The first coach of the hottest young striker in world football is going back to where it all began. He is smiling at the memories and introduces a four-word phrase that not only peppers this conversation but shows why Erling Haaland has become Europe’s most wanted.
‘He was special from day one,’ Alf-Ingve Berntsen, a hugely respected figure at Norwegian club FK Bryne, says of Haaland. ‘He is part of my heart and it is lovely to speak about him. He just kept scoring.’
Make that ‘he just keeps scoring’. Haaland’s rise has been like a starburst and he arrives here with Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, determined to blow a hole in Manchester City’s quadruple ambitions with his boots that seem packed with dynamite.
Erling Haaland is world football’s hottest property and has onset a huge transfer battle
City will watch closely to see if he is the man to take over Sergio Aguero’s mantle. Manchester United and Chelsea will be in the equation, and Barcelona and Real Madrid have made very public attempts this week to woo him after discussions with his agent, Mino Raiola, and father, Alfie, the former Nottingham Forest, Leeds, City and Norway midfielder.
How the story plays out will be fascinating — not to mention expensive. But how Haaland’s journey started in a quiet town in the south west of Norway is just as captivating. Nobody is better placed to describe it than Berntsen, who devoted the last 30 years to develop young players.
‘The first time I saw him, he was six,’ says Berntsen. ‘He scored two goals, we played on an indoor pitch. You could spot his movement and his skills with the ball were of a very high standard. Now and then we see players like this.
Haaland’s first coach told Sportsmail the Dortmund star ‘just kept scoring’ from a young age
He started in a small town in the south-west of Norway and soon played with older players
‘What was different with Erling was that he just kept scoring. In Norway, we don’t have academies. Most teams in Norway, outside the big clubs, are grassroots. The parents do the coaching, nobody is paid. We had good solid people around the team.
‘With Erling, he was too good to play with the boys who were his own age. From when he was eight, he began to train with us once a week, playing with boys who were nine. There were 40 players, all together. They stuck together, right through to the age of 15.
‘When he was 12 he was selected to represent the region. He just kept scoring. We thought then that this was a guy who is very good technically, tactically and mentally. But he was missing a bit of the physical aspect. We knew from his genetics that Erling would become strong and fast because of his father and mother and his older brother. There was a kind of certainty that this was something special. He is big, strong. But it is not that normal, when you are that big, that you also have smartness.’
They were sure in Bryne, as he kept meeting challenges, that Haaland could become the full package, as there was more to it than goals and athleticism. It is here Berntsen begins to describe the characteristics that propelled him forward, a relentless determination to keep improving.
Alf-Ingve Berntsen says Haaland’s winning mentality was present when he was very young
Bernsten spotted that Haaland was intelligent as well as good technically and physically
Haaland doesn’t drink and doesn’t go to nightclubs. He changed his diet when he played for Red Bull Salzburg so he was eating mostly fish as he learnt this was something Cristiano Ronaldo did to keep himself in perfect physical condition in his mid-30s and followed suit.
But the desire to be the best was evident early on. Berntsen, whose older brother Bjarne played for Norway in the famous 2-1 beating of England in Oslo in 1981, wondered initially if being in games with bigger and stronger boys would catch Haaland out but practice made perfect.
‘The funny thing is now, when I watch him for Dortmund, I look back at clips when he was 11, 12,’ says Berntsen. ‘It is quite similar. Usually when kids meet players who are the same quality and same age, they get get found out, but Erling just kept taking the next level in a very good way.
The Borussia Dortmund star has taken inspiration from Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of his diet
Ronaldo eats plenty of fish but avoids having red meat or eating anything frozen
Haaland does not party or drink booze and eats fish to maintain peak performance
‘You can see it in his eyes. He doesn’t like to score if they lose. It is all about winning. That is a very important point. I love that about him. That was created in the matches and training when he was young. We taught them to win. We wanted them to struggle to win. They had to learn to behave, even if they lost. Now and then, you will see him throw his shirt. Erling gets p****d off when he is losing. But the thing I loved about that was the next day, you would see him out there trying even harder.’
It all paid off. His left foot is like a cannon, he is physically strong and can run over the top of defenders. The way his career has been mapped out has been smart, each move made for a reason.
From Bryne, in 2017 he went to Molde to play under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Everton were keen to sign him and invited Haaland over to watch a Europa League match against Atalanta that November but they never got as far as discussing a fee.
When he left Molde, he could have gone to Juventus but instead chose RB Salzburg, whose sporting director Christoph Freund had been following Haaland since he scored four in a 21-minute spell against SK Brann in 2018.
With every new challenge thrown his way, Haaland has stepped up to the plate, Bernsten says
The 20-year-old has a strong support network around him to ensure that he remains grounded
‘After that, it was woosh!’ Berntsen explains. ‘Erling is doing great but people say to me, “What will happen when he has bad periods?” Let me tell you — he has had bad periods already, at Molde and in Salzburg. He showed a great capability to fight even harder.
‘You have to be hard to cope when you move to another country. He moved when he was 19 and didn’t play a single match at first. At these times, his father and the team round him were very good with him. They gave him focus, urged him to be patient.’
Look at him now. Whatever happens next — whether he stays in Dortmund for another season, as they said on Friday, or he ends up in Spain or England — this is a young man who will be talked about for many years to come.
‘The first season in the Champions League he scored 10 goals,’ says Berntsen. ‘The first season in the Bundesliga, he scored 14. Of those 24, 19 were with his first touch. That means, apart from outrunning the opponent, he is always on the right spot and in the right way.
‘We are proud of him. I’m not proud of him because of his scoring abilities. I’m proud because of the way he behaves. He didn’t get special treatment here. He’s done it because he wanted it. That’s why he is a special boy.’
Bernsten is highly confident that his former starlet will be talked about for many years to come