Egil Olsen has long been one of the game’s great eccentrics. A man known for memorising the height of every mountain peak in the world, the studious Norwegian has been widely characterised as something of a ‘mad professor’.
A look at the history of Norway’s national team, however, and something immediately becomes clear. If Olsen is mad, there is method to his madness. When he first took charge in October 1990, the Norwegians were mired in mediocrity, their solitary FIFA World Cup™ appearance in 1938 a distant memory. The team had finished second-bottom in their qualifying section for Italy 1990 and won just six of their previous 48 matches.
Within four years, the man known as ‘Drillo’ had them striding back to the game’s greatest stage, topping a group that included England, the Netherlands and Poland. It was the beginning of a golden age for Norwegian football, during which a team all but devoid of star names twice climbed to second on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and famously beat Brazil en route to reaching the Round of 16 at France 1998.
Olsen’s tactics, which had at their heart long balls and a strong, sturdy defence, weren’t to everyone’s taste, but his departure in 1998 was followed by a period of steady decline. By the time he returned in January 2009, Norway were already resigned to missing out on a fifth successive major tournament, having failed to win any of their eight games over the previous 12 months. Inevitably, the plumbing of such depths has merely served to make their subsequent transformation all the more impressive, with Olsen, 68, having followed up a debut win over Germany by masterminding a succession of similarly impressive scorelines.
Arguably the most eye-catching was a 1-0 win over Portugal that helped Norway ascend to the top of their group in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying, a competition in which only they, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Russia still boast an unblemished record. Indeed, while Saturday brings another formidable test with the visit of Nordic rivals Denmark, a confident Olsen told FIFA.com that the finals are already coming into view.
“It’s been even better that we expected so far,” he said. “We’ve won two difficult away matches (against Iceland and Cyprus) and beaten Portugal, so we’re in a great position. I actually think that if we beat Denmark on Saturday, we’ll be very close to getting ready for Poland and Ukraine. We know it will be tough because, looking at the two teams right now, I’d say that we are on the same level. What we have in our favour is that we concede very few goals – seldom more than one – and I would expect that it will be tight whoever wins.”
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Olsen is strengthening the reputation he forged during the 1990s as Norway’s greatest-ever coach. Returning to the job jeopardised that status, of course, and it certainly went against that cautionary football adage about never going back. Not that Olsen was ever likely to heed such warnings.
He said: “People asked me that a lot, if I was worried about spoiling my reputation from the ‘90s. It never entered my head. Football’s about the here and now and this was something I wanted to do. It’s strange for me, of course. I’m 68 now – an old man, I know – and I never expected to come back to this job. But when they asked me to step in and help the team out, I couldn’t say no. And I’ve enjoyed it.
"I’m working with a group of exciting, talented players and I’ve basically kept the same group together for almost every match. That’s made us almost like a club team and the atmosphere in the dressing room is great. Anyone will have it tough against us now. Denmark will know that they’re coming to play one of the strongest home teams in Europe.”
Not so long ago, describing Norway in such terms would have sparked sniggers. The fact that no-one is laughing, and that Olsen's team are being taken deadly seriously, begs an inevitable question: what has he done to affect such a turnaround?
“It’s mainly been tactical changes, and mainly at the back,” he explained. “I’ve gone back to a zonal defence – in fact, I think we’re probably the most zonal-oriented team in Europe. Offensively not much has changed, although maybe the team is more direct than it was a couple of years ago. We’re certainly not a team whose strategy is based on possession - we don’t play many square passes. For us, the aim is to make as many forward passes as possible and obviously that requires a lot of running and hard work. It’s not a style for everyone, but it’s working for us.”
Talk of zonal marking and quick, direct balls up to the strikers all sounds very familiar, of course, and that’s because it is. Yet although Olsen’s current tactical scheme follows closely the blueprint from his first spell in charge, he admits that the changing face of football has forced some alterations.
“You can’t think exactly the same things will work all over again because football has changed and evolved,” he said. “It’s quicker, and the technical level is better too. My team is definitely better technically than the team I had during the '90s, and I’m happy about that.”
Olsen may be relishing his return to the limelight, but he has already made plans for a sharp exit, with FC Copenhagen coach Staale Solbakken lined up to succeed him once the EURO campaign concludes. And this time he insists the farewell will be final.
“I’m happy to be stepping aside,” he said. “I’m feeling my age these days and, once this tournament is over, I think I’ll be able to say that I’ve got enough from football. I might take on something small if my health allows, but this will definitely be my last big job. Fortunately, we have Staale Solbakken coming in after me and I’m pleased about that. We share the same kind of philosophy and I’m sure he will do a good job.”
Norway will hope that Olsen is right, but the nation – and Solbakken himself – will be well aware that he has some mighty big shoes to fill.