An easy win? No way
There is more to Norway than just ice and fjords. This was the warning to Bafana Bafana ahead of the Nelson Mandela Challenge trophy clash against the Scandinavian country next weekend.
Premier Soccer League chief executive Kjetil Siem shared the “rich” football history of his native country with the Mail & Guardian this week. “I think a lot of people will be surprised at the high standard of the Norwegian team,” he said.
Very little is known of the country making its first trip to South Africa for a match that will mark the reopening, after renovations, of the 42 000 capacity Royal Bafokeng Stadium, one of the Confederations and World Cup venues.
In this part of the world Norway is more likely to be known for the invaluable geography lessons on fjords than its football prowess.
Many will be surprised to know that this small European country with a population of only 4,6-million people has been to three World Cup finals. The Norwegians were at the 1983, 1994 and 1998 finals. It is no wonder that the 1990s stand out as the best years of Norwegian football.
“We enjoyed a golden era during the Nineties under a coach named Egil Roger Olsen who ironically will be in charge of the team when they visit here,” said Siem.
Many South Africans may well say “so what”.
Bafana were, after all, also a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s.
Under Clive Barker they won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996. Two years later they were one of the representatives of the African continent at the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
Still, history speaks volumes about the pedigree of Norway. The Scandinavians felled some of the biggest giants of European football in their golden era including Italy, Holland, England and Spain and climbed to number two in the Fifa world rankings. They are also the only nation in the world to have played mighty Brazil without losing to them.
“Norway have faced Brazil four times, beaten them twice and drawn the other two matches.”
The victories over the best football nation in the world include a 4-2 demolition in a 1997 international friendly. As if to prove a point to the doubting Thomases, an Ole Gunner Solskjaer-inspired Norway followed this triumph with a 2-1 upset over the Samba Kings in a crucial group match of the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
Again, the staunchest of Bafana supporters may argue that their team did not disgrace themselves either in their maiden World Cup finals. Grinding out a 1-1 draw against Denmark, then a 2-2 result against Saudi Arabia to finish third in Group C was no mean feat for debutants South Africa. Moreover, Norway, like South Africa, were eliminated in the first round of the competition.
But it would be folly not to take Siem’s warning seriously. The Norwegians recalled their golden-era coach Olsen in January in a move to revive the good old days. He has not disappointed.
In his first match in charge, he led Norway to a 1-0 victory over Germany last month, breaking a 73-year-old record. The defence of the Mandela Challenge Trophy that Joel Santana won last year when Bafana beat Cameroon 3-2 will not be easy.
“Olsen has set the match against Bafana as one of the key phases of his rebuilding exercises,” said Siem, who once employed the Norwegian coach when he was chief executive of Valeranga FC back home in 2005.
“The win over Germany has brought back some renewed optimism. People are actually starting to talk about Norway making the finals in South Africa,” he said.
The Norwegian team of the Nineties had a range of players from some of the best leagues in the world. The team making the trip to South Africa may not be in the same class, but they still have some names that may ring a few bells.
Former Liverpool midfielder John Arne Riise, who is now a vital cog at Roma, leads the pack.
Aston Villa’s towering striker John Carew is another familiar name. The interest, however, will be on Blackburn left winger Morten Gamst Pedersen when he comes out against teammate Benni McCarthy.
Santana knows that there is more at stake than the Challenge trophy. A victory over Norway will improve the ratings of the national team. Bafana need to be at number 30 or less by next year if they are to be worthy hosts of the World Cup.
The 2-0 loss to Chile in February was a wake-up call for the Brazilian coach to look for better Bafana opposition ahead of the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. Norway’s Riise, Carew and their gang of relative unknowns (locally) should provide the perfect barometer to measure the ability of Steven Pienaar, Teko Modise, McCarthy and their coach to fulfil the dream of a nation pregnant with expectation.