'One of the best wins we ever had'

INSIGHT: What led to Norway clinching their eighth EHF EURO title? We look at their journey back to the top in 2020

Nora Mørk was one of the keys to Norway's EHF EURO 2020 victory. Photo © Jozo Cabraja / kolektiff

After a clean sweep through the EHF EURO 2020, Norway clinched their eighth trophy in the competition with a 22:20 victory in the final against France – and with that, returned to the top of the podium after a four-year wait and clinched their first medal since 2017.

“Our country has been a little bit spoilt with the medals and after three years without one, it has been a struggle. We had a very good EHF EURO, but our spirit was in it, our heart was in it,” says All-star left wing Camilla Herrem. “We are happy to be here and have our gold medal back again.”

Asking what led to Norway’s trophy seems an odd question for a team that rose to their towering heights long ago and has been at the top of global handball for almost 30 years – the more apt question is how the more recent journey has evolved.

“It was a difficult way to be back to the top”

When Norway raised the trophy in Sweden in 2016, they did not know they were at the end of a dream run that had seen them claim almost every EHF EURO title contested since 2004 – 2012 was the only exception, but they still earned the silver medal that year. At that point, Norway were also the world champions.

What followed was a loss to France in the World Championship 2017 final one year later, a fifth-place ranking at the EHF EURO 2018 and fourth at the World Championship 2019. It is by no means a poor record, but for Norway, always very hungry for titles and nothing less, it was not the ideal scenario.

“We always have high goals with the national team, so it was a difficult way to be back to the top. In the last years we always had some injuries in our team – now it is good to have all those players back,” says coach Thorir Hergeirsson, who has now led Norway to a total of seven international trophies.

So what happened during those years, where Norway fought hard to return to the top but could not manage to do so? And what led to them ending their wait for a trophy on Sunday night in Herning?

We can put it down to three main factors: increased individual strength and overall quality, lessons from lost medals and trophies, and the return of Nora Mørk. Another key was what Herrem highlighted in her post-final statement: spirit and heart.

Strategic improvements year by year

Even when they are on top, Norway never rest and are always looking for the way to get better.

After Norway beat the Netherlands in the World Championship 2015 final and experienced what was then by far the highest speed of play, they too worked to incorporate more tempo in their game – and they were rewarded when they reached an equal or even superior level to the Netherlands in that regard and defeated the Dutch in the EURO 2016 final.

After Norway lost to France in the World Championship 2017 final, it spurred an increased focus on defence, inspired by France’s highly effective style that led to the world title win.

Ranking fifth at the EHF EURO 2018, Norway saw that even with their fine-tuned skills, speed and stronger defence, they could not always be the most competitive side. There, they learned important lessons in their defeats and from the relatively disappointing ranking – and the hunger to return to the top only intensified. That was also the first championship without injured Mørk, highlighting her value for Norway.

Approaching the World Championship 2019 without Mørk, Norway knew they would have to step up their game. Despite showing with their play that they were among the finest squads in terms of general quality, the title-winning mentality we have seen so many times over the years did not come through completely and the three-time world champions left Japan without a medal.

Perhaps the toughest lesson for Norway over these years was the fact that the best team in terms of statistics or perfected structure does not always emerge the winner. There is that ‘X-factor’ when it comes to winning a title or medal – that necessary spirt and heart mentioned by Herrem.

In Denmark we have seen how Croatia’s mentality served them superbly to lift their level and record an historic result. When France took the title on the home court at the EURO 2018, the crowd and experience of the event on their own soil surely boosted their performance.

“Nora is a game changer we had missed for many years”

Part of the seemingly impossible improvement from the Norway side already so close to perfect for years lies in the individual quality of the players. Not only have key players such as 2019 IHF World Player of the Year Stine Oftedal, Kari Brattset Dale (both now 29) and Veronica Kristiansen (now 30) matured with their greater experience, they have all gained from their regular work at Györi Audi ETO KC, where they play alongside many of the top individuals in handball.

France coach Olivier Krumbholz highlighted the importance of the club experience in his statements after the final on Sunday night, regarding France’s upcoming goals such as the Olympic Games: “Every player must work harder in their clubs.”

The importance of the club work surely applies also to Norway – and every team – concerning performance in the national squads. Györ must be acknowledged for their work in not only further developing their Norwegian stars but the French players who also represent the Hungarian club.

Oftedal, Brattset Dale and Kristiansen stand out as particularly impressive in terms of continued growth – and Oftedal’s level not only as a player but as captain and on-court leader is one of the most important weapons for Norway’s attack.

And there is no one Oftedal plays as well with on her right back as Mørk.

“It feels so great that she is back in the team. She had been out for years – now she is back really strong,” says Oftedal of the top scorer of the EHF EURO 2020. “She proves how important she is for our team. It is simply great to have her back. Nora is a game changer we had missed for many years. We are grateful that she is okay again.”

The two have known each other since childhood and progressed through Norway’s youth teams together, winning both the Junior World Championship and U19 EHF EURO before joining the senior team. The combination of the two cannot be underestimated and the fact that Oftedal plays alongside two of Norway’s other regular starters – Kristiansen and Brattset Dale – at Györ means the connection across Norway’s back court and into the line is seamless.

With the leading stars in peak form, the lessons of the past years fresh in their minds, the knowledge that the chance to take a trophy is not waiting at every championship and the return of Mørk, Norway were focused and hungry when they started their EHF EURO 2020 campaign.

We saw the clear evidence of that throughout their perfect run to the trophy and that focus and determination was certainly present when Norway took the court for the final on Sunday night. Only minutes from the end, the match remained on the edge, but Norway did not falter this time and deservedly regained their European title.

“Everybody worked hard, were dedicated and tried to win the gold medal. All the players had the hunger to win the tournament and they have really outdone themselves,” says Hergeirsson. “We showed team spirit and focus. It was one of the best wins we ever had.”

written by Courtney Gahan / jh