“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.