Sports

The World Cup Loses Its First Star

Somewhere, in a darkened room, Erling Haaland was watching. Injury meant he would be not be able to take the field for Norway’s most significant match in 20 years. The Netherlands’ return to partial lockdown last weekend meant, with the game played behind closed doors, he would not even be able to support his national team from the stands.

Instead, Haaland had to follow from afar, powerless to help. Two minutes into the game, he posted an image of the game’s television broadcast on Instagram, accompanied by a Norwegian flag and the heart emoji. There was, then, still a scintilla of hope. Norway needed to beat the Netherlands, in Rotterdam, to have a chance of qualifying automatically for its first World Cup since 1998, and its first major tournament since 2000.

If Turkey — the other contender in the group — had lost its final game, against Montenegro, then a tie would have been enough to keep Norway alive, too, at least for the time being: a second-place finish would have earned the Norwegians a slot in the playoffs for Europe’s three final berths in Qatar. Those games will be played in March. Haaland would have been fit by then, and a fit Haaland would have changed everything.

It will not matter now. Turkey won, after falling behind to an early goal in Podgorica, leaving Norway no choice but to gamble, to win, to have any hope. Instead, its team seemed to freeze, falling to a limp, toothless 2-0 defeat. “They only had half a chance,” as Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach, put it.

Norway’s path to the 2022 World Cup ended with a loss to the Netherlands on Tuesday.Credit…John Thys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That was no surprise, given the circumstances. “They have a great team spirit,” Virgil van Dijk, the Netherlands captain, said of Norway. “They never give up.” But, he said, “they have a fantastic striker, who they naturally missed.” That fantastic striker had been condemned to watching from home. He did not post again. His feed, like his room, had gone dark.

That Haaland will not be present in Qatar next year is, from a neutral perspective, a source of regret. He is already one of the world’s most devastating strikers, the scorer of 70 goals in 69 games since joining Borussia Dortmund in January 2020, including 13 in only 10 appearances this season before sustaining a hip injury — expected to sideline him until next year — in October.

Together with Kylian Mbappé, the 21-year-old Haaland is already seen as the standard-bearer for soccer’s first post-Lionel-Messi-and-Cristiano-Ronaldo generation. By the time the World Cup rolls around next November, he may be one of the most expensive players on the planet, too.

After failing to sign Harry Kane last summer, Manchester City’s chief executive, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, instructed the club’s recruitment department to make acquiring Haaland — whose father, Alfie, played for City in its previous incarnation as a lovable, hapless underdog — its primary focus. Extracting him from Dortmund will cost somewhere north of $150 million.

That soccer’s quadrennial showpiece will take place without a player of that skill, that value, dulls its luster just a little. Within Norway, though, the country’s absence from Qatar has been greeted with circumspection, rather than a sense of crisis.

“We have done well to have a chance at all,” Erik Thorsvedt, a former national team goalkeeper who now works as a television analyst, said before Norway’s final two qualifiers: a dispiriting goalless draw with Latvia, which left the team with no margin for error, and Tuesday’s defeat against the Netherlands.

“Our first ‘home’ game was not at home at all: We had to play Turkey in Spain because of Covid restrictions in Norway, and we lost. Given the circumstances, given the draw, given where we were seeded, that we are in contention even to make the playoffs is a success.”

That it now possesses one of the most coveted players in the world did not mean Norway started qualification for Qatar with any great expectations; indeed, many in the country were uneasy at the prospect of legitimizing a tournament as swaddled in controversy by playing in it.

Norway’s players wore shirts protesting Qatar’s human rights record before a World Cup qualifier in Spain in March.Credit…Jorge Guerrero/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Besides, Norway does not feel it has any deep-seated right to make it as far as the finals. Other than that brief, bright window of hope in 1998 and 2000, and a group-stage exit in the United States in 1994, it has only ever qualified for one other major tournament: the 1938 World Cup, where it played one game, lost it and promptly went home.

It is the sort of record that prompted Karl Ove Knausgaard, the country’s celebrated novelist and autobiographer, to describe the team’s history as a series of games “in rainy Eastern Europe that they lost.”

“The matches did not last an hour and a half,” he wrote. “They played up to five, six hours at a time, almost like in cricket.”

The Norway that made it to France in 1998 and the Netherlands and Belgium two years later, for the European Championship, was the exception, not the rule. When the success faded, and mediocrity set in, Knausgaard found it comforting. “It was as if childhood came back, the world resumed its usual form,” he wrote. “Reassurance lay around me like a gray cardigan and a pair of gray felt slippers.”

That downturn was linked, no doubt, to the diminishing numbers of Norwegians playing in elite European leagues, particularly the Premier League. For much of the 1990s, most English teams had some sort of Norwegian influence: 23 players from Norway were registered to top-flight English clubs in 1997, forming the core of the squad that would play in the World Cup at the end of that season.

By 2014, that group was down to one: Brede Hangeland was the lone Norwegian representative in the Premier League. (“The Norwegian players in the big international clubs disappeared,” Knausgaard wrote. “Again, it became great to be a professional in Twente or Heerenveen or Nottingham or Fulham, and for an old man like me, it felt safe.”) England had always been Norway’s primary export market; now, English clubs were habitually shopping in France, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, and Norway suffered.

That has, slowly, started to change, and Norway’s horizons have broadened as a result. Haaland is not the sole representative of the country’s new generation: He has been joined by Martin Odegaard, the Arsenal playmaker; Sander Berge, a well-regarded midfielder at Sheffield United; and Alexander Sorloth, a towering forward at Real Sociedad, the Spanish league leader.

The depth of resources gives this campaign an air not of a missed opportunity, but a harbinger of a brighter future. “I am absolutely sure we will succeed in Germany 2024 if we continue with what we have started,” Stale Solbakken, the Norway coach, said on national television on Tuesday, referring to the next edition of the European Championship.

There are plenty who read it the same way. “I’m sure that we will qualify for tournaments in the future,” said Henning Berg, the former Manchester United defender who formed part of Norway’s squads for both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. “If it was just Haaland, then we would have a problem. We have seen with other countries that one top-class player, on their own, is not enough. But it is not just him.”

This time, Haaland could do nothing but watch as Norway fell at the final hurdle, unable to cope with his absence. He, and the rest of his teammates, the rest of his country, will have to do the same in almost exactly a year, as the World Cup kicks off without one of the sport’s central figures. It feels, though, as if the exile is ending. Norway is confident that its time is coming again. Sooner or later, Haaland will lead his country out of the darkness, and into the light.

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