Football has a habit of it leaving scars. There are the literal, physical ones that line the flesh of those who play it, those left behind long after stiches or studs have been removed from skin. When it comes to emotional scars, we tend to think of fans carrying the weight of so many near misses, and joke about supporting a team for your sins.
It’s in the interest of footballers, however, to leave painful losses behind them — they’ll be far better players if they can forget the penalty miss that cost them a title or the time they let their marker get away from them in a cup final. Yet, there are some losses that cut so deep, have such an impact that there will always be a reminder left behind.
For the Norwegian women’s national team, Monday night’s 8-0 loss to England in Euro 2022’s Group A was the type of crippling defeat that they may never recover from.
There, of course, had been tears after Norway’s group stage exit at the 2017 Euros, just as there was no way of quieting the sobs after the same team lost the 2013 final of the same competition. But Monday was different. It was the type of loss to rock all of Norwegian football — it was not just the biggest margin of failure by any team at a Euros, male or female, but it was the single biggest loss in the history of the Norway women’s national team .
As the players spoke to the media after the match, still clad in sweat and shame-soaked kits, there was no getting away from the emotion that rolled off each member of the squad who had to face the press. When speaking to ESPN, Norway captain Maren Mjelde described the feeling as “[her] heart bleeding a little.”
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Whilst some players could do little to hide their frustration and anger, fighting to keep from spitting their words out in disgust, others used the last of their energy to stop from letting the misery overtake them, lips quivering. Professional pride had been hurt, but much worse, the players were carrying the burden of letting a nation of over five million down on their shoulders, the Norway badge never so heavy on their shirts. Eight-nil burned into the collective consciousness of a nation, the Norwegian delegation in Brighton part of footballing infamy.
As Caroline Graham Hansen said after the loss, “I think the problem today is that we don’t do what we’re supposed to do in the defense and when you don’t do well in defense, you don’t have good positioning to win the ball and do easy play out in the offense. I think today we didn’t work as a team and then you see that each and every one of us are not able to perform.”
The team, quite simply, was in a shambles. The players were fragmented across the pitch, formation unfathomable, obvious weaknesses exposed as England took a battering ram to the ruins of the visiting defense.
For as damming as the scoreline was, there was a stark inevitability about result. Norway had never quite found their footing under coach Martin Sjögren and, although they could flex their attacking might against lower ranked nations, there was a persistent issue of team cohesion against stronger nations.
After the defeat, sections of the Norwegian press lamented the team’s lack of preparation against teams in the FIFA top ten, but the problems had remained hidden in plain sight for all to see over the last four years. The defense was a collection of midfielders and attackers who had been repurposed, only getting weaker over Sjögren’s tenure, the actual midfield lacked fluency and too often the onus was on Graham Hansen to be the saviour in Ada Hegerberg’s absence.
When Norway were knocked out of the 2019 World Cup by England, the team had looked broken as soon as the whistle was blown. The team had booked their spot in the last eight after two hours and a round of spot kicks against Australia in the blistering heat of Nice, France, and by the time the ball began to roll in Le Havre, the players looked mentally and physically spent .
Having been dispatched by England in the 2015 edition of the World Cup, when Lucy Bronze slammed the ball home from outside the box, the players seemed blind to the English defender when she took up a position away from her teammates at an early free kick in france The move failed to work but when the Lionesses were granted another set piece moments later, Bronze took up the same position, only to be ignored by the entire Norwegian team. Predictably, she scored as vigorously as she had four years prior. The players had not the energy to even move to intercept the defender.
At the AMEX stadium in Brighton days ago, Norway could offer even less than they had against the same opposition three years prior. A soft penalty in the 12th minute was the catalyst for the worst night in Norwegian football history.
England had played well, there was no questioning that, but they had been playing a team that didn’t move to defend them, didn’t track runs or even jump to attempt to win headers. Watching the match wasn’t so much viewing women against girls as it was regarding a team of footballers versus training cones, inanimate and malleable.
In the mixed zone, Graham Hansen had spoken about analyzing what had gone wrong as part of the team’s recovery for the upcoming Austria game. Yet watching the last 80 minutes of the match, it would be hard to find anything that had gone right. There barely looked to be a Plan A let alone B or C for Norway. The shape offered little defensive strength or attacking thrust, players left to their own devices on the pitch as Sjögren patrolled his dugout, refusing to effect the match — his first substitute did come until halftime with his team already down 6-0.
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Despite the loss, as stunning as it was, Norway are still very much still in this year’s Euro competition — but they must win their final group game against Austria on Friday if they are to progress to the knockout stages. To punch past Austria, they must return to the site of their English nightmare: Brighton.
The players seemed immediately aware in the aftermath of the fact that they couldn’t dwell on the loss with a must-win to prepare for. Although they have already begun their mental preparation, including working with well-respected Norwegian sports psychologist, Britt Tajet-Foxell, the very fact that their match against Austria will take place in Brighton could well be disastrous.
Should Norway manage to find a way to mine out their better attacking football against a defensively resolute Austria team who will, no doubt, be licking their lips at the prospect of facing such a flimsy defense, they will be pitted against Germany in the quarterfinals. No good deed and all that.
Win, lose or draw on Friday, Sjögren’s position has become untenable with several former Norwegian internationals calling for his head, yet the wider question of where the team goes after July remains heavy. The scars left by the defeat to England are ones that may never fully fade.