At the foothills of Mount Ulrika in the beautiful city of Bergen, nestled on the western coast of Norway, the “Gateway to the Fjords” is the home of Brann, a top flight Norwegian soccer team.
This past Sunday, I got a chance to experience what a top flight Norwegian football match is like. Brann, who are fighting to avoid relegation (the season runs from March to November), played Molde — perhaps best known as the team that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once managed to two Norwegian Premier League trophies. Molde was top of the table, so it was truly a battle between teams at opposite ends of the table.
I took the “light railway” (essentially a tram) from the city center to the Brann Stadion. The carriage was standing room only with seemingly no room to add any more passengers. But as we stopped at each station on the way to the ground, the oncoming passengers seemed to find a way to squeeze and snake their way on to the train to make an already tight squeeze that much tighter.
When we arrived at the Brann Stadion stop, the doors of the train opened to allow the fans in red (Brann) and blue (Molde) streamed across the platform and breathe in the cool air.
The walk from the station to the stadium was less than half a mile, through a residential neighborhood complete with children playing with their toys in the front yard. The fans filled the lanes as we descended down the hill toward the stadium.
Brann Stadion, built in 1919 but modernized in recent years, is a quaint stadium with covered seating on all four sides. The red seats are close to the field, and the low-level roof, adorned with bright bulbs, offer spectators a chance to see the mountains that flank the valley where the stadium is nestled in.
Arriving at the stadium 15 minutes before kick-off, most of the fans were already inside the stadium, so I walked around to the west end to buy a ticket. After waiting 5 minutes in line, I was able to buy a ticket for the south stand with no problems.
Before entering the south stand with five minutes to go before kickoff, every fan had to undergo a brief body search. I then walked up the incline and into the south stand.
I quickly noticed that the south stand was the supporters’ section, complete with boisterous fans, red flags and other banners. My seat behind the goal was a perfect view of the field as well as all three sides of the ground in front of me, and the supporters’ section behind.
Within minutes, the players walked out on to the pitch to a noisy reception. The PA announcer ran down the list of the home team but skipped the introduction to Molde players. But before the match kicked off, the majority of fans stood as the club’s team anthem was played on the PA system. Spirited, it was. But it was also a tad long — similar to the national anthems you hear at the World Cup that start off well but don’t know when to stop.
The match kicked off. In the first 15 minutes, Brann’s possession consisted mostly of defenders hoofing the ball down the field. Nine out of 10 times, Molde was able to defend the balls in the air quite easily, facing forward while the Brann forwards had their backs toward goal and were beaten in the air time after time. If you want to go back in time to see the old style of English football, Brann should be on your list.
It didn’t take long to see why Brann are in the predicament they’re in. Facing relegation from the top flight, the team’s three biggest problems, as evidenced in this game, are (1) a lack of a strong attacking midfielder who is able to create chances for his forwards, (2) the predictability of their attacks, either hoofing the ball into the center or passing the ball to their wingers, and (3) the lack of precision in their crossing and balls into the box.
The two times when Brann finally diverted from their ineffective and too predictable tactics almost resulted in two goals as inch-perfect crosses into the box reached the heads of Brann’s forwards, but in both opportunities, the headers sailed over the bar for a Molde goal kick.
While it was easy to see why Brann is near the bottom of the table, it’s also easy to see why Molde are more than eight points in the lead atop the table. The team prefers to pass the ball on the floor. The team maintains its shape well, but most impressively, Molde has a superb defense that is well organized and is able to snuff out any danger to prevent the opposition from getting chances to score.
It was not surprising then when Molde scored a goal late in the first half after Vegard Forrens took advantage of a loose ball to hit it into the top corner of the net.
Forrens, who was recently named captain of Norway, was a key reason why Molde were so strong defensively. The way he marshaled the defense and moved forward into midfield to clear the high balls lofted into the air by Brann’s defenders was the mark of a player who may soon find his way into the Premier League or to Cardiff, where Solksjaer will be interested in signing a proven defender.
The one other player who especially impressed me on Molde was [insert player name; shirt number 16], who was dangerous in midfield and carved Brann up on several occasions with his impressive dribbling and penetrating through balls.
The experience in the stadium at Brann was a mixture of highs and lows. The highs were the supporters group next to me, who showed their passion for the team and sang throughout the majority of the game. Most of the chants were the same ones you can expect to hear throughout the US and UK except they were in Norwegian. But the tunes were very familiar except for a few songs that seemed to be a local variety.
Another high was the family experience, which included plenty of parents with their children.
The low, and this one was particularly unfortunate since it happened five rows in front of me, were three Brann fans who decided to walk from their seats and stand in front of the barrier that separated the stand from the pitch. While there were several children under the age of 10 who were standing next to the same barrier, and were harming no one, the three adults blocked the view for the people standing immediately behind them in the first row of the stand. The father and son politely asked the three to move, but they refused and stood where they were — even proceeding to take selfies of themselves, to further antagonize the two fans behind them.
The steward, who was standing next to the entire incident, couldn’t care less. He observed what happened but kept his distance and didn’t want to do anything about it even after the two people, who had their blocked, complained. The two fans took the situation into their own hands by walking over to the entrance to complain to other stewards who were gathered there. Minutes later, a burly steward and his colleague walked over to the three adults to talk and to calm everyone down.
Even after everyone was spoken to and the two stewards left, they allowed the three fans to stay where they were. Without taking control of the situation, events quickly escalated as other fans got in the faces of the three adults and verbally threatened them. The big, burly steward, yet again, didn’t get involved but merely signaled for help.
Before the stewards could arrive, the situation got very heated with fans getting in each other’s faces, and screaming at each other.
The stewards arrived minutes later. Thankfully, no punches had been thrown but it was by sheer luck rather than effective security that no one had gotten injured. After several minutes of heated shouting, the security and two police officers were able to take control of the situation. And finally, the three fans were escorted away to different seats.
The whole incident was unfortunate because it spoiled what was otherwise a welcome experience at the stadium. Plus, security allowed the incident to escalate unnecessarily by not trying to resolve it quickly before it worsened. On top of that, it was incredibly distracting for those of us, like me, who were trying to watch the game unfold in front of us.
Back to the game, Brann’s first real chance to score didn’t come until the 70th minute, such was the way that Molde controlled the game. It was a controlled possession from Molde. They were the away team but never were in real threat of suffering defeat. It was a 1-0 away victory that an Arsenal or Chelsea would have been proud of.
With approximately 10-15 minutes to go in the game, Brann made a double substitution that had an immediate impact on the game. For the first time in the match, Molde were on the back foot but despite Brann’s repeated attempts to try to grab an equalizer, the gulf in class was too apparent as each try fizzled out into mediocrity — including a free kick on the edge of the area (that hit the wall), a header (that went over the bar), and a cross that went across the goal (but no one was near the far post). Such was the night for Brann.
When the referee blew the final whistle, Molde players and their traveling support celebrated the important victory to edge that one step closer to winning the league title. For Brann, there were loud few chants in Norwegian from supporters aimed at the team walking off the pitch. Presumably they were aimed in the direction of Brann’s manager, along the lines of “you don’t know what you’re doing.”
All in all, it was a frustrating night for Brann supporters. The score line suggests it was a closely fought match, but the reality is that it ended up being a comfortable victory for Molde. Perhaps it’s Brann’s manager being unable to motivate his players. Or maybe the players simply aren’t good enough.
Just as a lot of football supporters were disappointed when Fulham was relegated last season because we’d miss out on seeing matches at Craven Cottage for at least one season, the same may happen with Brann Stadion. The location is deserving of a better soccer team. Despite the incident with security, the heart of the club is in the right place and it has the foundation to at least be a success in the future off the pitch.
UPDATE (December, 2014): Brann Bergen, unfortunately, were relegated at the end of the season after getting knocked out in a relegation playoff match.
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