Norway in the semi-finals of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship may be a shock to some but not to Fredrik Semb Berge – a man who, at 23, already knows a fair bit about football's capacity to surprise.
Semb Berge was at the centre of one of the more peculiar tales of the unexpected in the football world this year when a Norwegian lottery winner, Yngvar Borgersen, paid 2.5m Norwegian kronor (€325,000) to keep him at his club, Odd Grenland.
Semb Berge is happy to recount this, well, odd story. "
We have a man in our community who won a lot of money in a lottery back home, and he wanted to do something for the community. His wife loves football and she likes what Odd stands for – they use a lot of younger players, and she liked that – so he wanted to invest in Odd. He did that and he got 25% of me."
That investment meant the club were under no immediate pressure to sell the in-demand centre-back, as Semb Berge explains. "[Odd don't have] a lot of money and it's a struggle for them so with the money he gave, they can have me as long as they want. And they don't have to sell any other players immediately."
It was with Odd that Semb Berge made his top-flight debut aged 18, a beneficiary of Norwegian football's focus on youth. "A few years ago in Norway, the money wasn't so great there so they had to trust young players, and they got the chance earlier." In his case, he might have broken through even earlier but for a series of metatarsal fractures – four in right foot, one in his left – that took "probably a year" out of his development between the age of 16 and 18.
Those setbacks mean the tall centre-back is wholly appreciative of the opportunities now coming his way. He is speaking to UEFA.com beside the rooftop pool at the Sheraton hotel in Tel Aviv and could not be more excited to be at this UEFA European Under-21 Championship. "You play against very good teams and you learn in every match. You meet some amazing players, who play in big leagues and at big clubs, so it's just an extremely good experience for us."
Semb Berge has featured twice so far for Norway, scoring their opening goal in the 3-1 victory over England. If that result raised eyebrows, his goal was another little tale of the unexpected in itself. He had never scored for Norway's U21s before, his last goal in club football was "about a year ago" and yet he found the bottom corner of the England net after 15 minutes in Petah Tikva. "I don't think you can call me a goalscorer," he laughs, "but I got the ball and tried to turn around and just take a shot, and luckily it [went] in.
"It wasn't a hard shot," he elaborates, "but I don't think the keeper could see the ball, so it came as a surprise." His mother and brother were there to see it but have since flown home – "I don't think they thought we'd get through the group stage" – but Tor Ole Skullerud's squad themselves had rather more belief.
"We thought we reach the semi-finals, and there we are," he says. They are there on merit too given not just the win against England, but the fact they came back to hold Israel with ten men and then came within seconds of beating Italy. Semb Berge also underlines the tactical flexibility they have showed – from dominating possession against Israel to punishing England on the counterattack. "In the first match we played against Israel, we had the ball a lot. In the match against England they used the ball so we can play both methods, and that's a strength."
They may be seeing even less of the ball against Spain in Saturday’s semi-final but Semb Berge is undaunted, "We have proved that we are a good team – we have not been beaten in the group stage, so we think we can go all the way to the final, and win the final as well. [Spain have] good players, but we can beat them as well." Stranger things have happened.
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