Where did all the Norwegians go from the Premier League?

From the early 1990’s and for the following 15 years, the Norwegian league sent a steady stream of players across the North Sea to England and the Premier League. In the first season of Premier League football Norway had one of the biggest contingents of foreign players with six representatives. That number grew with each year, and in 1999 it peaked when there were 25 players in Premiership teams. This was also the season when a Norwegian scored the winning goal in Europe’s top competition, the Champions League.

But since that night in Barcelona the number of players finding their way from Norway’s top league to the Premiership has almost stopped. Has the quality of the Norwegian top flight gone downhill? Are the young players from Norway lacking in the skill needed to play in England? Or is it simply a question of money stopping English teams looking north for players?

Rosenborg, the most successful team in Norway for the past 20 years, won the Norwegian title 13 years in a row from 1992, and this stability and enduring success gave the team the opportunity to compete in Europe, and eventually establish themselves as a regular fixture in the Champions League group stages, as they qualified 11 times from their 13 title wins. Wins over teams like AC Milan, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund made the players transfer targets for major clubs around Europe, but the club managed to replace the players who left with players from their own ranks or from other Norwegian teams.

Many of the players who played in Europe for Rosenborg and then moved to clubs around Europe, formed the core of the national side that qualified for World Cups in 1994 and 1998, and the Euro 2000. The appointment of almost unknown coach Egil Olsen in 1990 marked the start of a period for the national side where they qualified for major tournaments, and it reached the number two spot in FIFA’s rankings. It was the international success that led to most of the transfers to England, and the experience players got from playing for top European teams helped continue the national side’s rise.

After Egil Olsen resigned, his long serving assistant Nils Johan Semb took over as coach. Norway qualified for Euro 2000, but went out in the group stage on goal difference. After this the national side went through several coaches, and the players from the 90’s were getting older and playing less regularly for their clubs. They did not qualify for any tournaments during these years, and dropped to a lowly 53 in the FIFA rankings.

During the declining years of the national side Rosenborg started to lose their grip on the Norwegian league as well. Different teams won the league and got the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League. One would think that this would give Norwegian players more chances to attract interest from top clubs, but instead it had the opposite effect. None of the teams that won the league had the experience of European competition that Rosenborg had, and most went out in the early qualifying rounds. The fees that had once been more than reasonable for players with both European and international experience, started to rise as the clubs had to balance the books without the lucrative Champions League money. This dependence on transfer fees for the best players to balance the books, forced many clubs to sell to smaller clubs just to stay within their budgets. And with players starting to demand higher wages, the clubs started to look to a cheaper way to recruit players. The solution was found in Eastern Europe and Africa.

A large proportion of the transfers from Norwegian clubs to England in the last few years have been African youngsters making a name for themselves in the game in Norway before moving on, and also players from other Nordic countries using it as a stepping stone to a bigger stage. Manchester United has bought two players from Norwegian clubs in the last few years, but neither are Norwegian nationals. Both have been leading players in the Norwegian top flight, and the clubs selling them have struggled to find adequate replacements. This influx of foreign players has made it harder to get regular first team experience for talented Norwegian youngsters, which has resulted in a decline for both the national side and the U21 side.

But the re-appointment of Egil Olsen as coach of Norway has seen a rapid rise from 53 to 11 in the rankings, and with qualification to the upcoming Euro 2012, Premier League clubs might take notice and start finding value for money in the Norwegian league once again.

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