Erling Braut Haaland underlined his status as the most sought-after teenage striker in Europe when he scored at Anfield earlier this season but, in that moment of maximum joy, the celebratory wave was even more instructive.
Eight of Haaland’s closest childhood friends had travelled to watch him play and just about his first thought was a collective story that is every bit as extraordinary as individual goalscoring feats this year, that include nine in one game at the Under-20 World Cup and 28 in 21 matches so far this season for Red Bull Salzburg.
Haaland does not even turn 20 until next summer, but in the space of four years he has gone from playing football with his friends in the small Norwegian town of Bryne to the most wanted list of just about every major club in Europe.
Bryne has just 10,000 inhabitants and yet, among a cohort of 39 young players who developed with Haaland, including those eight friends at Anfield, it has produced five who have played at various age-group levels for the national team.
It is an achievement which challenges the assumption that Haaland’s remarkable progress is simply a consequence of family heritage (he is the son of former Manchester City and Leeds United midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland), even if a rare talent was always evident.
“He joined some indoor futsal sessions when he was five and it took 10 seconds to see that he was special,” says Alf Ingve Berntsen, who oversaw the youth teams at FK Bryne and would later become senior coach. And what was so unusual? “It was not just his scoring abilities, but his passion and dedication – he was totally in the game. It was something I hadn’t seen before.”
Haaland joined a group one year older and there he stayed, training and playing with the same friends away from professionalised academies, for the next 10 years.
Their schedule was one or two training sessions and a match each week. That increased to an optional four training sessions and a match when the players were 15, but there were always two additional and crucial elements.
The first was the decision to keep all 39 players training together until the age of 15 and spread their exceptional talent across the individual teams. The rationale was that it would benefit not just the weaker players, but also the strongest, whose development could hardly be maximised by simply running up emphatic victories every week.
“We tried to create a stable platform, with all players showing respect for each other regardless of their level,” Berntsen says. “We were serious when we trained, but the main driver was enjoyment.
“Some people said we would destroy Erling by keeping him, but it shows you can be a professional and not come from an academy.”
Also crucial was how the local community raised enough money to construct a tented indoor facility that was big enough for a half-sized artificial pitch. All the matches and training took place during the week. At weekends the children were given free access to play among themselves on their indoor pitch. The facility happened to have been built shortly before Haaland joined the club.
“From an early age, Erling and maybe 15 of his team-mates would play all of Saturday and Sunday,” Berntsen says. “They organised it themselves and could just play naturally.” This unstructured training gave the players an invaluable “street” quality.
Alf-Inge Haaland also kept a sensible distance and never advocated moving his son to a professional academy.
“He was brilliant with Erling,” Berntsen says. “Sometimes he observed, but there was no pressure. Not once did he interfere with training or when I picked the teams.”
Haaland’s growth spurt did not arrive until he was around 14 and Berntsen believes it was actually to his long-term benefit that he was among the younger and physically weaker players during much of this early development.
“He learnt to be smart – now he is physically very good, but he hasn’t forgotten the other things and he tends to be where the ball is coming. His way of behaving is still very similar. He has good humour, very funny, but he changes when he trains. He has a winning mentality.”
Having broken into FK Bryne’s adult team aged 15, Haaland moved to Molde, where he would play under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and score 16 goals during his first full season in 2018.
The transfer to Salzburg, where Sadio Mane and Naby Keita also flourished early in their career, was carefully considered.
“Salzburg is the perfect match; forward-thinking, offensive-minded and trying to bring young players through,” Alf-Inge Haaland said. “He’s built for the Premier League at one stage, I think.”
At 6ft 4in, comparisons with his idol Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been looking less fanciful by the week and Haaland will tonight try to inspire a Champions League upset against Liverpool.
“This is the biggest game of my career so far,” he said.
It is noticeable that every step up has so far only been accompanied by an acceleration in his goalscoring record, and a reported release clause of just £17 million has ensured fevered speculation about his future.
“I really do not know what comes next, but I think he, his father and his family, have been very clever so far,” Berntsen says.
“As a fan of football, I see a 19-year-old who is fast, good in the air, smart in the box, good at set-plays and on the counter-attack. I think it is rare to have a player with such a variety of strengths.
“We were lucky to have him, but hopefully he was lucky as well. I think he would have become very good no matter what, but the last 10 to 15 per cent maybe he got from our group.”
Haaland himself evidently agrees. “Without my upbringing at Bryne I would not be where I am today,” he said.