Erling Haaland is just six goals away from Norway’s scoring record, so it is surely inevitable that he will soon become his nation’s most prolific striker ever.
On the one hand, this will have happened very quickly: Haaland scored his first goals for Norway only in 2020. On the other, an incredibly long time has passed.
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Of the 213 FIFA member nations, Norway has the longest individual goalscoring record in the world. It was set by Jorgen Juve, a fascinating figure who ended his international career in 1937 and later became a renowned sports journalist in his home country.
Juve scored a relatively modest 33 goals in 45 matches for Norway, including five hat-tricks, although his tally is made notable by the fact he played as a centre-forward in less than half of those matches. He was otherwise positioned in defence, from where he captained his country to the bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics. This explains why his last international goal came three years before his last cap, in June 1934. Therefore, he It’s likely that by the time Haaland scores another six goals, around 90 years will have passed since Juve reached the 33-goal threshold.
Technically there is another record that has stood for longer, also in Scandinavia.
Poul “Tist” Nielsen scored 52 goals in 38 games for Denmark between 1910 and 1925, although his record was equaled by Jon Dahl Tomasson – now manager of Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship – in 2010. Tomasson decided to retire from international football afterwards. this year’s World Cup in South Africa rather than trying to set their own record. Nielsen’s name therefore remains in the record books, although he now holds the Danish record only jointly.
This graph demonstrates the extent to which these records are outliers.
Only six countries have had goalscoring records for more than 50 years, including Libya, Sudan and Guinea. Therefore, if we only include the nations that have qualified for the World Cup, it is only Denmark, Norway and Hungary whose records have stood for more than half a century.
Hungary’s record is perhaps the most impressive, considering that Ferenc Puskas scored 84 goals in just 85 games and his international career was cut short prematurely at the age of 29 due to the Hungarian revolution. He later represented Spain at the 1962 World Cup, having spent half a decade without playing international football.
The most surprising thing about the graph is how many scoring records have been set recently.
Sixty-four of the nations’ record 211 goalscorers have appeared for them in 2023 and, in terms of the time since they were set, the median of goalscorers has stood for just seven years, including the likes of Republic of Congo’s Robbie Keane ‘Ireland and Roque Santa Cruz of Paraguay. The increased longevity due to higher fitness levels in modern football is clearly an important factor, as is the number of relatively new nations on the FIFA list.
Perhaps the most surprising international goalscoring record is that of Italy.
Giga Riva’s relatively inconsistent haul of 35 goals was the record to be broken since the 1974 World Cup. Not only has it not been equaled or eclipsed, but no one has ever come particularly close: Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero both reached 27 and it’s the closest he’s ever come.
To give an example, four Englishmen reached 35 goals in that period: Gary Lineker, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Also four Spaniards: Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Torres, David Villa and David Silva, while Alvaro Morata (34 years old) should arrive shortly.
Furthermore, no current Italian appears willing to challenge him: Ciro Immobile (with 17) has less than half that tally, turns 34 in February and has been left out of recent squads. No one in Luciano Spalletti’s current squad has scored more than eight international goals.
Italy’s flaw clearly isn’t a total lack of prolific strikers: the likes of Christian Vieri, Pippo Inzaghi and Luca Toni have all scored heavily at club level. Sometimes the opposite happened, with several forwards competing for a starting spot, meaning none of them managed to dominate the national team for a decade. That said, around a decade ago, there was simply a shortage of prolific Italian strikers to choose from. Antonio Conte used Eder and Graziano Pelle in attack at the 2016 European Championships.
There are also tactical considerations. Not only has Italy traditionally been the most defensive of the major European nations, but its attacking play has generally relied on the use of a second striker. Baggio, Del Piero and Francesco Totti have all been golden boys at various – overlapping – stages, with the Italian number 9 often selected primarily to bring out the best in the Italian number 10.
And Norway? Likewise, they were traditionally a defensive-minded team, favoring counter-attacks and long balls. At their peak under Egil Olsen in the mid-1990s, they often used an attacker out of position on the wing, where he challenged with long, diagonal passes.
But perhaps the most pertinent thing about Norway is that, historically, it has generally not been very competitive.
They qualified for only four major tournaments – in 1938, 1994, 1998 and 2000 – and won a total of three matches in those appearances. They are also similar to Italy in that, at times, they have boasted several top-class strikers whose careers have roughly overlapped – John Carew, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Steffen Iversen – and at other times they have suffered a complete lack of good center forwards.
Right now, Norway appears to have the most prolific striker in Europe, and it’s not unreasonable to consider where Haaland might finish in the all-time international goalscoring charts around the world, not to mention just in relation to his compatriots.
Haaland currently averages almost a goal per game for his country, which will inevitably be difficult for the 23-year-old to sustain throughout his career. But it’s worth highlighting how impressive this is, even at this early stage. Once again, excluding countries that have never qualified for a World Cup, only the aforementioned quartet of Juve, Riva, Puskas and Nielsen, plus Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto, hold their nation’s record for international goals and they also boast a goal percentage of 0.75 goals per game or more.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo, the most prolific international goalscorer of all time with 127 goals for Portugal, boasts “only” 0.63 goals per game, a lower percentage than Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Kane and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia) , who owes his debut as a winger rather than as a central striker.
Considering how many hat-tricks Haaland scores for Manchester City, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could score six goals during this international break and reach Juve’s level, especially considering Norway’s first match is a home friendly against Norway Faroe Islands today (Thursday), ahead of their European Championship qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow on Sunday. That said, the Faroe Islands’ defense is less sluggish than you might expect: only twice in their last 22 games have they conceded more than three goals in a game.
The larger question is whether we will ever see Haaland in a major tournament.
Despite his presence and Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard, Norway failed to qualify directly from their Euro 2024 qualifying group, with Spain and Scotland already securing the top two places.
At least they are likely to qualify for the play-offs, and will therefore have two games to win in March to secure their first appearance in a major tournament since 2000, the summer Haaland was born. But there was nothing in their recent performances to suggest that Norway would get through the play-offs without any problems.
Juve’s individual record will soon be surpassed, but having won the bronze medal at the Olympics as captain of his team could remain his nation’s greatest achievement for a long time to come.
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(Top photo: Sebastian Widmann – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)