Behind Haaland's Unstoppable Rise

Erling Haaland was born in Leeds in 2000 when his father was on the books of Leeds United. Alf-Inge Haaland had moved to England seven years earlier after working his way up through the ranks at local club Bryne.

Just three years after Erling was born, Alf-Inge was forced to retire from football aged 30 with injury problems. He was famously on the receiving end of a ruthless Roy Keane tackle that injured his right knee, but he had existing problems with his left knee unrelated to the Manchester United midfielder's red card incident. With his top-level career over, Alf-Inge decided to return home to Norway with his family.

While Haaland Sr left football behind to become a property developer back home, he encouraged his son to play the sport he loved with Erling following in his father’s footsteps to join Bryne’s youth academy.

Coach Alf Ingve Berntsen was immediately impressed with his club’s hard-working new recruit, who played in attack rather than in defence or midfield like Alf-Inge had during his career with the likes of Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City.

“I saw Erling for the first time when he was five when he joined indoor training with a group one year older,” Berntsen told Goal. “His first two touches led to goals. He was very, very good from the first moment, even though he hadn't played in the club before.

“He started playing in his own year group, but because he was so much better than the others, we immediately pulled him up to Under-6.

“In 2005 the club built a grass-covered indoor soccer pitch that was always open during the weekends. Erling and around 20 others always met there on weekends and played for hours.

“He was a little smaller than his opponents because he was a year younger. But even if his opponent was significantly taller, he kept scoring goals. When he was 11 or 12, we knew he would go far. We already knew back then that he had what it takes to be a youth international.”

Haaland’s first taste of international football was with Norway’s Under-15 side, during the 2015-16 season where he had impressed for Bryne’s reserve side with 18 goals in 14 games.

With the Norway setup, his path crossed with Gunnar Halle, who had been a team-mate of his father at Leeds back in the late 1990s.

Halle liked what Haaland could offer in attack, but felt that his gangly physique might prevent him from reaching the very top.

“The first time I saw Haaland playing football was at the age of 15. At that time he was quite small and narrow before his growth spurt and physically at a disadvantage,” Halle told Goal. 

“He was without a doubt a good player who scored many goals, but was by no means outstanding. His physique and coordination still had to develop at that time. That he would one day become a superstar was still a long way off. 

“No one could have imagined what he would one day be capable of. Today he benefits from the fact that he had to learn to read a game back then because he was not as assertive as he is today.”
Gunnar Halle

In May 2016, Gaute Larsen was sacked as Bryne manager and Berntsen was promoted to caretaker boss. Having worked closely with him at underage, the interim manager handed Haaland his first start despite the forward being just 15 years old.

After initially deploying Haaland on the wing, Berntsen put him in his favoured central role after a few games. Although he did not score in his breakthrough season at Bryne, Haaland was offered a trial by Hoffenheim before moving to Molde to play under Norwegian legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Berntsen was not surprised by the transfer as Haaland had come onto the radar of many clubs by playing senior football at 15. Molde was somewhere where Haaland could break into the first team quickly and ensure smooth progress for his career.

“National and international scouting only began when Erling played the first games for Norway’s U15 side. From this age, scouts suddenly became more interested because he also scored in the national jersey,” Berntsen continued.

“He just didn't care who was watching. He didn't care whether he played against his friends just for fun or for the national team. He was never afraid. He always had respect for his opponents, he just never cared who they were.

“Switching to Molde was not a big deal, it was a normal process. He was just too good for the team. The next logical step was Molde.”

Halle also believes that it is this fearless quality that helped Haaland progress so quickly up the divisions in Norway, lining out for Molde in Norway’s top flight before he even turned 17.

“He is not afraid of anything. He often trained alone as a child, doing exercises over and over again because he always had this big goal in mind to make it to the top."
Gunnar Halle

“He is someone who never had to be pushed by his coaches or the people around him. He always knew: I will become a professional footballer.”

Haaland finished his first season at Molde with four goals in all competitions, but smashed that figure the following season, with four goals in one game against league leaders Brann.

“The first time that a wider crowd became aware of him and everyone realised that he was a very special boy was in a game against Brann Bergen, who were on top of the table at the time,” Berntsen recalls. 

“Haaland scored all goals in an impressive 4-0 victory, even though he was only 17. Half a year later he moved to Salzburg.”

He finished the 2018 season with 12 goals in 25 Eliteserien games, which brought him to the attention of even more clubs. Leeds made an offer for the striker, who had just turned 18, but he was impressed by the project at Red Bull Salzburg and moved to the Austrian Bundesliga side in January 2019.

Salzburg had been keeping close tabs on Haaland for years before pulling the trigger on the teenager. Sporting director Christoph Freund revealed that they had watched him many times up close to learn more about the striker.

“We had been following Erling since 2016 since he played in Norway's U16 national team,” Freund told Goal. 

“We watched him live and analysed countless videos of him. At that time he was in a phase of massive development and therefore attracted attention simply by his presence on the pitch. His positive energy and charisma and his unconditional desire to score goals in every game were the most eye-catching.

“He also has a lot of energy off the field and almost always has a smile on his face. As a team-mate, you just like to spend time with him. His positive charisma is contagious and is really good for every group.”
Christoph Freund

He was integrated slowly into the squad at Salzburg, where Moanes Dabour was their star striker in the 2018-19 season. The Israeli’s incredible return of 37 goals in 48 games meant he was impossible to drop, but also saw Sevilla come calling in the summer of 2019.

Haaland played just five games from January to May for the Red Bulls, before travelling to Poland for the Under-20 World Cup. There, he made history by scoring nine goals in Norway’s 12-0 win over Honduras, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.

When he returned to Salzburg, head coach Marco Rose had left for Borussia Monchengladbach, with American manager Jesse Marsch taking the reins.

The former Red Bulls New York manager installed Haaland as his first-choice striker after Dabour’s exit and was rewarded with six goals in the first four league games of the season.

“The first thing that comes to mind about Erling Haaland: He is a professional! It's fun to work with him. He comes to training every day with a lot of energy. I like guys like that,” Marsch told Goal and DAZN.

“The positive effect he gave to our whole group was massive. If he needs a little help, we are always there for him. But he also has his family, his father, a really solid foundation to understand how to deal with these moments.”
Jesse Marsch

The rapid start at Salzburg did not go unnoticed back home and Haaland was drafted into the Norway senior squad, making his debut in September 2019.

He made his Champions League debut a fortnight later, and with that came more history. After scoring a hat-trick against Genk, Haaland scored in the next four group games to become the first teenager and only the fifth player ever to score in five consecutive Champions League matches.

The trips away with Salzburg further boosted his international profile, but also gave him more time for personal and professional development. Red Bulls team-mate Maxmilian Wober recalls how Haaland would study instead of playing games.

“He is an absolute top professional. While we are playing cards on trips away, you can only see him reading some scientific articles on how he can improve his sleep or diet. He is always looking for the smallest details that he can improve to take another step forward,” Wober told Goal and DAZN.

“He is the same guy I met before his eight Champions League goals in the summer. He's crazy insane, but that's what makes him so good.”

If the best teams in Europe were unable to stop Haaland, neither were the teams back in Austria. By the time the winter break rolled around, the 19 year old had scored 28 goals in 22 games in all competitions for the Red Bulls, including five hat-tricks.

Keeping him in Salzburg would prove impossible as a result, with Manchester United, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund all heavily interested.

“It was neither our plan nor our wish to lose Erling in winter,” Freund admitted. 

“However, his development between July and December 2019 was so extraordinary and spectacular that it could not be predicted or planned in this way.”

Borussia Dortmund activated his €20 million (£17m/$22m) release clause, beating United and Leipzig to his signature after all three clubs held meetings with the player, his father and agent Mino Raiola.

Dortmund offered the striker the best chance of regular game time as they promised to make him their first-choice striker, something Alf-Inge Haaland admits is crucial to his development.

“Erling has been very lucky with good coaches and team-mates,” Haaland told Goal. 

“He is still learning. He loves to score goals but has also improved a lot in build-up play. It's not one specific moment, but a lot of hard work from him and also having a career plan for him regarding clubs where young players will get the chance to play. Playing time is the most important thing for him.”

Borussia Dortmund already had forward Paco Alcacer on the books, but saw Haaland as such a generational talent, that they were willing to offload the Spain international to give the Norwegian teen an even better chance of success.

CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke says that they had been looking for someone with Haaland’s particular skill set for a long time and could not pass up the opportunity to sign him.

“We always wanted to have a centre-forward who has a different way of playing football,” Watzke told Goal and DAZN.  “But this guy also had to come onto the market first.

There are not many who are 1.94 metres (6 ft 4 in) tall and that fast. Actually, nobody else comes to mind. It was just an opportunity that you don't get very often.
Hans-Joachim Watzke

“I've been following his path a little longer. I first met him in December. I think we both quickly felt that it could fit. He is still very young, but has great determination. He has the right physical attributes and is extremely focused. It is certainly good for us. Basically Scandinavian players are very motivated, very hungry for success and very decent guys. Erling embodies all of this. He is flawless in character and has an irrepressible desire. It is a good story.”

Haaland’s Dortmund story got off to the perfect start with the most incredible debut against Augsburg. Trailing 3-1, Lucien Favre sent on the teenager from the bench and was rewarded with a 22-minute hat-trick to help secure a 5-3 win.

Fitness concerns meant that he started on the bench again a week later, but that was not enough to stop the tide of goals as Haaland scored twice more as a substitute against Koln. The second of those two goals highlighted his undoubted talent as he was able to turn the ball in from an impossible angle.

Since arriving in Germany, he has nine goals in six games for Dortmund and is now their guaranteed starter in attack. The initial performances earned Haaland even more media attention, but team-mate Roman Burki does not think the teenager lets any of it in.

“When a young player gets hyped so much and is world famous at 19, it can be difficult,” Burki told Goal and DAZN. 

“But he's a cool guy who knows what it's about. Erling is very professional. I'm always one of the first at the training centre, but he is there earlier. He also comes to the training centre on days off. He knows what is important and good for him.”

Haaland never stops looking at ways to improve his overall game. He has already succeeded at every level he has played at, scoring hat-tricks for fun in the past year.

He faces the biggest test of his career on Tuesday as Borussia Dortmund play Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League knockout stage, but few would bet against him seamlessly stepping up to this level too.

Translated by Ronan Murphy
Page Design byYee Shan Lee