Saturday, June 6, 2009

World Cup Soccer: Norway's eye is on the prize

With today’s World Cup qualifying match it seems like a good time to blog about Norway’s national pastime, soccer.

As in most of Europe – or most of the rest of the world beyond the States for that matter – soccer is hugely popular in Norway. Not only is the sport popular among children and teenagers, it’s also by far the biggest spectator sport, with dozens of teams throughout the country playing in several professional and semi-pro divisions. The top league, known in Norwegian as Tippeligaen or Eliteserien, is to Norway what the NFL is to America. The country also boasts national squads (men’s, women’s, and youth teams) that compete around the world.

The men’s national team
will square off today against Macedonia in a World Cup qualifier, one of several that the team will play before next year’s tournament in South Africa. Currently Norway is ranked 47th out of about 200 national teams, sandwiched between South Korea and Gabon. Only 32 teams will enter the final competition, so Norway needs to do well against Macedonia – and the far more challenging Dutch team which they’ll play next Wednesday – in order to advance.

Things have been looking up for the Norwegian national team in the last few months ever since the return of coach Egil “Drillo” Olsen, who replaced Åge Hareide after a winless 2008 run. Drillo is an iconic figure in Norwegian football and his style of play – emphasizing long passes and fast breaks over more strategic attacks – is extremely controversial. And effective: when Drillo coached the team from 1990 to 1998, he took the team to two World Cups and the European Cup as well. So far this year, Drillo has led the Norwegians to victories against Germany and Finland.

Unfortunately if you live outside of Norway it’s very difficult to watch the matches. Sometimes you can watch the matches online, but you usually have to pay for the privilege, and some international matches aren’t included due to licensing restrictions. If you understand Norwegian you can listen to the games on NRK via net radio, but for some bizarre reason the action is periodically interrupted for commercials and bad music. Fox Soccer Channel has pretty good coverage of the World Cup qualifying rounds (including free video highlights) and you might even catch some Norway games on ESPN 360, especially as we get closer to the World Cup. Sometimes we are reduced to reading the minute-by-minute text updates which you’ll find on the websites of most Norwegian newspapers, our favorite is Bergens Tidene.

Next week we’ll post the results of the games against Macedonia and the Netherlands, then some more information on the Norwegian professional leagues, so keep reading.

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