Boom time for a fit nation

Ian Ridley examines Norway's rise to pre-eminence in the world rankings
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The Independent Online
AT FIRST the appeal to English clubs was that they were cheap. Then it emerged that Norwegian footballers, comfortable with the climate, were highly fit, functional and reliable. Now, having honed their skills in England, the pupils have things to teach their teachers.

Norwegian football has progressed far since those patronised days of the Viking minnows pining for the fjords. Over the past decade some 20 players have come to the English finishing school, with 14 at present earning a living here. Another 10 are scattered through other European leagues. The national team now stand fourth in the world rankings to England's 26th, having been as high as second before last year's World Cup finals.

It is the fruition of a generation of work by the Norwegian Football Association in funding youth development, and the eff- orts of the national coach, Egil Olsen, who celebrates five years in charge this month. It is the fascinating Olsen, who once said he had made more money playing poker than from football, who has dragged them kicking and dreaming into the upper echelons by looking to Jack Charlton's achievements with a similarly small country in the Republic of Ireland and employing the direct game advocated by Charles Hughes, the English FA's former technical co-ordinator. Bobby Gould, the new manager of Wales, was coach to the Norwegian club Aalesund in the mid-Seventies and is not surprised at the progress. "They invested a lot of money from their North Sea oil in sport and now they are seeing the benefits," he says. He sees only improvement, with money now allocated to clubs for youth development from the proceeds of their international success.

Each club in the Norwegian Premier Division now receives pounds 50,000 annually just for developing young talent, to send players to warmer climates for midwinter tournaments for example. Eight new pitch-size indoor centres have been or are being built to improve skills during the long winter break. "The national team has gone a long way with their tactics," the Norwegian team administrator, Kjell Borgersen, says. "Next we develop technique."

Both Gould and Borgersen point to community-based clubs and how they are the focal points; indeed, Gould says that the Welsh FA have been to Norway to study it. Steve Perryman, the former Tottenham player and assistant manager, now head coach at IK Start, also cites it as being the cornerstone of recent success. Like Gould, he also foresaw a boom in sport in Norway, having already opened sports shops there.

"They are a fitness-based nation," he says. "Our sports hall is used day and night for various sports and everybody you see in the streets seems to be wearing tracksuits and carrying kit bags. The country is also very professional in its sports and is top of the tree in many, like cross- country skiing and women's football, which is amazing for a nation of only 4 million people.

"They have a committee overseeing all sports and all the information about fitness, diet and training techniques is passed to everyone. They have been to most countries in Europe, studied their methods, taken the best bits and the bits that suited them and put them to good use." The Norwegians' favourite football is German and English and it is as if they have learned to ally the technique of one with the tactics of the other.

"It is a place where young players have time to develop," Perryman adds. "A six-month pre-season for a five-month season gives time to work on skills, and up to the age of 13 they are used to playing only seven-a- side, just learning to control the ball and pass it. Now the kids see the national team doing well, as well as players going to Germany and England, and see that with hard work they can achieve it too."

The drawbacks? The laid-back way of life, says Perryman, which can frustrate someone used to the intensity of the English game. There is not the same tempo as in the Premiership, he says, and players are too tolerant of each other's mistakes.

He is an admirer of Olsen's. "He is a thinker," he says. "His team are Wimbledon in ethics, doing it in a Tottenham way. They have a 4-3-3 that converts to a 4-5-1 when necessary. When they win the ball and attack they are very quick to go forward. My reservation about them is that they don't appear to know how to change their game as circ- umstances do, like when Italy had a man sent off in the World Cup against them last year."

Now that these saplings have grown into pines, one senses that England will have to come up with something rather better than having a man sent off.