Kongsvinger, the darlings of Norway, ready for Rosenborg cup final
In one week's time, on Nov. 20, second-tier Kongsvinger will experience the proudest moment in their 124-year history when they face Rosenborg at the famous Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo in their first Norwegian Cup final.
The modest First Division club met Juventus in the UEFA Cup back in 1993, but this occasion is even more emotional. The cup has always been an extremely popular and important competition in Norway and Kongsvinger reaching the final was unthinkable three years ago, when the club was in desperate financial and professional crisis. However, two unorthodox decisions changed everything.
First, in 2013, Espen Nystuen was offered the jobs of chief executive and sporting director -- an unprecedented move given that the 31-year-old was still a player for Lillestrom at the time. Born in Kongsvinger, Nystuen had spent his early years at the club as a midfielder before moving on to bigger things in 2005. His return to reclaim the No. 10 shirt again (even though he is a centre-back now) was a bold one.
"Kongsvinger is a small town, and we are all familiar with each other," Nystuen tells ESPN FC. "Roy Holth, the main investor in the club, knew that I have academic degrees in sports science and economy and thought that I was the right man for the job. I could have continued playing in the first division, but it was important to think long term, and that was a good opportunity to ensure a career after my playing days. I chose to return home and help my club that was in a very difficult financial situation in the second tier."
And so while still playing 90 minutes in every game, Nystuen started a revolution at the club.
"As a modest club, we have to think differently to find our way," he says. "We prioritised economy and decided to use youngsters to turn things around. Developing local talents instead of buying players elsewhere became a priority. We stopped paying big salaries to players, but rather spent the budget on our staff, including physical trainers and a chef."
Naturally, the changes did not take effect in a positive way immediately. Kongsvinger were relegated to the second division (the third tier) in 2013, but in the midst of more struggle, a second unusual decision was taken when the club brought in unknown 34-year-old coach Luis Berkemeier Pimenta in September 2014.
Pimenta, who speaks seven languages and moved to Luxembourg at the age of 5, followed a long line of Portuguese managers who have never played professional football themselves, including Carlos Queiroz, Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and Leonardo Jardim.
"I understood quite early that I don't have a talent to be a footballer, and my dream has always been to become a coach", he tells ESPN FC. Thus he studied high performance coaching in Lisbon and sports psychology at John Moores University, where he helped with analysis at Liverpool's youth academy.
While in England, Pimenta met two young Norwegian coaches -- Leif Gunnar Smerud and Haakon Lunov -- and when they joined Honefoss (who had been promoted to the Tippeligaen in 2011), they wanted the Portuguese to join their staff. Pimenta, who had worked as an assistant at Belenenses' under-17 side and contributed to Queiroz's academy, saw that as a step forward.
Three years later, he would be in a managerial job of his own. Kongsvinger came calling as Nystuen was able to pick his own boss.
"We took a chance at Luis, but that was within our strategy. We were looking for a young and ambitious coach for our young players," Nystuen says. "During our conversations, we liked the way he thinks about football."
"On the pitch I am Espen's boss, and in the office he is my boss," Pimenta said with a smile. "It was good for me to come towards the end of the 2014 season when we had no chances of promotion. I got to know the team, and we laid the foundations for the next season together."
Those foundations were well built. Kongsvinger became unstoppable in 2015, winning their group in the third-tier by 20 points and enjoying a perfect home record. And, this season, the club's meteoric rise has continued as Kongsvinger outscored all the teams in the second division, with 56 goals in 30 fixtures. They finished fifth after losing just twice since early July, qualified for the promotion playoffs and have a decent chance of going up again. Not only that, they did so with adventurous football that brought a lot of support from neutrals.
"One of our goals was to build an identity. We want to be able to implement different styles, but want the ball all the time. It is important to entertain the fans who come to watch us," Pimenta says, "When I came in, most of the people in the stands were of older generation -- those who remember the good days in the 1980s and '90s [when they would be fighting for the Norwegian Premier League title]. Now we are creating a new generation of supporters who like this team."
The backroom staff are working well together, too. Pimenta and Nystuen seem in perfect harmony, and the fact that both were born in 1981 allows them to be closer to the players, while assistant coach Goncalo Pereira is just 27.
"There is a short distance between directors, coaches and players, and that helps to create friendship within the squad. We work in a very good environment," Nystuen insists. "Luis has a great talent for coaching, a clear strategy and a strong mentality. Temporary setbacks don't affect him. He is an attack-minded coach who wants to dominate every game."
Kongsvinger may have been expecting a good league run, but their sensational cup form came as a huge bonus. They met lower division sides at earlier stages, but were drawn away against Stromsgodet in the semifinals, which was supposed to be the end of the road. "Stromsgodset won all seven home semifinal fixtures in their history, while Kongsvinger lost all four semifinals in their history -- the last of them 20 years ago," Pimenta says.
The task was immense, but they won 2-1, and the young coach was in tears after the final whistle. "It means a lot to all of us and to the region, and beating such strong opponents proves that we are doing something right," he says. "To see a local kid, defensive midfielder Harald Holter, assisting another local kid, right-back Fredrik Palerud, to score the first goal was amazing."
Another star to shine has been 19-year-old centre-back Adrian Ovlien who came into the starting lineup in the summer when Nystuen was injured and has kept the CEO on the bench for the rest of the season.
"I am more motivated with the work outside of the pitch nowadays, and it is time for me to step back," Nystuen says, saying that he could consider retirement at the end of the season. "Adrian is a local lad; I signed him in 2013. He was the captain of Norway's U16 team, and I am proud that he is now taking my place."
But before that, Nystuen would love to play a part in the historic final against champions Rosenborg, even though he knows he won't be in the starting XI. "I hope the team needs me for the last few minutes, and that would mean that we have a lead to protect," he says.
That is no joke. Kongsvinger won't change their style of play against the strongest team in the country and intend to try and take the lead.
"We have to dare. We will try and take the game to Rosenborg," he adds before insisting that a second promotion in a row would not come too soon for the club. "We are learning on the way. There is a saying in Norway: The road is the goal. It means that we should enjoy the process of making progress and getting closer to our destination."
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin