As I write this I'm sitting in my Oslo apartment watching a popular Norwegian TV channel, TV2 Zebra, sort of the Channel 4 of Norway. Any guesses as to what I'm watching? A two-hour English football special, featuring five pundits live in a studio talking about transfer deadline day.
Back in December I stumbled into a packed bar in Tromsø to find everyone's eyes glued to the Liverpool match. A few weeks ago in Lillehammer, the only lively bar I could find on the Saturday evening was a sports bar. There were at least 30 pairs of cross-country skis lined up in an orderly fashion outside, with their owners inside watching, yep, the live Premier League match.
When I first moved here I found the experience odd, but as the months went on it soon became normal. The fact is, English football is just as popular here as it is in England. It's certainly more popular than domestic Norwegian football, which is a very poor standard in comparison. If you want to test this theory, ask a native Norwegian which football team they support. Sure, they'll support a local team. But listen to their response…
“Liverpool and Lillestrøm”
“Leeds and Rosenborg”
“Arsenal and Viking”
The English team will be first. All the Premier League clubs and a whole host of others have a very active Norwegian supporters club. Leeds, Manchester City, Arsenal, the list goes on and on. But the most popular, by far, is Liverpool.
You'll Never Walk Alone in Norway
The Norwegian love affair with Liverpool Football Club is hard to fathom. At first I thought people were being over the top and just wanting to make conversation about English football. But no, there is a genuine passion here for Liverpool just as strong as anything back on the Mersey. It's recognised by the club too. Last year the first team came over to Oslo to play a pre-season friendly against Vålerenga and it was one of the rare times the Ullevaal Stadium was full for a Vålerenga home match. The match took place shortly after the 22nd July terrorist attack and it was touching to see Liverpool fans and officials adding to the memorial outside the cathedral. The match itself was an entertaining 3-3 draw:
The Premier League really is a business now
Being out here, well it's hit home what a huge worldwide brand the Premier League really is. I heard it all the time on British TV, but it's only now I'm living abroad that I really appreciate the truth of those words. I subscribe to TV2 Premier League, a Norwegian pay-to-view TV channel that allows me to watch live Premier League games all weekend, in HD, including multiple options at 3pm (well, 4pm here!) on a Saturday afternoon.
Every Saturday and Sunday there is a Sky Sports style studio with three Norwegian presenters, plus a guest British pundit. Once you get used to the mix of languages (which is VERY confusing at first) it's an entertaining show! The anchorman is Erik Thorstvedt and he is joined frequently by Claus Lundekvam and Lars Bohinen, amongst others.
It's always a bit of a lottery which special guest will turn up from the UK. Most of the time it seems to be Phil Thompson, but a few months ago I was shocked when none other than Paul Gascoigne, one of my football heroes from my youth, turned up in the studio. To be perfectly honest he struggled through the show mumbling and appeared a shadow of his former self, but it was captivating stuff.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all has been a true Northampton Town legend getting regular airtime on Norwegian TV! Goalscoring extraordinaire Trevor Morley, who scored 39 goals in 107 games, is a regular guest on TV2 Premier League. According to his Wikipedia page he's now living in Norway so if you're up for a beer Trev, get in touch! (Update: I interviewed Trevor about his life in Norway – read it here)
What's next for Norwegian football?
There's no denying the popularity of English football (and to a certain extent, German and Spanish too) has a big impact on the domestic game. Even though most matches kick-off at 7pm on Sundays and half the season takes place during the English summer, attendances are low and a transfer deal in England is more likely to steal the headlines than a Norwegian result.
The failure of the national team to qualify for Euro 2012 hasn't helped matters. Neither has the failure of all the Norwegian teams to make it past the qualifying rounds of European competitions this season. Perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leading Molde to their first ever title in his debut season in management might be the start of something, but will Norway hold on to their home-grown hero once the Premier League comes knocking, as seems inevitable?
So, what's next for Norwegian football? You tell me.