Football: Bratseth dashes out the Norse code: Norway's captain is fleet of foot and quick of mind.

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The Independent Online
TALL, dark and Hansenesque, Rune Bratseth, Norway's stylish central defender and captain, stands head and shoulders above his international team-mates. 'He is unique,' Egil Olsen, the Norway manager, said. Despite not having trained since straining a hamstring at the weekend, Bratseth was simply too vital to leave out for tonight's World Cup match against England at Wembley.

Olsen has sophisticated charts to assess the strengths of each of his team members. One man dominates the printouts - Bratseth. 'I am the fastest player in the squad,' the 31-year-old Werder Bremen sweeper said, his confidence confirmed by his superior's stats. With Norway favouring a zonal system of picking up attackers, Bratseth's pace will be needed to keep track of the central runs of Alan Shearer and Ian Wright.

Pace can defuse many dangerous situations, but Bratseth also possesses the quickness of mind which sets dextrous defenders apart from simple stoppers. 'It's more important to be tactically skilled than to be able to run around a lot,' he said. Allied to this speed of thought and body is his composure on the ball and his height.

At 6ft 4in, Bratseth is as adept at countering set-pieces as he is at exploiting them. So, white men can jump. 'I can jump very high,' he said. 'And because I have played so many games I'm experienced in tactical matters.' A scoring record of four in 45 games is hardly prolific but his team-mates and opposition are the first to acknowledge his initial creativity that builds towards goals.

After his team drew in Oslo in June, Scotland's coach, Andy Roxburgh, was full of praise for Bratseth and it is easy to see why Norway build their side around him. If he feels his hamstring tighten up in his 46th international tonight - and Shearer and Wright will be stretching it to the full - England might find life easier. 'He is very authoritative,' Olsen said.

Norway need him. Their contribution to European football had only been marginally better than their singers' to the Eurovision fixture until Bratseth became captain and Olsen coach. 'Under Olsen we have a lot of self-confidence,' Bratseth said. 'The training with him is not as physical as before. It's more about building up technique by doing exercises with the ball. Before in wintertime it used to be run, run, run. But fitness is a small part of football, you must be able to use the ball.'

No surprise then that his ball-playing idols as a child were Colin Bell and Rodney Marsh. 'Manchester City when they won the League in 1968 were my favourite team,' he added.

Bratseth's own abilities have brought him two 'Foreign Player of the Year' awards in his six seasons with Werder Bremen, who he helped win the Bundesliga in 1988 and the German Cup last year. Happy with life at the Weserstadion, he has resisted approaches from Rangers and Roma and intends to return to Trondheim the season after next to coach his first club, Rosenborg.

The intelligent Bratseth, already a national hero, should flourish in the managerial world. His immediate concern is to lead his country, who have beaten San Marino twice and the Netherlands, to the World Cup finals. 'It's very important we qualify because then all the young talents in Norway will come into football instead of cross-country skiing.'

He had expected Group Two to be an Anglo-Dutch carve-up. 'It's so open now. Who would have thought we would beat Holland? Poland and Turkey are also strong.' The 2-1 success in Oslo over the Dutch was particularly pleasing. 'We knew they would come over thinking 'We are the greatest team', but we used our chances better.'

Bratseth, who has never played on English soil before, believes a more physical England side will be tougher to contain than the Dutch artists. 'Individually, we are not as good as England's players but we have a very organised team. We defend very strongly - not just the defenders, the others also come back to help.' Bratseth's defence has conceded only five goals in nine games this year.

A draw for Norway (who are 6-1 to win) could confirm the footballing representatives of a country of only four million - marginally more than half the population of London - as one of the favourites to go through.

After speaking lucidly in English for 15 minutes, Bratseth apologised. 'It's only my fourth language,' he explained. England will discover just how fluent he is tonight.

(Photograph omitted)

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