Why Erling Haaland could become the world’s best footballer


Editor’s note: Erling Haaland and Borussia Dortmund face eight-time defending Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, stream LIVE on ESPN+)

ERLING HAALAND WAS EVERYWHERE. Each time Norway played the ball upfield against Honduras at last year’s U20 World Cup, Haaland floated away from the defense effortlessly, the ball landing at his feet as if it were destined to be there. First it was a neat side-footed goal, then a low, powerful shot through the keeper’s legs. Next came a calm penalty that sent the keeper diving the wrong way, and finally a half-volley smashed in before the keeper could react. Honduras’ defenders seemed resigned; there was nothing they could do but watch.

After just 45 minutes, Norway were cruising 5-0, and the 18-year-old had four goals. It was a complete exhibition of power and pace, so Eman Markovic, his teammate and close friend, was surprised to find that Haaland didn’t look happy in the dressing room at halftime. In fact, he seemed angry.

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“What’s wrong?” Markovic asked.

“I didn’t score on a chance I got,” Markovic remembers Haaland saying.

That’s the thing about Haaland. No matter how many goals he scores, he always wants one more. That was true when he was growing up in the small town of Bryne, when he broke records at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and now as he’s become the brightest young thing at Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, a club known for incubating Europe’s bright young things.

If there’s any doubt that he is one of the most exciting young players on the planet, consider this: He has scored 14 Champions League goals in 11 games, as of Nov. 4. It took Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo 28 and 51 games, respectively, to do the same. His rise to stardom has been dizzying, even bewildering. But Haaland has been prepping for this his whole life, and so far, the plan is working.

Back on that evening at the U20 World Cup, Norway went on to win 12-0. Haaland made good on his anger and in the second half scored five more goals, bringing his total to nine. It was a tournament record, all but guaranteeing the Golden Boot, the award for the top scorer.

“Are you happy now?” Markovic asked him afterward.

“No!” he replied. “If I scored one more, I would have 10.”

WHEN HAALAND WAS about 9 years old, he and his friends started meeting on weekends to practice and scrimmage on their own at an old stadium in Bryne. They trained together officially a couple of times a week with their coaches, but that wasn’t enough.

“I was always waiting for the weekends so I could go there, play football, then go home and watch football on the television,” says Haaland on a rainy October afternoon in Dortmund, Germany. Fresh off scoring a late goal in the Champions League the day before, Haaland, who turned 20 in July, looks relaxed but serious on Zoom in a tan fleece jacket, his white-blond hair obscured by a backward baseball cap.

Haaland is often compared with legendary Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic because of their shared Scandinavian background and thirst for goals. And Haaland can seem Zlatan-esque in his humor: He once told reporters that he sleeps with his hat trick balls and that his alarm is the Champions League anthem. (Markovic, his former roommate, confirms the second claim: “Every time we were in the national team, I woke up to that song. The first few times it was a little bit stressful, but you get the hang of it.”)

Haaland can be dry and short in interviews, leaving reporters to flounder in the awkward silence. When I ask him what he eats in an average day — he reportedly models his intake on Ronaldo’s fish-based diet — he scoffs and says, “Yeah, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Those who know him say he’s different privately, easy to talk to and be around. He seems popular among his teammates, quick to joke or break into song. Jan Aage Fjortoft, an ESPN commentator who played in Austria, England and Germany, has known Haaland since the Dortmund star was a child and describes him as a “cheeky guy to interview because he likes to find mistakes with the journalists.” Haaland has previously said his responses depend on what he thinks of the questions: “If you ask me what the weather is like, I answer, ‘Good.’ It’s that simple.”

His childhood coach, Alf Ingve Berntsen, puts it down to a cultural difference: “In this part of Norway, we do not talk so much. The ethic is to work hard. It’s more important what you do than what you say.”

Haaland lives up to that mantra. His life is tailored to maximize his performance. He trains at home with a fitness coach via FaceTime (“to release spots on my body”). He meditates (“when I feel I need it”). He gets at least nine hours of sleep a night (“sleep is very important”), wears blue-light glasses to protect his eyes from the screen (“I play a lot of FIFA”) and even unplugs his Wi-Fi when he goes to bed (“to get the best possible sleep”). His dad, Alfie, says he has to switch to mobile data promptly at 10 p.m. when he visits.

“If he believes in something, he stays with it,” says his dad, a former Premier League player. “I’m not sure he’s proved that it could be bad if he keeps the Wi-Fi, but if he thinks it helps him, why not?”

Now, in Dortmund, Erling Haaland reminisces about those early days playing with his friends on the weekends, when they would imitate the goal celebrations of famous players. (He declines to specify whom, just “good, different players.”) I ask him how old he was when he started organizing those weekend practices. Nine or 10, he says.

“When I was 9 years old, I was never that motivated to do anything,” I tell him.

He cracks a smile: “We’re different.”

ALFIE HAALAND HOLDS UP his phone and tilts it downward at the window onto Bryne, a town of about 12,000 people on the west coast of Norway. “Maybe you can see it, the white there. That’s the old stadium,” he says over video chat. The sky is gray in mid-October near the North Sea as the elder Haaland talks about his son, who grew up and started his career here. Alfie speaks slowly, and when he says certain words, the north of England peeps out of his vowels, a souvenir of the decade he spent there as a defender.

The old stadium he shows through the window was where he realized his son was serious about football. Erling was naturally talented and competitive from a young age, Alfie says, which is no surprise given his pedigree: His dad played for Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City in the 1990s and early 2000s; his mother, Gry Marita Braut, was a Norwegian heptathlon champion. The three Haaland children skied and played a variety of sports, and young Erling followed in his mother’s footsteps when, the story goes, he set a world record for the standing long jump among 5-year-olds: 1.63 meters (5 feet, 4 inches). “I saw him jumping longer than most of the others,” Alfie says. “I didn’t know it was a record.”

But football was the focus, and when Erling and his teammates took it upon themselves to organize informal practices, Alfie knew his son could go far. “I realized I didn’t need to push him when he was 11 or 12 years old and everything is more interesting than training, and he still was eager to become better,” Alfie says. “They brought some sandwiches and were there all weekend. They did everything themselves.”

Haaland’s coach, Berntsen, put the young boy in with kids a year older, which challenged Haaland to be smart about his movement and to outmaneuver opponents instead of trying to outmuscle them. When Haaland did get outmuscled, Berntsen reassured him, telling the boy to be patient, that his growth spurt would come.

Berntsen was right. Haaland shot up to over 6 feet, and his muscle started to fill in. Leo Ostigard, a former teammate who plays at Coventry City, remembers cooking about 3 pounds (1.5 kilos) of chicken fajitas for the two of them when Haaland was 16. “I was like, ‘Wow, stop eating,'” he says. “After that year, he was 10 kilos [22 pounds] more, so he was a big, big striker.”

As impressive as Haaland’s physical attributes are — he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 192 pounds — his mental strength stands taller. “He’ll think, ‘Why should I not score three goals in my first game?’ Then he scores three goals,” Ostigard says. “Not so many players think that.”

Having a pro for a dad didn’t hurt, but Alfie says that his son developed that winning mentality naturally. “It’s probably more American than socialist Norway, where everyone should be the same,” he says, joking. He gave Erling advice but left the boy to figure out how to improve on his own rather than pointing out his mistakes.

Berntsen believes that what makes Haaland special is neither his physique nor his technique. “Many players who have all these qualities are very afraid: ‘What if I don’t make it? What if I don’t succeed?’ Erling doesn’t think like that. He is fearless.”



Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland talks how he’s able to thrive under pressure at one of the world’s biggest clubs.

WHEN HAALAND WAS 16, he said goodbye to his family and left Bryne. He was “a little bit afraid of being alone,” he says, but this was the first step on a path he and his father had carefully devised. He was going north to Molde, one of the biggest teams in Norway, what his father described as a “safe club.” There the boy could comfortably learn to live on his own and ready himself for the bigger stages they believed would come.

Initially, Haaland missed his parents and his brother and sister. But he knew this was what life as a professional required. Besides, his parents had taught him how to cook and do laundry.

On his first day at Molde, in 2017, Haaland ate lunch with Tobias Svendsen. They were about the same age, laughed at each other’s jokes and quickly became friends. Svendsen asked the newbie how many years he had on his contract. “He said, ‘I signed for two years, and I think I’m just going to be here for two and maybe they will sell me,'” recalls Svendsen, a midfielder at Lillestrom.

That was exactly what happened. Haaland broke through at Molde under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, now the manager of Manchester United, and in July 2018 scored four goals in 17 minutes to help his team beat the league leaders, Brann, 4-0. As Haaland predicted, after two years, it was time to pack his bags.

But when Italian giants Juventus came calling, Haaland did what few teenagers in his shoes would do. He said no.

Clubs like Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea boast promising youth players by the busload, the prospect of playing for Europe’s greatest teams too tempting a proposition for talented kids and their parents to turn down. But the road to success is perilous. Jadon Sancho, Haaland’s teammate at Dortmund, signed for Manchester City at 14 years old and left without ever playing for the first team. Martin Odegaard, another Norwegian boy wonder, signed for Real Madrid in 2015 to much fanfare when he was only 16. He started his first league game for Madrid this September.

A move to Juventus was mouthwatering, but Haaland and his advisers were savvy enough to realize it was too soon. As good as he was, he wasn’t going to knock Ronaldo out of the team. He understood that at his age, the status of the club was less significant than his status in it. The most important thing was to play, and if he kept playing well, Juventus, Real Madrid and others would come back for him.

“Erling and his family have been very clever to pick the right choices,” Berntsen says.

Instead, he chose Red Bull Salzburg, a big team in the small Austrian league that would give him time to develop but also would expose him to the Champions League. “I thought it was too early to go there [Juventus],” he said at the time. “It was very important to look at how important a part I was going to play for the club I joined. There is more of a chance of playing here.”

That decision has since proved to be prudent, even brilliant.

IF HAALAND WAS nervous on his debut in Europe’s biggest competition, he didn’t show it. He stood with his hands behind his back, unsmiling, as his favorite song — the Champions League anthem — echoed around the stadium in Salzburg. The fans celebrated their team’s first-ever group stage appearance, against Belgian side Genk, with a charming pregame choreography featuring the city’s most famous son, Mozart.

Shortly after kickoff, Haaland sent the ball flying past the Genk keeper with his right foot and ran nearly the length of the pitch with his lanky arms out, screaming in joy. After being mobbed by his teammates, he urged the crowd to make more noise, waving his arms and cupping his ears.

“This was his stage, where he has to be,” recalls Christoph Freund, Salzburg sporting director. “Sometimes when the pressure is high, players are like, ‘Wow, I’m really nervous.’ If the game is bigger and bigger, Erling is stronger and stronger.”

The then-19-year-old went on to score a hat trick, announcing his entrée into the top echelons of European football in the loudest way possible and sending the phones ringing at the Salzburg offices. Clubs from all over Europe started asking after him, and Haaland kept scoring, as if daring them to come and get him with each strike. Eight goals in five consecutive games in the Champions League, a record for a teenager.

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Salzburg knew it was only a question of how long they could hold on to him and where he would go. Each day brought a new rumor, another link to a marquee club. Would it be a reunion with Solskjaer at Manchester United? Was he ready now to join Ronaldo at Juventus?

Alfie met with different clubs and came up with a shortlist for his son. Less than a year after Haaland made his Salzburg debut, in December 2019, the Haalands called Freund to tell him he was leaving. Again, their decision was shrewd: They’d agreed terms not with Manchester United or Juventus but with Borussia Dortmund, the German club famous for turning promising youngsters into stars. See: Sancho and American Christian Pulisic.

“He always needs to be challenged by the league he is in,” Alfie says. “He’d only been [in Salzburg] for a short time, but he developed so fast, it was hard to hold him back.”

BACK IN DORTMUND IN OCTOBER, Haaland is marveling at one of his newest teammates, English midfielder Jude Bellingham, who signed in July. “It’s so funny to think that he’s only 17, three years younger than me,” he says. “How calm he is on the ball. Only 17 and he’s so relaxed.”

Though Haaland himself is only 20 and joined Dortmund less than a year ago, he says, “We have to take care of [Bellingham].” It’s a sign of how seamlessly Haaland has eased into the team, on and off the pitch.

In his very first game, in January 2020, Haaland came on in the 56th minute when Dortmund were down 3-1 to Augsburg. Looking sleek in the all-black away kit, his hair slicked, Haaland ran onto the pitch roaring at his teammates. Within 23 minutes, he had scored a hat trick to secure an epic comeback win.

“When many players reach the next level, they stop producing or they don’t make the challenge,” Berntsen says. “But Erling has always coped with new levels well.”

Since then, on a young Dortmund team often criticized for lacking a killer instinct, Haaland has been clinical. His brace earned Dortmund a famous victory against Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League. He celebrated by pretending to meditate on the pitch, which so aggravated PSG that Neymar and his teammates did mocking imitations of it after winning the return fixture. This season he has 10 goals and three assists in 10 games across all competitions, as of Nov. 4. “Some sweet goals,” he says with a laugh.

With such sustained success, it’s unsurprising that Haaland is being linked with moves away from Dortmund to the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool. He already has played more games for Dortmund than he did for Salzburg, and it seems like only a matter of time before he’s ready to level up again. It could be as soon as next season.

Haaland reportedly has a €75 million ($88 million) release clause in his contract that activates in 2022, two years before his deal expires in June 2024. (Haaland’s representatives declined to comment on this.) That means that in two years, any club that pays that amount can sign him as long as they agree personal terms with him — an absolute steal. For context: Barcelona paid Dortmund a club-record fee of €105 million ($122 million) for winger Ousmane Dembele in 2017, and Manchester United refused to meet the €120 million ($140 million) asking price for Sancho over the summer. To get a higher sum for Haaland, Dortmund need to sell before the clause kicks in. Either way, Haaland holds the power.

“[Haaland and his team] were always aware that the player has to progress, and that’s how he’s chosen his clubs,” Fjortoft says. “Most of it is from his dad, but there are a lot of former footballers who are not good at seeing that.”

I ask Haaland if there’s a player whose career he sees as a model for his own, someone he can point to as an image of success.

He gives a trademark answer: “I want to have my own career, my own Erling Haaland career.”

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