Norway poised for return to elite

The Norwegian women's national team last lifted a major international trophy eight years ago when a 3-2 extra-time win over USA claimed them gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, four years after finishing as silver medallists. "It was a unique experience," midfielder Solveig Gulbrandsen recalled in conversation with

"None of us thought we'd make it all the way, especially after losing our opening match to the USA and failing to win our group. Going on to take the gold medal was an unforgettable experience."

Norwegian hopes of defending their title four years down the line were dashed by their shock failure to qualify for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004, but the Scandinavians travel to Beijing this year as medal favourites along with the likes of Germany and defending champions USA.

The opening game in Group G at the Qinhuangdao Sports Centre on 6 August, when Norway cross swords with the Americans in a re-run of the 2000 final, could set the tone for the rest of the tournament. "Our goal is always to finish among the medals at every tournament. We’re certainly capable of it, which we've shown here in China," commented coach Bjarne Berntsen following his side’s fourth place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup China 2007. "We can be optimistic about the future."

Room for improvement
For all the coach's upbeat tone, fourth in 2007 was a minor disappointment for a nation so accustomed to success. The 1993 and 1987 European champions and 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup winners were many experts' pre-tournament tip for the trophy in China PR. "I think it was a very good tournament where the best teams played to a consistently high standard," Berntsen later reflected.

"But as the tournament went on, it became clear we're not at the same level as the world-class teams, especially if your players aren't world-class in terms of athleticism. We need to be a great deal stronger physically. We're capable of outstanding football as long as we're a physical match for our opponents, but everyone saw how we ran into trouble against the other leading teams."

The Scandinavians favour a high-tempo, short-passing game with the emphasis firmly on attack, the full-backs marauding down the flanks deep into opposition territory at every possible opportunity. "That’s exactly how we like to play it nowadays, and our supporters can expect more of the same," the coach insisted.

"I reckon when most people think of Norway, they think of the tactics we used to use in the past, when we dropped deep, defended in depth and hit long balls forward. We play very differently nowadays," Solveig Gulbrandsen confirmed.

With influential veterans such as Ragnhild Gulbrandsen, Lise Klaveness, Camilla Huse and goalkeeper Bente Nordby retiring from the national team after the 2007 tournament, the 27-year-old is the new star of the side. Gulbrandsen, who plays her club football on home soil for Kolbotn IL, rates as one of her country’s most experienced players with 39 goals in 120 internationals.

The talented playmaker took a year's sabbatical after the birth of her son, Theodor, in June 2006, returning to the national set-up in time for China 2007. She is now keen to accept more responsibility on and off the field. "I want to achieve as much as I can in football. It would be wonderful to win the World Cup, and maybe Olympic gold too," she said.

Immediately on her return to the team, Gulbrandsen slotted into the role of midfield pivot, also showing a prolific eye for goal. At the other end of the experience scale, Norway football watchers have high hopes for 20-year-old forward Isabell Herlovsen, blooded into the senior side at the tender age of 16 and contributor of two goals in Norway’s run to the 2005 European Championship final in England. The national team benefits from Herlovsen going in search of goals at club level alongside Solveig Gulbrandsen for Kolbotn IL.

Leni Larsen Kaurin of Bundesliga outfit Turbine Potsdam is the one member of the 18-strong Norwegian Olympic squad who plies her trade in Germany.

Norway open their pursuit of gold in China against the USA on 6 August, before completing their Group G fixtures against New Zealand on 9 August and Japan on 12 August. The 2000 Olympic gold medallists face a full dress rehearsal for this year’s event on 23 July when reigning world champions Germany visit Sandefjord.

Spearheaded by 27-year-old Solveig Gulbrandsen and starlet Isabell Herlovsen, Norway’s medal dreams could become reality in Beijing.