When Long Balls Beat the World Champions: Norway in the 90’s

When Long Balls Beat the World Champions: Norway in the 90’s

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In the 1990’s the Brazilians dominated the world of football once again. After a long wait for their fourth World Cup title, they picked up the trophy in 1994, then made it to the finals four years later, before winning the tournament once again in 2002.

In those days Brazil was nearly unbeatable at international level. Nearly, because there was a team that managed to beat them twice in less than a year. But it was by no means one of the world’s footballing powers. On the contrary, their players represented a northern European nation of some five million people that, before 1994, had not played in a World Cup for 56 years.

Norway famously beat England to the 1994 World Cup berth, but even then it seemed highly unlikely that by 1997 they would be number two in the FIFA rankings. The team coached by Egil Olsen even managed to score four against Brazil in a friendly, and then beat them again at the World Cup a year later.

With a small pool of players to select from and troubled by the frozen pitches in their home country the Norwegians knew they would stand no chance if they tried to control the ball and outpass the opposition.

Instead, they needed to find a way to outsmart them by using those few things that could work in their favour.

Egil Olsen’s nickname was “Drillo”. You may think that it was derived from the drills his players were required to perform during game preparation; actually it comes from the Norwegian word for “dribble”. In his playing days Olsen was known back home for his dribbling skills and technical ability, his love for nutmegging his opponents and his ability to play keepy ups for hours.

Twenty years before the current football analytics boom Drillo was heavily involved in video and statistical analysis. He used it to find ways to utilise some of his team’s unique strengths.

His approach was highly pragmatic. The players at his disposal had a tremendous work rate, were above average height and had a wonderfully strong team spirit. No wonder the basis for their success was tough defence, and their forte was set-pieces. Think a poor man’s Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone.

Except that the players at their disposal were not really that poor at all. The Norwegian defence included players like Henning Berg, Ronny Johnsen and Stig Inge Bjorneby, all of them Premier League stars with Manchester United and Liverpool. Up front they could rely on another Man Utd hero, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as well as the Flo brothers – Chelsea’s Tore Andre and, nine years his senior, Jostein, the team’s key player despite his relative lack of success at club level.

Another important factor for Norway’s success was Rosenborg BK Trondheim’s domination on the home front. From 1992 to 2004 RBK won thirteen Norwegian titles in a row, earning them the opportunity to play continuously in the UEFA Champions League (11 group stage appearances in 13 seasons, including the then record eight in a row from 1995 to 2002), forging team spirit and gaining invaluable experience playing against the continent’s top teams.

Incidentally, their most successful season in Europe was 1996/97, when they reached the UCL quarterfinals, after beating Milan at the San Siro. Only a year later they toppled Real Madrid on a snowy pitch in Lerkendal.

Rosenborg’s squad consisted almost completely of Norwegian players, so it is easy to understand that the national team would benefit from their continuing success as well, even though their attractive attacking style of play was completely different to Olsen’s pragmatism.

12067116_10153642288673668_775289685_nThe key moment that helped Norway burst onto the world scene was Olsen’s decision to move Jostein Flo to the right wing. Jostein was one of the four Flo brothers who all played at the top level in Norway, but his jumping ability is what made him unique. At six-foot-four with excellent timing, he was hard to beat in the air, and therefore he was usually used as a target-man.

Jostein Flo was a late bloomer. He chose football over high jumping only at 23 (his two record leaps of 206cm outdoors and 208cm indoors still rank in Norway’s top 100), signing for the Molde side that would challenge for trophies but fall short on each occasion (three top three league finishes and a cup final in his four seasons there). After a short (and rather unsuccessful) spell in Belgium he moved back to Norway with Sogndal, where he scored 19 in 35 games and earned himself a move to Sheffield United.

Drillo was aware of his ability, but the coach’s innovative idea was the real game changer. Instead of putting his target man up front, where he would have to wrestle one or both of the opponent’s centre backs, he would move him to the right wing. In that position he would easily win all the air duels against the shorter, weaker and less adept left backs, giving him time to choose the direction of his headers.

The long diagonal from the left back to the right wing was quickly transformed into option A during Norway attacks. It was possible due to Stig Inge Bjornebye’s fantastic passing range. After picking up the ball from his keeper, the Liverpool left back could easily hit an 80-yard pass straight at Flo’s head, and within seconds Norway was in front of the opponent’s penalty box.

All Flo had to do was to flick it on towards the striker or pick out a midfielder’s run (usually this was another former Liverpool player, Oyvind Leonhardsen).

The move was so unique at the time that it was given the name the ‘Flo pass’.

A decade later this concept was widely used in the Premier League by another innovative, yet often criticised manager, Sam Allardyce. Big Sam led Bolton to four consecutive top eight finishes in the leagues, relying heavily on a diagonal rightward pass to one of the league’s best headers of the ball, Kevin Davies.

After establishing this way of playing the Norwegians were able to put together a brilliant run of results. In his eight seasons at the helm, Olsen led Norway to 46 wins in 88 games, suffering only 16 defeats. His winning percentage of 53 was far ahead of Norway’s historical record (35%).

At the 1998 World Cup the Norwegians were expected to pass the group stage, where they were pitted against Brazil, Scotland and Morocco. But they didn’t meet expectations, only just drawing with the latter two, which meant they would have to beat Brazil to go through. The Brazilians had already clinched the group, but they were the world champions and arguably the best team on Earth at the time.

The game at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome was scoreless for 78 minutes when Bebeto finally scored form Denilson’s cross. At that moment Olsen threw caution to the wind and finally introduced the team’s talisman, the 35-year-old Jostein Flo. In his 53 games for the national team he suffered only six losses.

Jostein was not involved in any of the goals, but his influence was obvious. The heavily pressed Brazilian defence began to lose shape, and Tore Andre Flo showed fine skills to earn the equaliser, but then spurned two chances provided by his older brother. Then, a minute from time, the Chelsea man was fouled in the box by Baiano, and Kjetil Rekdal converted the penalty, earning his team a second round encounter with Italy.

Drillo’s team was unable to repeat the magic, but even without him they managed to beat Spain at the European Championships two years later, before watching La Furia Roja score two in injury time to overcome Yugoslavia and knock Norway out at the group stage.

That was the last time Norway made it to a major tournament. By now their playing style has become somewhat more modern, but the 90’s long ball era is still remembered as the Golden age up north.

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