Meet Erling Haaland, the teenage striker who idolizes Zlatan, eats like Ronaldo and scores goals like them both
Erling Braut Haaland idolises Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He models his fish-based diet on that of Cristiano Ronaldo. But by becoming the first teenager since Wayne Rooney in 2004 to score a Champions League hat trick, on his debut in the competition for FC Salzburg in September, 19-year-old Haaland has already done what his two idols failed to achieve.
Even Zlatan must have been impressed by this young wannabe who appears to have the talent and hunger to match his obvious self-belief.
"I had a lot of role models and I have seen many good players, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the biggest one for me -- how he became so good, the [path] he took, the way he plays," Haaland said in an interview with redbullsalzburg.at. "Also, he is Scandinavian, so someone has to take over from him."
It's big talk, but the 6-foot-3 Haaland has lived up to the hype. The son of Alfie Haaland, the former Manchester City, Leeds United and Norway midfielder, Erling has benefited from his father's knowledge of the game and determination to ensure that his son carefully plots his career path. But Alfie says that Erling's drive to reach the top comes from within rather than any parental interference.
"Erling has always been talented," Alfie told ESPN FC. "You see lots of talented young players, but not all of them have the determination.
"I have always seen hunger in Erling. From a young age, 11 or 12, he would go out on his own to an indoor hall, practice his skills and play against older boys. He always had that inner will to make himself better. Maybe that is what he inherited from me, because I never had his talent," Alfie continued. "I had to be determined to make it in the game. But Erling made all the sacrifices, leaving home at 16 to move to Molde, and he is a lot more professional than I was.
"He was told a story by Patrice Evra about a lunch he had with Ronaldo and Cristiano had fish, nothing else. Erling now tries to do the same things because Ronaldo is 34 and still at the top of the game, so it shows the value of doing the right things."
For Haaland, doing the right thing extends to making the right career choices. He left local club Bryne for Molde in 2017 despite interest from European clubs, with Erling and his father putting their faith in then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
"Ole had a very big impact on my life," Haaland said. "He taught me a lot. He was a great footballer, he won the Champions League, so he was a big player. He is one of the reasons why I am here today. He is a good person and a good coach."
But Haaland's development, in the space of 18 months, was a surprise to some.
"The first time he turned up at Molde, I didn't think he was all that," Molde captain Ruben Gabrielsen said. "But then he developed in a way I've never seen in my whole life. He is stronger than he looks and quicker than he looks. He is a beast."
From Molde, Haaland once again rejected interest from bigger clubs to sign for Salzburg, a club accustomed to winning the Austrian championship but also one with a track record for developing young talent, including Liverpool's Sadio Mane and Naby Keita.
"Erling could have left Molde for Juventus," Jan Fjortoft, the former Norway forward and friend of the Haaland family, told ESPN FC. "But he and his father chose Salzburg because it was the right move at this stage of his career.
"I have followed his career closely. He has always been mature, with the perfect attitude. He is a goal-getter, you can see that in his eyes," Fjortoft continued, "but he is also blessed with a terrific physique. He is quick, powerfully quick and he is like a machine once he hits his stride. The important thing about Erling is that, whichever level he moves up to, he succeeds.
"He has now scored a hat trick in the Champions League and, at some stage, he will move to a very big league and succeed there too."
"He's crazy," said Salzburg defender Max Wober. "The day before the game, our captain was walking with his dog and newborn baby and suddenly a car came around with its windows down. Erling was inside, just listening to the Champions League anthem really loud!"
"I've been watching the Champions League all of my life and listening to that damn beautiful song!" said Haaland, when asked about Wober's revelation. "It's a song I have been listening to since I was a little kid, so it is maybe my favourite song.
"I still get goosebumps when I talk about it [Genk hat trick]. I've watched the goals back about 30 times."
Even before hitting three against Genk, Haaland made himself one of the most discussed youngsters in the game. In July 2018, he scored four goals in 21 minutes in front of a Manchester United scout as Molde beat Brann 4-0 in Norway. In May of this year, he netted nine goals in a game as Norway defeated Honduras 12-0 in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Poland.
When he travels to England to face European champions Liverpool at Anfield this week in the Champions League, Haaland will be up against Virgil van Dijk, regarded by many as the world's best defender, but he is unfazed by the prospect.
"I don't think you can train to play against him [Van Dijk]," said Haaland , who is hoping to overcome a virus that has forced him out of Salzburg's past three games in order to play. "But you can train on things and maybe trick him or set him out of play."
Alfie Haaland says that the next challenge for Erling is to deal with all the attention. He has been linked, once again, with United and Juventus. (A move to Man United would turn heads for another reason: It was the Red Devils' Roy Keane who all but ended Alfie's career with a horror tackle in the Manchester derby in 2001.) But Jesse Marsch, Salzburg's coach, is confident that Haaland will cope with whatever scrutiny comes his way.
"He has been getting a lot of attention here in Austria as well," Marsch said. "Off the back of scoring nine goals in the U-20 World Cup, I think he is a known player in Europe now. But on the inside of the team, nothing has really changed and that is due to Erling's mentality. He shows up every day the same and is an incredibly hard worker and a great professional for a 19-year-old. He is well-liked within the team, he always has energy and a smile on his face and he never takes a day off."
Since arriving at Salzburg in January 2019, on a five-year contract, Haaland has made himself a cult hero among the supporters, who have nicknamed him "Big Earl."
"He is loved by the fans," said Alex Januschewsky, founder of the Raging Bulls fan club. "If he is intelligent, he will stay for this and the next season. Here he can make mistakes. In bigger leagues, like in England or Italy you have to be [almost] perfect, but here, he can be the hero."
"He's a good kid, with a sense of fun," Fjortoft said. "When he scored the hat trick against Genk, he said he would sleep with all of his hat trick balls in order not to make the other ones jealous!"
Whether Salzburg can hold on to Haaland beyond this season is another matter. Haaland , born in Leeds, has previously expressed a desire to play in England at some stage, but there is growing interest from all of Europe's top leagues. For Alfie, however, there is no rush.
"Salzburg has been a good move for Erling and we are very happy there," he said. "He will have dips in form when he doesn't score for a few games and he knows that period will come along. But if he has choices, you have to be careful with what you choose. We look at the history of the club, the manager, their philosophy, but right now, he has to focus on the next game and nothing else."
That next game will be Liverpool at Anfield, a decent stage for Erling Haaland to show the world that he can be the next big thing.