Erling Haaland is just six away from Norway’s goalscoring record, so it is surely inevitable that he will soon be his nation’s most prolific striker ever.
On one hand, that will have happened remarkably quickly – Haaland only scored his first goals for Norway in 2020. On the other, this has been an incredibly long time coming.
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Of the 213 FIFA-affiliated nations, Norway’s is the longest-standing outright individual goalscoring record in the world. It was set by Jorgen Juve, a fascinating figure who ended his international career in 1937 and later became a renowned sports journalist in his home country.
Juve scored a relatively modest 33 goals in 45 matches for Norway, including five hat-tricks, although his tally is made remarkable by the fact he played as a centre-forward in less than half of those games. He was otherwise positioned in defence, from where he captained his nation to the bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics. That explains why his final international goal came three years before his final cap, in June 1934. Therefore, it is likely that by the time Haaland scores six more goals, it will be around 90 years since Juve reached the 33-goal mark.
There is technically one other record that stands for longer, also in Scandinavia.
Poul “Tist” Nielsen scored 52 goals in 38 games for Denmark between 1910 and 1925, although his record was equalled by Jon Dahl Tomasson — now manager of Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship — in 2010. Tomasson elected to retire from international football after that year’s World Cup in South Africa rather than seeking to make the record his own. Nielsen’s name therefore remains in the record books, although he now holds Denmark’s record only jointly.
This graph demonstrates the extent to which these records are outliers.
Only six countries’ goalscoring records have stood for more than 50 years, including Libya, Sudan and Guinea. Therefore, if we only include nations to have qualified for the World Cup, it is only Denmark, Norway and Hungary whose records have lasted more than half a century.
Hungary’s record is perhaps the most impressive, considering Ferenc Puskas scored 84 goals in just 85 games, and his international career was brought to a premature end at the age of 29 because of the Hungarian Revolution. He later represented Spain at the 1962 World Cup, having gone half a decade without playing international football.
The most striking thing about the graph is how many goalscoring records have been set recently.
Sixty-four of the 211 nations’ record goalscorers have appeared for them in 2023, and in terms of time since they were set, the median goalscoring mark has stood for just seven years, which includes the likes of the Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Paraguay’s Roque Santa Cruz. Increased longevity due to superior fitness levels in the modern game is clearly a major factor, as is the number of relatively new nations on the FIFA list.
Perhaps the most surprising international goalscoring record is that of Italy.
Giga Riva’s relatively insubstantial haul of 35 goals has been the mark to beat since World Cup 1974. Not only has it not been matched or eclipsed, but no one has ever got particularly near it — Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero both reached 27 and that’s as close as anyone has come.
For context, four Englishmen have reached 35 goals in that period — Gary Lineker, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Four Spaniards too — Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Torres, David Villa and David Silva, while Alvaro Morata (on 34) should get there shortly.
Furthermore, no current Italians seem set to challenge it — Ciro Immobile (with 17) has less than half that tally, turns 34 years old in February, and has been omitted from recent squads. Nobody in Luciano Spalletti’s current squad has scored more than eight international goals.
Italy’s shortcoming clearly isn’t about a complete lack of prolific strikers — the likes of Christian Vieri, Pippo Inzaghi and Luca Toni all scored heavily at club level. Sometimes it’s been the opposite, with various strikers competing for a starting place, meaning none of them got to dominate the national side for a decade. That said, around a decade ago, there was simply a dearth of prolific Italian strikers to choose from. Antonio Conte used Eder and Graziano Pelle up front at the 2016 European Championship.
There are also tactical considerations. Not only have Italy traditionally been the most defensive of the major European nations, but their attacking play has generally been based around using a second striker. Baggio, Del Piero and Francesco Totti have all been the golden boy at various — overlapping — stages, with Italy’s No 9 often selected primarily to bring the best out of Italy’s No 10.
What of Norway? They, similarly, were traditionally a defensive-minded side, favouring counter-attacks and long balls. At their peak under Egil Olsen in the mid-1990s, they often used a striker out of position on the wing, where he would challenge for long, diagonal balls.
But perhaps the more pertinent thing about Norway is that, historically, they generally haven’t been very competitive.
They’ve only ever qualified for four major tournaments — in 1938, 1994, 1998 and 2000 — and have won a combined three matches in those appearances. They’re also similar to Italy in that, at times, they’ve boasted various high-level strikers whose careers roughly overlapped — John Carew, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Steffen Iversen — and at other points have suffered a complete lack of good centre-forwards.
At this point in time, Norway appear to have the most prolific striker in Europe, and it’s not unreasonable to consider where Haaland might end up in the all-time international goalscoring charts worldwide, never mind just in relation to his compatriots.
Haaland is currently averaging nearly a goal a game for his country, which will inevitably be difficult for the 23-year-old to sustain over his career. But it’s worth pointing out how impressive that is, even at this early stage. Again, excluding countries who have never qualified for a World Cup, only the aforementioned quartet of Juve, Riva, Puskas and Nielsen, plus Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto, hold their nation’s international goalscoring records and also boast a rate of 0.75 goals per game or more.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo, the most prolific international goalscorer of all time with 127 for Portugal, boasts ‘only’ 0.63 goals per game, a lower rate than the likes of Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Kane and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia), which owes to his early days as a winger rather than a central striker.
Considering how many hat-tricks Haaland scores for Manchester City, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could score six goals during this international break to move level with Juve, particularly given Norway’s first fixture is a home friendly against the Faroe Islands today (Thursday), before a European Championship qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow on Sunday. That said, the Faroes’ defence is less leaky than you might expect — only twice in their last 22 outings have they conceded more than three times in a game.
The wider question is whether we will ever see Haaland at a major tournament.
Despite the presence of him and Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard, Norway have failed to qualify from their Euro 2024 qualification group directly, with Spain and Scotland already securing the top two spots.
They are, at least, likely to qualify for the play-offs, and therefore will have two must-win games in March to secure their first major tournament appearance since 2000 — the summer when Haaland was born. But there’s been little in recent performances to think Norway will breeze through those play-offs.
Juve’s individual record will soon be surpassed, but captaining his side to a bronze medal at the Olympics may stand as his nation’s greatest achievement for much longer.
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(Top photo: Sebastian Widmann – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)