Among the Norway delegation at this UEFA European Under-21 Championship is Nils Johan Semb, technical director of the Football Association of Norway (NFF), and a man with history when it comes to this tournament.
Semb was coach of the only other Norway side to compete in an U21 finals when, like this year, they found themselves up against Spain in the 1998 semi-finals. He sat down with UEFA.com to compare Norway's exciting new generation with his own '98 team, which included such names as Steffen Iversen and Eirik Bakke, and also to discuss the efforts made to improve the footballing fortunes of the Scandinavian nation.
My '98 team had less depth.
Both teams have a lot of offensive power and some very skilful players but in this group you have more good players.
In the 40-man list before the tournament there were a lot of good players that had to stay at home. In '98 you had maybe 14-15 good players and then there was a gap.
We were actually unlucky in the semi-final against Spain – we lost 1-0 on a golden goal, so we were very, very close. It was a little bit disappointing not to reach the final so I hope these guys can take the next step. It will be very tough. We will be underdogs but sometimes the underdogs win.
It means a lot for Norway to be in the semi-finals.
We are a very small nation and have been very close to qualifying for a long period, both with the A team but also with some of the youngsters – this team were so close at 17s and 19s. They lost to France, and this time in the play-offs they won. We haven't been in any big finals since EURO 2000 so it's very important that we show the people in Norway that we have good football players.
There's a lot of interest, especially when the A team is struggling a little bit in World Cup qualification. It means a lot to the sponsors, the people back home, the media and it gives the federation, the players, the coaches new confidence. Maybe we can also qualify with the A team next time.
Being here can inspire this generation.
They get so much inspiration from this, and they have been working so hard to get into this 23-man squad. The players that were playing in Albania with the A team were so looking forward to coming here and trying to compete with big nations like Spain, Holland, England, Italy. They can get a lot of confidence, and they know that they can compete at this level. Hopefully they can develop the last 10-15% to get to the same level with the A team.
This is the fruit of a lot of hard work by the NFF.
We put a lot of focus on player development in the federation, and together with the big clubs, with the grassroots, there's a good structure. We have also increased the international games for the U15s up to U21s – a 40% increase for the last three years. That means a lot of money spent but it is very important because then you get the international experience. If you look at Norwegian club football they don't play so much abroad so it's important for young players to get international experience through the national youth teams.
Norwegian players get more opportunities with their clubs.
It has been a little bit easier for the young players to play for their clubs because of the financial crisis. I think in Norwegian football for five or six years we had a lot of imports – average players that we spent a lot of money on. Now the clubs have a lot more focus on their own players.
Artificial pitches have played their part.
When you live in Norway with our climate it's very important to have these small pitches that you can play on the whole year. We put them together with kindergartens and schools so they can play when they have breaks and free time. And big pitches too – it's very important for the development. It started about 20 years ago and in every small place you have got very good conditions with these pitches.
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