Football: Three lions on their shirt, Norwegians still dreaming

Stephen Brenkley looks at the band of Scandinavians who think the world of England
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IT might be stretching a point to suggest that when Norway last beat England at football Oslo became a city of mourning. But then again any celebrations stopped short of lighting beacons above the fjords to spread the glorious news across the country.

"There were definitely many, many Norwegian spectators at that match who wanted England to win and were upset when they did not," said Pal Moller. "Like many English fans what they probably couldn't believe above all was why Graham Taylor insisted on experimenting with a three-man central defence in a World Cup qualifier."

The 2-0 result eventually meant that Norwegians had only Norway to cheer in the 1994 World Cup because England failed to qualify. This time any divided loyalties will remain untested at least until the semi-finals, the earliest stage when the two countries can meet.

Norway is football daft and the daftness largely revolves around following the game in England. The Scandinavian branch of the Liverpool Supporters' Club has more than 22,000 members, 90 per cent of them from Norway. Moller is the chairman and is miffed only because the Manchester United branch has 25,000. The Supporters' Club Union, set up to look after the interests of all those who follow English teams, represents more than 65,000 members. This is three times the number in the equivalent organisation for Norway's own clubs.

When Norway begin their finals journey against Morocco in Montpellier on Wednesday night hundreds of their fans will be wearing replica shirts, not in Norway's colours but in those of Manchester United or Liverpool, probably bearing the names of Solskjaer or Leonhardsen. True, this is partly because the Norwegian FA's shirt supply was late but Bard Thoresen in the Liverpool shop, a man with a Scouse accent thicker than Cilla Black's and Jan Molby's combined, reported a roaring trade. "The whole tournament is really big here," said Thoresen. "Some fans might be more interested in England but it's only a game. If it was war it would be different."

According to Sinn Alvarstein, who has the unenviable task of being chairman of the Association of Norwegian Supporters' Clubs, he is merely fighting tradition. "The one television channel used to show only English football. People grew up with it. It's still on and we have trouble getting people to attend matches. They much prefer to stay at home and watch from an armchair. I understand you have a similar difficulty."

This tendency has been deepened since Norwegian players began flooding into English football. The Oslo newspapers have been full throughout the season of their exploits. No fewer than 11, including all three goalkeepers, feature in the squad of 22. The exodus was given impetus, of course, by that 2-0 win against England back in 1993.

"I think that's when it was realised that Norway had some decent players who were well- organised," said Moller. "The match acted as a shop window for so many of them."

Organisation will be Norway's great strength. Their coach for seven years, Egil Olsen, has built his entire strategy on a taut defence capable of well- formulated counter attacks. Still, a hard-earned reputation for risk- free football, cemented in USA 94, came rather unstuck during their spectacular progress in their qualifying group. Norway won six and drew two of their eight games while scoring 21 goals and conceding two.

Moller expects them to progress at the expense of Scotland whom they meet in their second group match, though the Norwegians are not fully convinced of the credentials of the other group members, Brazil. Little more than a year ago Norway beat the world champions, 4-2. Moller, extending the affinity with England to its neighbours, will attend the Scotland match next Monday in a Norway shirt and a kilt borrowed from his wife. It should at least divert attention from all those English club tops on view.

"Most of the population by far will be supporting Norway," said Sinn Alvarstein. "I think we are well-equipped to reach the last 16 but then it might get harder for us with a match in prospect against Italy. If Norway are eliminated then there would be a lot of support for the British teams."