Erling Haaland didn’t start out as a striker. As a child, he first played on the wing. “I was really fast,” Haaland says. Although his scoring talents were by then already evident—it’s said that his first touch at youth level led to a goal.
After the Haaland family left the UK and returned to Norway, they moved to Bryne, a small town on the country’s west coast. There wasn’t much for kids of Haaland’s age to do in Bryne, particularly when the weather was cold and wet outside (which in Norway, during the winter, is most of the time). But the local team, Bryne FK, has an indoor pitch turfed with artificial grass, and Erling and his friends would spend their weekends there playing pick-up games—two on two, three on three—for hours. “When it was snowing outside, we trained inside,” Haaland says. “It was a really important place for my life and my career.”
Haaland has always been naturally athletic; not only is his father a former pro, his mother, Gry Marita Braut, is a former champion heptathlete. But as a child he was far from the monstrous physical presence he is now. “He was skinny,” says Alfe Ingve Berntsen, then a coach at Bryne FK, who trained Haaland through the youth ranks. Still, Haaland was naturally gifted and unnaturally dedicated, and pretty soon he was playing with kids a year or more older than he was. “He played against two center-backs who were strong and fast, so he had to be clever in his movements, otherwise he wouldn’t get a chance,” Berntsen says. You can see it in videos on YouTube, many of which Bernsten filmed himself: Haaland ghosting through defenses to reach a cross, or blasting the ball past the keeper from close range, the way he does now.
“I still try to do exactly the same things I did when I was 13 in my hometown,” Haaland says. “I still do exactly the same runs. Show clips of me at 13 years old, you will see exactly the same thing.”
Unlike many pro-athlete parents, Haaland’s father Alfie avoided putting much pressure on Erling’s burgeoning soccer career, and instead chose to keep his distance. “I learned a lot from training his older brother [Astor],” Alfie says. “There was a lot of attention around him, because he was my son; I don’t think either me or him handled it very well. [Erling] was five years younger, but he wanted to play the game, and I could see the passion. So I stayed in the background, especially around the organized training—and the matches. I didn’t say a word.”
Berntsen, Haaland’s former coach, likes to describe a soccer player as an edifice built on four pillars. “One of them is technical, one is tactical, one is physical, and one is mentality,” he says. “If you are good, at 14 or 15 years old you have two of these four. If you have three out of four, that’s very promising. We could tell Erling was very good with the technical, tactical, and mentality, and so the only part missing when he was 13 or 14 was the physical.” But from looking at Haaland’s older sibling, and his parents, the Bryne coaches knew that he would grow eventually. “I told him over and over, when he was down, ‘Just wait; in four, five years, you will be bigger and stronger than them. Relax,’” Berntsen says. “Now he has four out of four.”