Norway Has a Must-See Team. Barely Anyone Can Watch It.

3 weeks ago
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The best perch is on the rooftop overlooking the stadium. Reaching it is not for the fainthearted: The only access is via an external staircase, and most of the field can be seen only if you sit right on the lip of the building. But still, during most games, a handful of hardy fans have made the journey up there.

If anything, others have had to be even more creative. Before one match over the summer, one group of fans hired a cherry-picker, parked it outside the stadium, climbed into its basket, and then extended its hydraulic arm until they could see the field.

The stunt resulted in a fine for the club, but it was accepted with a laconic grin. The club’s executives understood that nobody in Bodo, a city of 50,000 people just north of the Arctic Circle, a 16-hour drive from Oslo, has ever seen anything like this; they know that, this season, people will go to extraordinary lengths just to see Bodo/Glimt play.

This has been a golden year for the club. It stands on the cusp of claiming its first Norwegian championship. Despite a budget that is just a fraction of some of its rivals’, it has steamrollered the competition. It has won 20 of its 23 league games and scored an improbable 76 goals — and counting — in the process. It has a slew of records in its sights.

The team’s rise has captivated not only the city and the region, but the country as a whole. Frode Thomassen, Bodo/Glimt’s chief executive, said recently it had sold merchandise to new fans in every corner of Norway, and across Europe, too. Despite a traditionally small fan base, its games are suddenly a major draw for television networks. Ulrik Saltnes, the club’s captain, said barely a day had gone by without an interview request.

Orjan Berg, a former player and now a coach in the club’s youth academy, was struck during his summer vacation by the number of people who approached to congratulate him on the team’s season. “Everyone is cheering for Bodo/Glimt,” he said.

Earlier this year, when his son, Patrick, a 22-year-old midfielder for the club, won his first call-up to the Norwegian national team, he was greeted enthusiastically by Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard and the rest of Norway’s exported superstars. “They said they didn’t normally watch much of the Norwegian league,” Berg said, “but that they were watching our games.”

The bitter reality, of course, is that few have been able to see the greatest team in the club’s history in the flesh. There is a reason fans have had to clamber up that staircase or rent construction equipment: The coronavirus has meant that, for much of the season, only 200 fans have been allowed inside Bodo’s low-slung Aspmyra Stadion for each game. Its largest attendance this year has been 600.

In a year when everyone wants to watch Bodo/Glimt, scarcely anyone can.

All sports produce underdog stories. Leicester City wins the Premier League. Iceland makes the World Cup. Joe Namath leads the Jets to the Super Bowl. But while such stories are rare — that is what makes them special — and while each is unique, their rhythms are familiar.

There is, generally, a charismatic coach. There is either a group of players with something to prove or a squadron of homegrown talents ready to take the world by storm. Most of the time, there is some sort of behind-the-scenes advantage — an edge that will hold for a year or two until everyone else adopts it — or some bold new style of play that takes opponents by surprise.

What makes Bodo/Glimt’s story stand out — what transforms it into almost the Platonic ideal of an underdog story — is that it contains all of those ingredients, and a few more.

The coach, in this case, is Kjetil Knutsen, a 52-year-old who inspires deep affection in his players. Saltnes said he “loves him,” and Patrick Berg praised his collectivist approach: “He listens to his players.”

The core of the squad is homegrown, the likes of Berg, Saltnes, the defender Brede Moe and the winger Jens Petter Hauge all drawn from Bodo itself or from elsewhere in the north of Norway. All came up through the club’s youth system.

“Half the first team are local boys,” Orjan Berg said. “We aim to have 40 percent of our squad from northern Norway, and 15 percent of playing minutes for local players. That is part of our identity. The fans want northern Norwegians to play.”

Credit…Linda Næsfeldt

Prime among them is Patrick Berg, the scion of what is arguably Norway’s premier soccer family. His father, Orjan, played for the club. So did his uncles, Runar and Arild. His grandfather, Harald, is regarded as the best player in Bodo/Glimt’s history, the inspiration behind what remains — at least until the league championship is sealed — the team’s crowning achievement: lifting the Norwegian cup in 1975.

And yet, while Bodo/Glimt is a story of the shining promise of youth, it is also a story of redemption. A couple of years ago Patrick Berg, frustrated at his lack of playing time, considered leaving the team that is entwined with his family. “I was not in the right head space,” he said. “I was disappointed and angry, and I was blaming everyone else besides me.”

Saltnes, his captain, considered walking away from the game altogether, saying he had long since ceased to find soccer fun. Before games, he battled nausea and stomach cramps. He was, in hindsight, consumed by “doubts and fears.”

That was only three years ago. A few weeks back, he led the team out at San Siro for a Europa League game against A.C. Milan. “If you look at the team that day,” Saltnes said, “almost every player would have a strange story about how they ended up on that pitch. They had all been let down or injured or wanted to leave. You would never have guessed their stories.”

All of these, of course, are familiar tropes in any case study of success against the odds. What makes Bodo/Glimt especially compelling is that they are all present, all at the same time. That, in part, may explain the club’s appeal.

“We are an underdog,” said Thomassen, the chief executive. “And who doesn’t love an underdog?”

In the spring of 2019, Bodo/Glimt’s players traveled to Spain for their preseason training camp. Traditionally, while they were there, they would discuss their goals for the year ahead.

This time, though, they came back with a different mission. “We did away with all of that stuff,” Saltnes said. “We did not have any ambitions. We just wanted to focus on performance.”

Saltnes, like his colleagues, does not believe there is a singular explanation for what has happened to Bodo/Glimt in the past three years, a silver bullet that has transformed it from an also-ran into what many regard as the best club team Norway has seen in at least two decades.

“People always ask what the secret is, but there is no one thing or one person,” Saltnes said. “It has all happened very naturally. There was no grand vision, no map.”

The one thing that everyone agrees on, though, is that none of it would be possible without Bjorn Mannsverk. A former fighter pilot who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and flew missions above Libya, he was hired as the team’s mental coach in 2017.

Though he was not a soccer fan — Mannsverk found the first few games he watched “boring,” though he insisted he enjoys soccer much more now. As a member of Norway’s air force, he had discovered the benefits of mental training and mindfulness, and he accepted the challenge of trying to introduce his methods to sports.

“I only had two rules,” he said. “It all had to be voluntary. And I would not be the club’s agent. I would not tell the players they should be more happy or that they should work harder.”

Credit…Linda Næsfeldt

Initially, he found his new charges “very quiet, much more so than working with fighter pilots,” but three years later, his impact has been seismic. He runs one-on-one sessions — each lasting about 30 minutes — and group meetings. He gives the players “homework,” in which they are encouraged to reflect on their emotions and experiences. And every morning, the squad meditates before training.

Occasionally, his methods appear in plain sight: When Bodo/Glimt concedes a goal, the players regularly come together to talk it through. “Not every time,” Mannsverk said. “Sometimes there is a bit of bad luck or whatever. But if they need to, they do. This is quite rare, I think.”

Saltnes had just come from a group session with Mannsverk and several teammates when we spoke. It was, he said, intensely personal.

“We have a very open culture,” he said. “We say things to our coach that, at other clubs, might be taken as a sign of weakness.” Patrick Berg credits Mannsverk with not only helping him “as a player, but as a person, too.”

It was Mannsverk who encouraged the idea of thinking about performance, rather than results. “Focusing on results generates a lot of stress,” he said. “Focusing on performance is a really creative process.”

The results were immediate. Bodo/Glimt finished 11th in 2018, a creditable, but unspectacular, finish for a newly promoted team. Last year, it finished second, and only a late collapse prevented the club from claiming the title. This year, there will be no mistake: It will claim the championship playing an adventurous, open, expansive style of play that even Saltnes described as “kamikaze.”

“I don’t think it would be possible to play like that without Bjorn and the mental work we do,” he said. “No, I don’t think that would end very well at all.”

Orjan Berg was 7 when Bodo/Glimt won that cup in 1975. He remembers that for quite a while afterward his family could not go into Bodo on a Saturday. “People just wanted to stop him and talk about football,” he said of his father. “It feels the same now.”

There is sadness, of course, that this golden year should have been played out in the near-silence of all-but-empty stadiums, but those at the club are phlegmatic about that. “Of course people would like to watch us, and we would like to have fans in, but there is not much point wasting energy on things we can’t do anything about,” Thomassen said.

That, though, is not the only poignant note in Bodo/Glimt’s uplifting story. A few hours after that game last month in Milan, it was confirmed that Hauge — the elfin winger who has been the team’s breakout star — would not be returning to Norway. Not for long, anyway. He had caught the Italian team’s eye, and it had no intention of letting him go.

He will, most likely, be the first of several key players to depart. “That is part of the football industry,” Thomassen said. “Of course, we have sponsors and that sort of thing, but the money is in selling players.” He knows that a team that does well will, soon enough, be picked apart by bigger, richer predators.

Credit…Linda Næsfeldt

Next up might be two of the team’s imports, the Danes Philip Zinckernagel and Kasper Junker, or even the 22-year-old Berg. “Players have bigger ambitions than playing in Norway,” he said.

For him, as a local player, as a childhood fan, this season has felt “like a dream.” There is a risk for the club, though, that once it ends, dawn will bring a cold, bleak light, that when people wake up from their reverie this team that everyone wanted to watch will be gone.

Thomassen does not see it that way. When the club advertised for an under-19 coach a few weeks ago, he said, it was inundated with applications, more than 400 in all. He believes Bodo/Glimt is now more attractive to players in the rest of Norway than ever; he is full of pride at the work that has been done to improve the academy, to keep it churning out prospects.

“Many people want to be here now,” he said. “It has been a tremendous journey, but for us the adventure does not end this year. We have to keep developing, to make this the first step. We will have to make sure we win the title next year, too.”

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