Alfe Ingve Berntsen remembers the first time he laid eyes on this scrawny kid with an appetite for goals.
It was 2005 and Berntsen was coaching the youth teams at Norwegian club Bryne FK when a five-year-old Erling Haaland first walked through the door.
“We saw immediately he was something special,” Berntsen recalls.
These days, scrawny isn’t a word you’d typically associate with Borussia Dortmund striker Haaland. He stands at 6 feet 4 inches, weighs close to 14 stone and has transformed himself into something resembling Norse god Thor.
After making his Champions League debut in 2019, it took Haaland just seven games to score 10 goals – the fastest any player has reached double figures in the competition’s history. He’s also the first teenager to score 10 goals in a single Champions League season.
At just 20 years of age, Haalaand is unquestionably one of the best strikers in the world.
“Erling was the best when he was a little guy, but we didn’t think when I began to coach him when he was seven that he would become top scorer in the Champions League when he was 19,” Berntsen says.
“It was soon quite obvious that he would be a very, very good player, but these thoughts, I think, came when he was 11 or 12 – then the talent developed from good to very, very good.”
‘Loveable. Funny. Serious.’
Given his size, speed and strength, it’s often remarked about Haaland that he may well have been created in a lab.
Since erupting onto the Champions League scene as a 19-year-old with RB Salzburg, there have been very few defenders – if any – that have been able to cope with the Norwegian striker’s physical attributes.
Tall, broad-shouldered and muscular, Haaland boasts blistering speed, which is all the more impressive for someone his size. On the pitch, he is an imposing brute of a forward, but more often than not plays football with a broad grin on his face. Despite his physicality, his finishing also often display a feather light touch.
According to Bernsten, Haaland is much the same person that arrived Bryne FK, his hometown club, as an excitable kid, better known then for being the son of former Premier League player Alf-Inge Haaland, who also played for Norway.
“He’s lovable guy,” Berntsen say of the 20-year-old Haaland. “He is humble. He trained a lot. He is funny and he’s serious. He’s very similar now to how he was when he was 11 and 12. He scores a lot and he smiles a lot. So he hasn’t changed really.
“He was always up front. If you’ve seen clips [of him] from a young age, he still has a very similar playing style.
“He is still this same funny, goalscoring, serious guy. He’s really good in training, takes care of his body. The restitution, the sleep habits, nutrition, he is a top individual athlete – very professional.”
Smartness in the box
To focus solely on his physical attributes, however, would do a disservice to the work Haaland has put in to become one of the most intelligent forwards in Europe. He often appears in the right place at the right time, but this is by design rather than luck.
As a child, Haaland was certainly a talented footballer but by no means a prodigy. He was average height and skinny, Berntsen recalls, and certainly wasn’t able to lean on his physicality like he is today.
Despite his size – or lack of, rather – Haaland’s ability meant he was often given the opportunity to train with an older age group – Berntsen’s group – and it was here that he was forced to develop the attacking instincts he now displays with such consistency.
“When he was seven, he began to become part of our team – some days, not always – but some days because he was too good for his own age group,” Berntsen recalls.
“When you are seven and play with eight-year olds, you’re lacking the physicality. So from an early age, when he began to play with boys one year older, he had to develop smartness in the box. When you see him now, he’s strong and has a lot of power, but he didn’t have that before.
“When Erling trained with his own age group, they were good and when he became part of our [older] group, they were also very good players,” Berntsen says, also remarking that Haaland was gifted in athletics and handball.
“So Erling didn’t have easy sessions. He was always in competition. He always had to fight to win, so I think Erling’s mentality was very suitable for football from the beginning.
“When he was like 10, 11, 12, he had developed very good technical and tactical skills and his mentality was very good for football. So the missing part was the physicality. In football, you have technical, tactical, mental and physical – the other three parts were very good.
“So we knew when he was 18, 19, 20, his physicality would also become very good because he had an older brother who was strong, you can see the genetics in the family. That’s the main reason that we could tell that this is a special guy, because his missing physicality would become maybe his strongest side in a few years.”
‘Mentality beats talent’
“Goals” is perhaps the word that crops up the most when Berntsen speaks about Haaland.
As he progressed through the age groups at Bryne FK, the goals just kept coming. And coming. “He just kept scoring,” Berntsen says.
This continued until Haaland was called up to play for his region in Norway and then, eventually, the Norwegian national youth team. It was around this time, when Haaland was 15, that RB Salzburg became aware of this lanky, blonde kid from Norway and began to track his progress.
It wasn’t long before Salzburg had compiled a comprehensive report on Haaland, sending multiple scouts to watch him and review many more of his matches on video.
“We knew him a long time before he came to Salzburg,” the club’s sporting director, Christoph Freund, tells CNN.
“He was really a special guy with his mentality and this character. You can see in every training session and in every game that he wants to score goals, that he has a lot of fun training with the team – and he was really a funny boy.”
Freund and Salzburg would have to wait before they were able to sign Haaland. From Bryne FK, Haaland made his way to Molde, one of Norway’s biggest clubs, where he played under a previous “Baby Faced Assassin,” current Manchester United coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
After just two seasons, however, Salzburg decided it was time to sign the player they had now been tracking for several years.
The Austrian club, domestic champion for seven consecutive years, has earned a reputation as one of the best in Europe for developing young talent. In recent years, Salzburg has nurtured and sold players like Sadio Mane, Dayot Upamencano, Naby Keita and Dominik Szoboszlai, to name just a few.
Freund says the key is having a clear identity. Salzburg plays fast-paced, high-pressing football and finds the right players to fit the system.
Its vast scouting network stretches across Asia, Africa and South America, as well as closer to home in Austria and Germany, looking only for young players it can mold and, eventually, sell for profit.
Funded by Austrian drinks company Red Bull and a crucial part of its network of football clubs, player sales is key to ensuring that Salzburg remains a viable venture.
“We have an outstanding academy and we’re really convinced in our way of developing young players,” Freund says. “We give them the chance to play in our first team when they are just 17, 18, 19 years old and to grow with the team, as well as international games – every year we play in the Europa or Champions League.
“I think the most important thing for us is that the scouting department is really crystal clear in knowing what we are searching for. For us, it’s very important to not sign too many players. If we are really convinced in a player, then we really take care of him. I think this is also important for his parents, for the agents.
“So when we sign a player, he’s not just one of 10 players. He’s our player and we want to really work with him. Outside from the pitch, the mentality of the player is also very important to us. Mentality is more important than talent, because mentality beats talent very often.
Haaland is arguably Salzburg’s biggest success story to date.
He scored eight goals in his first six Champions League games – including a hat-trick on his debut – and was part of the thrilling young team that went toe-to-toe with defending champion Liverpool at Anfield.
Much like Berntsen, Freund is also in awe at the level Haaland has reached so early on in his career.
However, as Salzburg courted Haaland’s signature, Freund says other potential suitors had expressed doubts over the youngster’s technical ability.
“You never know this with 16, 17 year olds, that the player could go the way like Erling now,” he says. “You could see that he was special with his character and his mentality and how he wanted to play football, but also at this time it wasn’t clear that his career [would develop] as it’s happened over the last one-and-a-half years. This is outstanding.
“At the time, somebody told me: ‘Technically he is not so perfect and you can see there are some issues maybe for the very highest level.’ In the end, with his physical side and his strong mentality, you can see what’s possible at the highest levels of European football, but it was not crystal clear at this moment.
“If you knew this, I don’t think he would have signed for Salzburg. Other scouts also followed him and if it was so clear that he would go this way, I think then maybe he would have signed at 16 or 17 years old for a very, very big club with different salary than here in Salzburg. But it’s good that nobody knows 100% what’s going to happen in the next six, 12, 18 months with the boys.”
Work hard, speak less
Haaland was thrust into the limelight very abruptly and his standout performances meant he was a player everybody wanted to talk about. Naturally, as is the case with every major star, the fame meant there were people looking to criticize him.
After Borussia Dortmund had beaten bitter rival Schalke in one of the first games back following the enforced coronavirus break, a post-match interview Haaland gave went viral because of what appeared to be very short answers.
Some in the media went on to label him as rude, among other things.
However, not only was the clip edited to omit the more detailed answers Haaland had given, the critics failed to understand why Haaland had given a number of shorter answers.
Haaland grew up in Bryne, a small lakeside town of around 12,000 inhabitants. Berntsen explains that this southern region of Norway is historically associated with farming, and its inhabitants would endure harsh conditions to carry out their labor.
“There are different parts in Norway which have certain traditions,” Berntsen says. “In our part, we used to have a lot of farmers. It was a tough life 100 years ago, so people had to work very hard and not speak too much.
“So it’s in our genetics: it’s better to do the work, than to talk a lot. So Erling is a typical person from our region. If you had gone more into a big city like Oslo, you would have seen a man, maybe, who gives longer answers.
“But many of us in this area are like that. We prefer to work hard and not talk so much.”
It’s fair to say that Haaland has certainly done most of his talking on the pitch since breaking out at Salzburg.
Given he is already one of the best strikers in the world, both Berntsen and Freund say “the sky is the limit” for Haaland and with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi now in the twilight of their careers, football is looking for its next superstars to lead the emerging generation.
The boy from Bryne certainly fits the bill.
“Messi and Ronaldo have outstanding careers, they worked very hard every day for these careers,” Freund says. “The last 10, 15 years they were superstars in this business and they played every year at the highest level.
“I think, yeah, this can be a goal for Erling, but for this career everything must be perfect and you have to be hungry every year again and again and again. Overall, maybe Erling can be one of the next superstars in Europe. It’s a lot of work for him, but from the potential side, he has everything.”
Around the time rumors of Haaland’s departure began from Salzburg began to swirl, Berntsen recalls thinking is would be a “mistake” if one of Europe’s top five clubs didn’t secure his signature.
While Berntsen and Freund believe that Dortmund is currently the best place for Haaland’s development, they are realistic that the German club is unlikely to be the last his in career.
“I think the best club for Erling would be Liverpool,” Berntsen, a huge Liverpool fans, jokes.
As for the future, it’s difficult even for two men that know Haaland better than most to predict exactly what his ceiling could be.
“I can’t say that a Norwegian 20 year old of course will get the Ballon d’Or, that’s impossible,” Bernsen says. “But I say yes, he has the potential. Some people are born to be footballers.”