One last challenge for Olsen
© AFP

When Egil Olsen's name resurfaced in the sports pages two weeks ago, football fans around the world smiled as their minds wandered down memory lane. This is the 66-year-old's second stint as Norway coach, well over a decade after establishing the Scandinavian nation of less than five million inhabitants firmly on the global footballing map. This will again be his aim, although the second time around, Olsen seems to be facing more than his fair share of critics.

In Norway, he is still known affectionately as Drillo, harking back to his playing days as a mercurial winger who could seemingly drill a hole in opposition defences. He won 16 caps as a player but it was his time as coach from 1990 to 1998, when he steered his country to two FIFA World Cup™ finals, that really made his name.

Norway's golden era
During qualifying for USA 1994, Norway finished ahead of both England and the Netherlands and once over the other side of the Atlantic they only failed to reach the knockout stages on goals scored.

"There are many good memories from that period, but when we beat Poland 3-0 away in 1993 and qualified for the World Cup in the USA in 1994, it felt almost unreal," said Olsen with pride. "That was the first time Norway had qualified for the World Cup since 1938."

Norway were even more impressive when qualifying unbeaten for France 1998. They then went on to record a 2-1 group-stage win over eventual finalists Brazil before going out 1-0 to Italy in the Round of 16. The team had been transformed into a genuine world force, even claiming second spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in October 2003 and in July and August 2005.

South Africa still the dream
And now Drillo is back again, this time on a temporary basis after taking over the reins from Age Hareide. Olsen will be in charge for the country's three upcoming friendlies, but he is definitely looking much further ahead and aiming to help Norway through to South Africa 2010.

Though Norway are bottom of Group 9 of European Zone qualifying with only two points from three matches, Olsen remains confident. "I think it is realistic to aim for the second place in our qualifying group, then we may get a place in the play-offs which gives us a fair chance of qualifying," Olsen told FIFA.com. "But we know that an eventual play-off will be against strong opponents."

Experience the key
Not everyone shares Olsen's belief that Norway will qualify in the face of competition from the Netherlands, Scotland, Iceland and FYR Macedonia. He has the backing of the Norwegian fans, but both the media and club coaches such as Kjetil Rekdal of Aalesunds FK and Uwe Rosler of Viking Stavanger feel Drillo has been away from the top level of the game for too long.

Olsen himself, who over the past decade has coached Wimbledon, FK Fredrikstad and the Iraqi national team, prefers to highlight his many years of experience. "If you are curious and don't think you always have all the right answers, then over the years you will accumulate knowledge which helps you to develop as a coach," he told FIFA.com.

"I know I was a better coach when I was 40 than when I was 30, and an even better one when I was 50, and this has a lot to do with experience."

Back to basics
What is certain is that Olsen will be looking to make Norway a team to be feared once more, even if this means focusing on the past. "What was missing from Norway's game over recent years? Not much, but I prefer the team to be even more zonally orientated defensively and have a slightly more direct attacking style," he said.

"The players will always influence the way a team is playing, but some basic frameworks are independent of the players, for example defending zones rather than marking individuals and tactics based on a direct attacking approach after winning the ball."

It looks as if Norway under Olsen will be getting back to basics and playing a more physical, aerial game, which may well suit John Carew and his team-mates. It is a change of which Jan Age Fjortoft, Tore Andre Flo and the class of the 90s would no doubt approve.