiority complex to our neighbours. The Swedes have more successful artists, the Danes are more sociable and handle their drink better, and the English have always been better at football. The glamour of the English game: the packed stadiums, the pub before the match, the atmosphere, it has all become part of the Norwegian football fan’s ideals. As a result, everyone seems to emulate everything the English do.
Unfortunately, they don’t just emulate the good things. Britain might be the pinnacle of fan culture, but it is also the source of the over-commercialisation that has infected European football. Unfortunately, Norwegian football didn’t only try to emulate British fan culture. It also emulated the ridiculous overspending and the corporate set-up of post Euro 96 England and Norwegian football chairmen, board members, club executives, even managers and players, took to the rhetoric familiar of their English counterparts. All of a sudden even the smallest of Norwegian top-flight football teams were talking of ‘the product’ and its ‘customers’. Brann Bergen, for instance, hired a former employee of the Scandinavian Supporters Club of Manchester United to take care of merchandise. Cue: a large-scale merchandise effort modelled on the shameless commercialisation represented by Old Trafford.
Then there’s the main football broadcaster TV2. Every Sunday, they dedicate their main channel to a six-hour football frenzy. On top of that, you can always go to any of their several pay-per-view channels for more. Instinctively, Norwegian football has collectively praised the TV-channel for ‘raising the product’, altogether failing to ask if the product can actually match the hype. Unfortunately it doesn’t. The empty seats around the Norwegian Tippeliga are hard to miss. Vålerenga, Brann, Viking, even the once mighty Rosenborg, are all struggling to fill their stadiums despite boasting a relatively large fan base. The only club that more or less consistently attract close to sell-out crowds is the small club of Aalesund, averaging at around 10,000 in a city of a meagre 45,000 inhabitants.
This year, even Aalesund have failed to continue their remarkable crowd statistics. Still, their investment in a modern-day, family-friendly stadium can actually is an actual success. Elsewhere, large-scale stadium investments have largely failed, acting as a constant reminder of the ludicrous ambitions that have become common in Norway’s top league. Molde FK, owned by the wealthy Kjell Inge Røkke, set the standard by building an eye-catching 11,800 capacity stadium back in 1998. Quite astonishing when you consider Molde is a city of 25,000 inhabitants. It was, unfortunately, reflected in the amount of empty seats at every home game, the only recent sell-out allegedly being a concert with the electropop-duo Röyksopp. Viking Stavanger, Fredrikstad, Start Kristiansand and Stabæk were just some of the clubs following Molde’s example. Attendances, although initially rising, are now much lower and around two-thirds of capacity at best.
Madness, it seems, is by no means confined to grandiose stadium ideas though. Much like the rest of Europe, Norwegian football had its financial boom in the 1990’s and 2000’s. International success meant Norwegian footballers were almost over night recognised as potential signings. Quickly they also started to attract money. Add the vastly increased revenues clubs were getting from TV and by the mid-2000’s you had a lot of money floating around.
What pursued is a depressingly familiar story. Instead of investing in the much-needed improvement of training facilities, youth set-up, coaching and administration, clubs started importing players of their own. Unfortunately, not the imports you often would associate with comparable leagues in Europe such as the Netherlands. The players brought in were seldom young or gifted; they were more than often over-the-hill has-beens, with wage demands unprecedented in Norwegian football. Every club regardless of size and preconditions seemed to be aiming for top places. In turn this of course meant largely increased wage bills, more money for transfers and soaring agent fees.
The bubble certainly had to burst. Start finished second in 2005, moved into a brand new £40 million, 11,700-capacity stadium, and went down two years later. They did manage to get back up to the Tippeliga on first attempt, but had to be saved by their own city council not to go bust. Tromsø, just a goal away from beating Athletic Bilbao and clinching a place in the Europa League group stage two years ago, are in such a financial mess they consistently need to be bailed out by a highly generous businessman from Bergen. Stabæk have recently been evicted from the Telenor Arena. They are currently trying to relocate to another stadium, one option being, to their fans huge discontent, moving to Ullevaal in nearby Oslo. One team wasn’t as lucky: Lyn, John Obi Mikels former club, went bust last year and now find themselves in the 5th tier of the Norwegian football hierarchy.
In the 2011 edition of the Tippeliga you will in fact struggle to find a team boasting of healthy finances. The financial troubles of the last two years have admittedly sobered up some of the most dizzy directors and managers. However, the elephant in the room, the English obsession, is still there. And like most obsessions, this one’s hard to get rid of. Just when yesteryear’s increasing focus on financial troubles seemed to pave way for a healthy and potentially fruitful discussion on the politics of professional Norwegian football, a new season came along. And with every new season there are ambitions. Again, sanity seems to lose out. Molde brought back their very own Ole Gunnar Solskjær, relieving him from his coaching duties at Old Trafford. Within minutes every one was talking about Molde becoming the best football team in Norway. Having had a five-minute conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson would earn any Norwegian football coach praise, let alone knowing the guy personally.
As in England, no one seems to ask the right questions of where the game is going. The most pressing one being: why aren’t people turning up like they used to? According to the clubs themselves the receding attendances are mostly due to a lack of profiling of the ‘product’. Better entertainment at half time, juicier sausages, tempting VIP-packages, padded seats. You name it. No one seems, however, to reflect on the fact that a ticket to most German Bundesliga matches comes at half the price of a Norwegian Tippeliga-ticket. And that’s in a league that consistently sells out its football grounds. Paying over £30 for a Tippeliga-match is simply too much for most people. More so, when you can pay half of that to get a month of matches in the comfort of your own home.
Is there any harm in trying, one certainly might ask? Isn’t it better to try and hype up a product than be pragmatic? Isn’t drunk a bit more fun than sober? Perhaps so, and one might give Norwegian football some credit for an amazing desire for success and the ambition to keep up with the big boys. The problem is when people no longer fall for the trick, when the expectations far exceed reality. Finally, reality will catch up.
German football had their dark ages and bounced back. For Norway the dark ages have just arrived and step one is to finally admit it. England ruined our football. Now it’s time to build it all up again.
Andreas is a freelance journalist living and working in Norway. Read more from him at Josimar.