SHANGHAI, China -- It remains to be seen if reports of Norway's football demise have been greatly exaggerated, but each of the team's first three World Cup games provided increasing evidence that Solveig Gulbrandsen is alive and well in the midfield.
Just months removed from a return to competitive soccer, after more than a year away from the game following the birth last summer of her son Theodor, the 26-year-old Gulbrandsen's availability was a question mark for Norway entering the tournament.
Even she wasn't sure what the answer to that question was going to be when the games began.
"At this level, and to try and run as much as you need to do in the midfield, I wasn't really confident before I played these two matches," Gulbrandsen said after playing all but four minutes in Norway's first two games against Canada and Australia. "I thought maybe I had to play another role on the field and in the team, because I couldn't cope with it."
With Gulbrandsen in the thick of things, Norway clinched first place in Group C with a 7-2 win against Ghana, a game delayed a day and relocated from Shanghai to Hangzhou by weather, and faces China in the quarterfinals. That Norway won its group is no real surprise, even against 2003 semifinalist Canada and up-and-comer Australia, but there is no shortage of doubters when it comes to the team's ability to keep winning.
Since winning a World Cup title in 1995 and gold in the 2000 Olympics, Norway's gleam has dulled on the international stage. A quarterfinal loss against the United States in the 2003 World Cup, an early meeting necessitated by a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Brazil in pool play, knocked Norway out of both that event and the 2004 Olympics.
One of the only bright spots for a side transitioning from one generation to the next during those lean years was Gulbrandsen, who debuted in 1998 and played for the gold-medal winning team in 2000. For an attack trying to carry on following the retirement of proven scorers like Marianne Pettersen and Dagny Mellgren, the young midfielder's development was a life preserver. Her blend of speed and size were perfect for the evolving shape of the women's game, and she was arguably the most talented midfielder in the world when she left the scene in 2005 to start her family.
Although intent on making a comeback, Gulbrandsen, who admits to being very short on patience in the best of times, found returning took more out of her than she expected.
"When I was pregnant, I was really confident to come back," Gulbrandsen said. "But after, I think three months after ... I felt it was really hard training. And it didn't go as fast in my head as it was supposed to, I think. So on one of the first football practices, I was just running the wrong way ... the people just wanted me to move [out of the way] all the time."
Safe to say she is no longer in the way.
Gulbrandsen's last major tournament was the 2005 European Women's Championship. Despite losing to Germany in the final, a run that included a semifinal win against Sweden quieted domestic critics who saw the team as a fallen power.
"We did get a lot of questions about [living up to past success], but this year we haven't really," Gulbrandsen said. "I think that we did so well in the European Championships, so they are a little bit more confident about the team."
And with Gulbrandsen back, they should be.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.