An introduction to Norwegian football

Football is an incredibly popular sport to watch and participate in in Norway, but the professional league suffers from foreign rivals. Here’s what you need to know about Norwegian football.

The most popular sport in the world, the beautiful game, goal post sweater. Football brings people together from all over the world and the same goes for Norway.

Vålerenga fans in Bodø/Glimt.
Vålerenga fans in Bodø/Glimt.

While youth grassroots football is incredibly strong in Norway, there is also a much more global perspective on professional football than in other countries, particularly England.

Why I watch Norwegian football

I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember, including by other backers on my own team! The reason is actually pretty simple. I enjoy the matchday experience, especially away games.

The technical quality of the game is not as high as in other leagues. But for me that is secondary to the fan experience of going to a Norwegian football stadium.

It’s hard to quantify, but there’s a lot to be said for being a part of something and experiencing the ups and downs that football club inevitably brings. Scientists have even shown that the support experience is good for you!

Although there isn’t much of an away culture in Norwegian football (more on that later), it has allowed me to better understand life in small towns like Molde that attach so much of their modern identity to their football clubs.

Aker Stadium on the Molde coast
Aker Stadium, Molde.

I’m also fortunate that my job allows me to travel extensively around Norway and I can often time these trips to coincide with a football match.

The dominance of English football in Norway

When I first moved to Norway, I quickly realized that. I would ask who someone supports and even if the person supports a Norwegian team they would always lead with their foreign (usually English) team…

“Manchester United and Lillestrom”

“Liverpool and Brann”

…and so it continues. I assumed this was because I was clearly an Englishman asking the question, but I gradually came to realize that part of a Norwegian football fan’s identity is – in most cases – primarily about being an English club to support.

However, after following my adopted Norwegian club Vålerenga for several years, I have come across many people who see domestic football first.

Norway soccer match at Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo
Norway vs Iceland at Ullevaal Stadium, Oslo.

But there is no doubt that the success of the Norwegian league and individual clubs is being held back by the popularity of English football.

Differences in Norwegian football

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Norwegian football is played as a summer sport. Due to the weather in Norway, the season usually lasts from late March to early November.

Despite the long winter off-season, there are still many games at both ends of the season, taking place in cold, snowy conditions. This is especially true for northern clubs like Tromsø and Bodø/Glimt.

International players

Those who follow international football will quickly notice the lack of Norwegian internationals playing in the domestic league.

While there is no shortage of Norwegian players in Norway, foreign clubs are quick to snap up the best Norwegians. Teams playing in the Netherlands or Belgium in Europe’s ‘second division’ leagues are popular targets for talented Norwegians.

Norway team captain and Arsenal player Martin Ødegaard
Martin Ødegaard left Norway aged just 16.

Perhaps the most famous move was Martin Odegaard to Real Madrid when he was just 16 years old. Erling Braut Haaland moved to Austria as an 18-year-old before moving to the German league before joining Manchester City this summer.

Clubs from wealthier European leagues explore games in Norway extensively. This often makes Norwegian clubs a popular choice for younger players from outside Europe trying to break into European football. As a result, many clubs are more international than one would initially assume.

fan culture gone

What you also quickly notice as a fan is the relative lack of away fan culture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t away fans. But it’s significantly less than a typical game in Norway than in England.

In most cases, the reason is simply distance. Most away games involve significant distances that are too far to drive. That means fans often have to fly in two planes just to attend an away game.

With most games taking place at 6 or 8 p.m., it’s not always possible for fans to get home the same day, even if they fly. Add a hotel to the cost of airfare and it’s easy to see why away fans are so rare.

A small group of Tromso fans celebrate a goal against Rosenborg at Lerkendal Stadium in Trondheim.
A small group of Tromso fans celebrate a goal against Rosenborg at Lerkendal Stadium in Trondheim.

There are of course exceptions. At Vålerenga’s Intility Arena, for example, visiting teams often have more away fans than usual. The reason is simple: the relatively high number of supporters from other teams from all over the country who now live and work in Oslo!

Boxing Day on May 16th

One of the biggest days in the English football calendar is Boxing Day or December 26th. It’s a day that usually sees larger crowds and is one of the first games fans pay attention to when the games are announced.

In Norway, the corresponding day is May 16, the evening before Norwegian Constitution Day. There is a full schedule of Eliteserien games on May 16th, and the games are often more local where possible.

Both mean that the May 16 games are often the best-attended games of the season.

Women’s soccer in Norway

I don’t have any data to back that up, but I feel like there’s more focus on women’s football here in Norway. Women’s football has received a lot more attention since I left England, so maybe times are changing.

Ada Hegerberg is a Norwegian footballer
Norway’s Ada Hegerberg won the first female Ballon D’or award in 2018.

Norwegian women’s football received a lot of attention in 2018 when Ada Hagerberg won the first female Ballon D’or, an award for the world’s best player.

Just last weekend, the women’s league game Brann vs. Vålerenga set a new attendance record with over 10,000 spectators. That’s a bigger attendance than most men’s games in the top division.

Youth football in Norway

There is a high level of participation in football (and other sports) among children and young people throughout Norway. This activity is made possible through extensive volunteer activities and supported by charities such as the Zuccarello Foundation.

Regarded as the largest football tournament in the world, the Norway Cup is an annual event for youth football clubs in Ekeberg, Oslo. Teams travel from all over the world to take part, including Zambia.

Structure of Norwegian professional football

Norwegian men’s football is structured similarly to many professional league systems across Europe. The pinnacle of men’s football is called Eliteserien.

elite series

During the summer season, 16 teams play each other home and away for a total of 30 games per club. The team with the most points wins the championship title.

Match at Rosenborg's Lerkendal Stadium in Trondheim
Rosenborg’s Lerkendal Stadium in Trondheim.

When talking about the league, you often hear “medals”. Because the second and third place qualify for European football. Therefore, placing in the top three leagues is generally considered a success.

The two teams with the fewest points are relegated to the second division. The third worst team advances to the playoff finals for the right to remain in the Eliteserien.

OBOS leagues

The second division of Norwegian football is known as OBOS-ligaen for sponsorship reasons. It also includes 16 teams playing each other at home and away.

The top two advance to the Elite Series, while teams ranked third through sixth advance to the playoffs. The winner of the playoff round plays against the third worst team in the Eliteserien for the right to play in the top division in the following season.

At the bottom of the OBOS leagues, the two worst clubs are relegated and the third worst team participates in a play-off tournament.

Soccer field in Henningsvaer, Norway.
Soccer field in Henningsvaer, Norway.

The lower leagues

Below the OBOS leagues, the leagues are divided into regional divisions. These divisions also contain the second teams of many professional clubs.

Norwegian Cup

Every year, most clubs in Norway, regardless of their size, participate in the Norwegian Cup, which is broadly similar to the FA Cup in England. The cup maintains a high reputation in Norway. Winning it is generally considered a big deal by players, fans and media alike.

There are some differences between the Norwegian Cup and the FA Cup that I really like. Firstly, Eliteserien clubs are always drawn away from home in the first rounds. As these are also regional draws, this usually guarantees a big crush and bump payday for the smaller club.

Norway’s largest professional clubs

In the last two seasons, Bodø/Glimt have become the first club from Northern Norway to win the league title. Coupled with Molde’s success in the 2010s, the two clubs have provided a welcome change from Rosenborg’s dominance.

Trondheim-based Rosenborg has won the Norwegian title 26 times, a record. This record includes 15 of the 17 available titles between 1988 and 2004 and four consecutive titles between 2015 and 2018.

Vålerenga fans at the Intility Arena in Oslo
Vålerenga fans at the Intility Arena in Oslo.

The big clubs in Norway’s other big cities – Vålerenga in Oslo, Brann in Bergen and Viking in Stavanger – have all been relatively unsuccessful in recent years. Brann last won the title in 2007 and Vålerenga in 2005, although Viking won the Norwegian Cup in 2019.

Norway men’s national team

With the Norwegian national team not qualifying for a major tournament since 2000, it is fair to say that the Norwegian national team has struggled to live up to expectations.

Many hope that the current generation with world-class players Erling Braut Haaland and Martin Ødegaard will change that.

Disappointing results against Turkey and Latvia cost Norway a place at Qatar 2022, so the focus now turns to the Euro 2024 qualifying tournament in Germany. The draw for the qualifying phase will take place in October 2022.

Norway women’s national team

In stark contrast to the men, Norway’s women have won European, World and Olympic titles, although success has been few and far between over the past 10 years.

The pinnacle of their success was winning the World Cup in 1995. Goals from Hege Riise and Marianne Pettersen saw Norway beat Germany 2-0 to win the title.

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