When he took over the reins of the Norway women's team at the end of 2004, Bjarne Berntsen made his aims more than clear. "My ambition is to win trophies with this team," he said, and within a matter of months, he was almost as good as his word. The Scandinavians finished runners-up at the UEFA Women's EURO 2005 in England, falling at the final hurdle to Germany after turning on the style and making the most of any good fortune that came their way throughout the tournament.
This swift turnaround came as quite a surprise as this was the same team that had failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, but 50-year-old Berntsen's calm, almost avuncular methods were a real hit with the players and reaped immediate results.
In the 18 months since then, the Norwegians have continued to make steady progress . "I think that we can already say that the team has come on well since I took over," says Berntsen in an interview with FIFA.com. "We have been putting in some really hard work with regard to our playing style." Berntsen's task has been made all the easier by having a number of top players at his disposal. Many coaches would give their right arms to have stars such as Bente Nordby , Solveig and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Lise Klaveness in their teams.
Now is the time, however, for these potential stars to show just what they are made of, as the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 is a mere seven months away and Berntsen knows that his squad of 21 will be among the fancied teams. "Fifteen players can be fairly sure that they will be in the squad provided that they maintain last year's form. After that, the race is on for the remaining slots," says the tactician. "I'm really satisfied with the quality of the younger girls we have playing for us. They are really putting the pressure on the more established squad members and they're all keen to play in a World Cup."
Training camp in Cyprus
The heat will be on in more ways than one, therefore, when the squad heads out to Cyprus on 4 February for a 12-day training camp, which will include a friendly against Japan on 11 February. At the same time, an 18-member U-23 squad will be in La Manga, in Spain. "We're sending some of our younger players out there to take part in two really tough friendlies against France and England," explains Berntsen. "We'll pick the best ones from that mini-tournament to come and play in the Algarve Cup."
The coach knows that they still have a lot of work ahead of them before heading off to China. "We have to start training more, as once we're out there we'll be coming up against teams that are more or less 100 per cent professional," he says, before going on to detail the sessions that have already been organised in Oslo for players from the capital and the surrounding area.
"My assistant coach trains with them Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, then they go back and work with their respective teams in the afternoons. It is important that the best players we have available to us get together to receive top-quality coaching," says Berntsen, who is grateful for the active support which he is receiving from the Norwegian federation. "Financially, the players are being looked after better. They don't have to work as much now, meaning that they can devote 50 per cent of their time to sport and 50 per cent to their work or studies, which is a really, really important factor."
By the time the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 comes around, the team should at least know what to expect, as they will have played some testing warm-up matches against the likes of Germany, USA and Canada. "The league here in Norway has five or six good teams, but after that the standard really drops off," says Berntsen by way of explaining why he chose such tough friendly opponents. "The national team only have two proper games [prior to China 2007], the European qualifying matches against Israel and Austria, two teams who aren't among the best in Europe," he explains. "We therefore need some run-outs against the top teams before the World Cup, so that our players can get up to the required level and see what we still need to work on before the tournament starts."
Making the most of their chances will definitely be one of the things the Norwegians are looking to improve. Their problems in front of goal were highlighted at the Algarve Cup 2006, when despite turning in some dominating performances, they failed to get on the scoresheet in all three of their group matches. "This is the biggest problem for us and is where we come up short compared with the likes of Germany and the USA. We are already working on becoming more ruthless in front of goal," says Berntsen. "This is why we brought Ragnhild Gulbrandsen back into the team after the tournament in Portugal, after she'd been suffering from knee problems for a year-and-a-half. She has been putting in some good work and scored some important goals."
A lot of skill and a little luck
Berntsen was also pleased to be able to welcome back Solveig Gulbrandsen after the recent birth of her child, saying that "this is really important for us since she was one of our best players in England and it's great to have her back". As far as China is concerned, the target is clear. "We want to finish in the top three," says the coach. "I expect it to be a very open competition, perhaps even more so than the Euro in England. A team needs skill and also a little luck during the group stages, and then from the quarter-finals onwards, anything can happen." Further spice is added to the mix with the fact that the three highest-finishing European sides will also qualify for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament at Beijing 2008.
"Perhaps the real advantage that teams like Germany and the USA have is that they have played in big tournaments and gained experience," says Berntsen, who also thinks that the Asian teams will figure among the favourites. "We had North Korea watched at the U-20 World Cup and they really impressed us, both physically and tactically. If they carry on progressing like this, then anything's possible. China as the host nation will also be among the favourites, and Japan should come through their play-off against Mexico, so we're looking forward to playing them in Cyprus."