Ståle Solbakken was viewed as a prime catch when Norway lured him back from Copenhagen and then extended his contract as head coach for the national men’s football team. He has failed, however, to qualify Norway for either the World Cup or the European Championships, and now says he’ll quit if he doesn’t get Norway into the next World Cup in 2026.
“That’s far enough in the future, we’d have to be extremely unlucky,” Solbakken told Norway’s TV2 last week, before it was confirmed that Norway won’t get to play in next year’s European Championships. Solbakken’s team beat the Færøy Islands 2-0 a few days later, and tied 3-3 against Scotland on Sunday, but earlier poor performances left Norway out in the cold. Only a technicality tied to the results of a match between Romania and Israel could have yielded a spot for Norway, but that didn’t happen, leaving Norway with “a quite meaningless autumn over,” according to commentator Daniel Røed-Johansen in newspaper Aftenposten.
Norwegian football officials and fans, and Solbakken himself, had expected much better. Norway has, after all, some of the world’s best football players including Martin Ødegaard and Erling Braut Haaland, with more spectacular talent coming along like Antonio Nusa and Oscar Bobb. They just couldn’t manage to win enough matches in their qualifying group, which also included Spain, Georgia and Cyprus. Only the two best performers during the qualfiers, Spain and Scotland, won spots, with Norway coming in third.
That set off a barrage of criticism, also in the international media. British newspapers were especially tough, all but feeling sorry for Haaland that he’ll miss the chance to play in Euro 2024 and has yet to qualify for championship action. Norway “messed up,” wrote Britain’s Daily Mail, while Norwegian football experts lashed out at Solbakken.
“I’m tired of hearing all the arguments we get served when we don’t deliver,” Kjetil Rekdal, who played on the national squad during Norway’s last World Cup in 1994, told VGTV. Rekdal even scored during World Cup and now thinks every coach since has kept making excuses for Norway’s failure to qualify.
“No one listens to them any longer,” said Rekdal, recently fired himself as coach of Norway’s former top team Rosenborg in Trondheim. “We’ve heard them for 25 years. It’s the same rule again and again, with various coaches, teams, formations. The Norwegian men’s team almost always loses when there are decisive matches.”
It’s become a pattern and “it hurts,” admitted team player Jørgen Strand Larsen, who plays professionally for Celta Vigo. Strand substituted for Haaland in Scotland on Sunday because Haaland was injured, and told reporters that “we know how close we came, and how small the margins were for this to be a grand finale. We’re very sorry.”
Solbakken told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it hurts him more than anyone, and he struggles to explain it. “No one is in as much pain as me, no one hurts more than us,” Solbakken said, “and I apologize that we didn’t manage this. But this has been a surreal qualifier.”