How Handball and Potato Farms in Small Town Norway Forged a Superstar

In club football, Erling and his teammates first played three-on-three matches, then gradually moved to nine-on-nine. He didn’t play at 11 until he was 12. This meant that all players had more ball touches. In competitive matches against other clubs, Bryne split the 1999-born squad into two teams of equal ability. Their strongest XI would have won easily but Berntsen, whose twin sons Sander and Adrian played in the same age group, wanted Erling and his teammates to be challenged.

In the meantime, Erling was at school in Bryne, a 10-year-old boy so sure of his destiny as a professional footballer that he told his teacher that homework had to take a back seat. “I said ‘Okay, if you’re going to be a footballer, you owe me a ticket to one of your games,’ said Erling’s fifth grade teacher, Andreas Vollsund. Erling sealed the deal and last month Vollsund, 36, who is now the regional mayor, was in Dortmund to watch an Erling hat-trick against Bochum in April. “Last year he came to my office and gave me a shirt,” Vollsund said. “It was very nice to see him. He wrote on the shirt that I should increase local government funding for sport”.

At 14, Erling’s development was so rapid that he began training with Bryne’s Under-19s. “We put him in the squad because the Norwegian Under-15 coach was in town and wanted to see him play,” Midtsian said. “Obviously, he scored.”

It was around this age that Erling’s extraordinary growth spurt began. “From 14.5 to 16.5, when he left Bryne, he grew 25 centimeters,” says Berntsen. “I used to say to him, ‘I feel like I’ve seen you grow’.” It brought a lot of pain, but Berntsen could see that with the technical, tactical and psychological strengths that Erling had developed, the physical aspect was not far behind. His older brother Astor was already a big boy. “Could we all say Erling would be a Champions League goalscorer? It would be b——- to say that,” Berntsen said. “But even then we were pretty sure he would have an international career.”