Olsen return lifts Norway
© AFP

'One for the history books' and 'Sensational comeback' were just two of the headlines circulating in the Norwegian press after their national side's 1-0 friendly win over three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners Germany in mid-February. It was their first triumph in over 15 months, so it comes as no surprise that Norway have made considerable strides on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, climbing 11 places to 45th.

Following last year's plummet to 59th, their lowest ever placing, the downward trend finally came to a halt in January, when the Scandanavians held their ground before moving up to 56th in February. Now they have made the jump back into the top 50, and things are looking up for the country that peaked in second place back in October 1993 and July/August 1995.

A major factor in Norway's revival has been caretaker manager Egil Olsen. The 66-year old has been charged with emulating the success the country enjoyed in the mid-1990s, when he led the national team to both the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups. Norway even went undefeated en route to France 1998, where they were eliminated in the second round by Italy.

In his interview with FIFA.com, Drillo, as the coach is known, explains what has made the difference. "It was nothing major, but I prefer to employ a more defensive, zonal-marking system and a fairly direct attacking approach. The individual qualities of the players will always influence a team's style, but there are a few basics which don't depend upon the squad you have at your disposal - such as zonal defending as opposed to man-marking, and attacking with purpose once you've won the ball."

He has an unbelievable amount of experience in the game and I truly believe that he knows what he's doing.
Captain Brede Hangeland on his Norway coach, Egil Olsen

Olsen's confidence has caused expectation levels to soar among fans and players alike. Captain Brede Hangeland, who plays for Fulham, is convinced by the former winger's coaching qualities. "For me, Drillo is all about plenty of forward runs and a tight defence," he said. "This style brought Norway some remarkable success in the past, and that's what you need at international level. He has an unbelievable amount of experience in the game and I truly believe that he knows what he's doing."

The Norwegian fans are keen to see the coach at work, and the home friendly against Finland on 1 April is expected to be a sell out. Prior to that, Olsen's charges will get a taste of next year's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa when they take on the hosts in friendlies on 28 March and 10 October.

Tall order 
So far, qualification for South Africa 2010 has been anything but plain sailing for the Norwegians, who have picked up just two points from three games and lie bottom of a group including the Netherlands, Scotland, Iceland and FYR Macedonia. Nevertheless, Olsen remains optimistic about his team's chances. "I think realistically we should be aiming for second place, and if we can do that I think we'd have a decent chance of qualifying via the play-offs," he said.  

Unfortunately for Olsen and his squad, a glance at the statistics reveals that they have already been eliminated at the play-off stage twice in recent history. Norway finished as runners-up in their group in both UEFA EURO 2004 and Germany 2006 qualification, and failed to advance from the resulting two-legged ties on both occasions. "Of course we're well aware that there will be some strong teams awaiting us in the play-offs," added the former Wimbledon manager.

Norway's fate will be determined in early June, when they must negotiate away fixtures in FYR Macedonia and the Netherlands knowing that defeat could spell the end of their qualification hopes. Hope, though, is one thing the Norwegians are not lacking, and if the headlines following the win against Germany are anything to go by, then anything is possible.