The next generation
May 9 was a very special day for Norwegian football; two 15-year-olds were given their debut appearances in Tippeligaen, the country's top division. First it was Sander Svendsen, born on August 6, 1997, and sent on for the last few minutes of Molde's 4-1 win over Aalesund. When asked what the coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told him on such an occasion, the kid answered: "He just said to go out and have fun".
An hour later, Hakon Lorentzen, born August 2, 1997 - and thus older than Svendsen - entered the field in the dying moments as Brann Bergen won 2-0 against Start Kristiansand. "I am going to celebrate with a cake and a soda," he said afterwards.
Mind you, those two guys are not the youngest ever in Tippeligaen. That record belongs to Zymer Bytyqi, who played for Sandnes Ulf last season when aged 15 years and 261 days. Compared to Cristiano Ronaldo for his outrageous dribbling skills, Bytyqi has already been snatched by Red Bull Salzburg and loaned back to his Norwegian club. As of today, he has played 11 times in the league, albeit all of them as a substitute.
Those examples are somewhat extreme even by Norwegian standards, but they definitely illustrate a very clear direction. Until a few years ago, Tippeligaen clubs were mostly searching for foreigners to fill their ranks. The financial crisis of 2009 changed that dramatically. Having been forced to cut the expenses, Norway suddenly discovered the potential of youth development. The attention was turned to the academies, and an impressive amount of youngsters got plenty of opportunities to prove themselves at the top level.
Some of them took those chances, and thus the young national sides were able to make a huge progress.
Norway's Under-21s deservedly defeated France on their way to qualify for the UEFA European Championship that starts in Israel on Wednesday, and you shouldn't discard their chances of having a very good tournament. The Scandinavians might be underrated, but they possess an extremely experienced and balanced squad.
Tor Ole Skullerud, the coach who stepped up from his role as assistant following the departure of Per Joar Hansen to Rosenborg in December, explains: "In the last five years we have worked very well with our youngsters. We took a few steps in developing our own players in our league. When the clubs suddenly had less money than previously, they stopped buying foreigners and giving them high salaries. Some of those foreigners used to be good, of course, but too many of them didn't bring the quality that we wanted". Players born in 1990 and 1991 profited immensely from such a change of attitude. Just look at Vegar Eggen Hedenstad, a defender who started playing regularly for Stabaek in 2009, when they were champions, at the age of 17. After gaining more than three full seasons of experience in Tippeligaen, he moved on to Freiburg.
Valon Berisha, one of the most exciting prospects in Norway and beyond, made his debut for Viking just a few weeks after his 17th birthday in 2010. Brilliant midfielder Markus Henriksen, who starred for AZ Alkmaar this season, was a regular in the Rosenborg starting line-up at the age of 17. Striker Havard Nielsen started playing regularly for Valerenga when he was 17 as well, and midfield dynamo Anders Konradsen was a regular at Bodo/Glimt at 18. Now he is 22, and plays for Rennes in France after two extremely successful seasons with Stromsgodset.
It is easy to find parallels between Norway and Germany in terms of youth development. Bundesliga teams started investing heavily in their academies about a decade ago, and now Joachim Loew has an enormous amount of young superstars to choose from - so much so that quality players like Julian Draxler and Sven Bender have problems making it into the squad, let alone the starting line-up.
Borussia Dortmund, in particular, made the local talent their top priority and are very careful when signing foreigners, after very nearly going out of business. Their success under Jurgen Klopp was extraordinary, and now many Norwegian clubs are following that route.
Another important aspect of Norway's young generation, which can be easily compared to Germany, as well as Switzerland, is its cultural diversity. Immigration changed the nation's mentality in the last couple of decades, and now immigrants and their children provide an important part of Norway's football future. Berisha and striker Flamur Kastrati, as well as Bytyqi, are of Kosovar origins, like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and their team-mates from the Swiss Under-21 side that went all the way to the final at the European championship two years ago. Harmeet Singh, dubbed The Norwegian Iniesta and signed by Feyenoord from Valerenga last summer, was born to Indian parents.
Abdisalam Ibrahim, signed by Manchester City academy at age of 15, was born in Somalia. Right-back Omar Elabdellaoui, who also spent time at City before being transferred to newly promoted Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig, is of Moroccan origins. Striker Joshua King's father is a Gambian, while midfielder Yann-Erik de Lanlay's father is French.
"We have quite a few players with immigration background in our squad. That gave us qualities and technical abilities that we didn't have before" says Skullerud, "There are immigrant communities in our cities, with more and more players coming out of them. They are of different mentality, and they gave a lot of positive things to the team."
As players get experience at the early stages of their career, they also tend to accept offers from bigger leagues when still very young, with differing success. Berisha and Nielsen succeeded at Salzburg, while defender Thomas Rogne didn't feature regularly for Celtic, and Singh is still waiting for a chance to prove himself at Feyenoord.
"It is necessary for players to leave Tippeligaen after they played more than 50 games in order to progress and make our national teams better. We have many players from abroad in our squad, and they have good mentality. They grow up, and add qualities that we can't find in our own league" states Skullerud. However, he added: "It is important for them to get playing time".
The star who enjoyed the most playing time in the top league is Havard Nordtveit. Cherry picked by Arsene Wenger for Arsenal in 2007, he didn't get any real chances in London, but flourished after signing for Borussia Monchengladbach in 2011, and is now one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga.
And talking of talents who learned their basics in England, one must mention Magnus Eikrem, who studied under Solskjaer at the Manchester United academy, alongside King. He was then taken back home to Molde by "the baby-faced assassin", and the pair won two successive championship titles together.
Norway's U21 coach Skullerud has a great squad, and he also sees a bright future: "The new Under-21 team, which we started with players born in 1992, 1993 and 1994 looks good. The Under-17 team is very promising, and the Under-19 is making progress. We are happy with the development of the Norwegian football".
As you can see, sometimes less money is good for football, and Norway's success in Israel will send another clear message to the world. The Bundesliga and Tippeligaen are making that point.