Gulbrandsen back from the brink
© Foto-net

Ahead of this FIFA Women's World Cup, all the buzz surrounding Norway centred on the return to the fold of influential playmaker Solveig Gulbrandsen. While the the Kolbotn midfielder's 'homecoming' was rightly celebrated, however, the fact that Norway's other Gulbrandsen, Ragnhild, was able to come out of retirement in relative anonymity was perhaps less understandable.

After all, if there has been one glaring shortcoming in Bjarne Berntsen's entertaining side over the past couple of years, it has been in the striking department. And Solveig's namesake is not only a goalscorer, she is a scorer of vital goals. The most important of them all came seven years ago in Sydney, when she helped fire Norway to a final win over USA, securing Olympic gold for a player who, at just 23, would have felt justified in expecting it to prove the first medal of many.

The illusion lasted little over a year. It was then that Gulbrandsen picked up the first of a succession of career-threatening knee injuries; problems that persisted to the extent that, in 2005, she conceded defeat and quit football altogether. "I thought that was it for me, definitely," she said. "But then I started practising again and the knee felt good, so I thought 'why not? I certainly didn't need much convincing when Bjarne asked me to come back to the national team. And it's great to be back, especially at a World Cup. Everyone wants to play on this kind of stage and it's all the more special from my own point of view because I thought those days were over."

Crowd-pleasers
Gulbrandsen certainly subscribes to the theory that you don't truly appreciate what you have until it's gone, and that's why she intends celebrating every Norway goal as passionately as she did her all-important equaliser against Canada. "That felt fantastic," she said, recalling her expertly angled header past Erin McLeod. "It was especially satisfying because as soon as the ball went in I just knew that we would go on to win. I never doubted that we'd get another goal."

Ane Stangeland Horpestad's thoroughly deserved 81st-minute winner proved that Gulbrandsen's faith had been justified, and at the end even the Canada fans were left to applaud the bold, almost cavalier manner in which the Scandinavians had set about reversing their half-time deficit. The daring decision to push forward both full-backs at every opportunity and stick faithfully to their quick-passing style certainly paid dividends, and Gulbrandsen purred with satisfaction at the thought of surprising a few of her team's erstwhile critics.

"That's the kind of team we are now, people can expect a lot more of that," she said. "I think when most people think of Norway, they still think of the way we played in the old days when we would defend deep and throw high balls forward all day long. But that's definitely not our style any more, and anyone who saw us against Canada would have seen that. I think the way we played actually won us the crowd.

"At the start, I thought they were cheering more for Canada than for us but, by the second half, there's no doubt at all that they were on our side. I even heard them singing for us at one point - that was incredible. I'm looking forward to more of the same against Australia. It's fantastic for us because we're used to playing in front of a few hundred people, so that kind of noise and atmosphere makes it a real thrill. I just hope we can make sure the fans are cheering for us again."

McCallum and Garriock impress
Another win might also awaken the interest of the pundits who, as Berntsen noted ahead of the tournament, largely opted to ignore or discount Norway as potential contenders. "That's true, but I couldn't actually blame them for that," said Gulbrandsen, giving her take on the situation. "We're a good team but we haven't been playing very well this year. All I would say is that it was exactly the same going into the European Championship in 2005. No-one gave us a chance then but we went all the way to the final."

A podium spot, and one of Europe's three allocated Olympic berths, would represent mission accomplished on this occasion, although Gulbrandsen acknowledged that Norway must first focus on facing down a formidable Australia team brimming with individual talent. "Australia are much better than most people realise," she said. "They don't have a big reputation but we have seen them on video and I was very impressed. They're quicker than Canada and they have some very good players.

"I liked the strikers, they were excellent, and I was really impressed by their playmaker in the middle, (Collette) McCallum, and the player they have wide on the left (Heather Garriock). Both played with a lot of class, so it will be a big challenge."

Gulbrandsen certainly knows all about those.