Erling Haaland is only six away from Norway’s goalscoring record, so it is surely inevitable that he will soon become his country’s most prolific striker.
On the one hand, that would happen very quickly – Haaland only scored his first goals for Norway in 2020. On the other hand, it was a long time coming.
What exactly is Haaland?
Among the 213 FIFA-affiliated nations, Norway holds the longest outright individual goalscoring record in the world. It was set up by Jorgen Juve, a fascinating figure who ended his international career in 1937 and later became a well-known 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 was made notable by the fact that he played as a centre-forward in less than half of the games that. He was positioned in defense, from where he captained his country to the bronze medal in the 1936 Olympics. That explains why his last international goal came three years before his last cap, in June 1934. Therefore, it is likely that by the time Haaland had scored six more goals, it would have been around 90 years since when Juve reached the 33-goal mark.
There is technically another record that lasts longer, also in Scandinavia.
Poul “Tist” Nielsen scored 52 goals in 38 games for Denmark between 1910 and 1925, although his record was equaled by Jon Dahl Tomasson — now manager of Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship — in 2010. Tomasson chose to retire from international football after that year’s World Cup in South Africa rather than seek to match his record. Nielsen’s name therefore remains in the record books, although he now holds Denmark’s record only jointly.
This graph shows 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 include only the countries that have qualified for the World Cup, it is only Denmark, Norway and Hungary whose records last more than half a century.
Hungary’s record is perhaps the most impressive, considering that Ferenc Puskas scored 84 goals in just 85 games, and his international career was brought to an early 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 countries that recorded goalscorers appeared for them in 2023, and in terms of time since they were set, the median goalscorer stood at just seven year, which includes the likes of Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Keane and Paraguay’s Roque Santa Cruz. Increased longevity due to greater fitness levels in the modern game is clearly a major factor, as is the number of relatively new countries on the FIFA list.
Perhaps the most surprising international goalscoring record is Italy’s.
Giga Riva’s relatively insubstantial haul of 35 goals is the mark beaten since World Cup 1974. Not only has it been equaled or surpassed, but no one has come close to it — Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero both reached 27 and that is as close as anyone comes.
For context, four Englishmen reached 35 goals in that period — Gary Lineker, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane. Also four Spaniards — Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Torres, David Villa and David Silva, while Alvaro Morata (at 34) should get there shortly.
Furthermore, no current Italians look set to challenge it — Ciro Immobile (with 17) has less than half that tally, turns 34 in February, and has been omitted from recent squads. No one in Luciano Spalletti’s current squad has scored more than eight international goals.
Italy’s lack is clearly not about a complete lack of prolific strikers – the likes of Christian Vieri, Pippo Inzaghi and Luca Toni have all scored big at club level. Sometimes it’s been the other way around, with different strikers competing for a starting place, meaning none of them have dominated the national side for a decade. That said, around a decade ago, there was simply a lack of prolific Italian strikers to choose from. Antonio Conte used Eder and Graziano Pelle up front in the 2016 European Championship.
There are also tactical considerations. Not only is Italy traditionally the most defensive of the major European nations, but their attacking game is usually based around the use of a second striker. Baggio, Del Piero and Francesco Totti have been golden boys at different — overlapping — stages, with Italy’s No 9 often chosen to bring out the best in Italy’s No 10.
How about Norway? They, similarly, are traditionally a defensive-minded side, favoring 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 be challenged by long diagonal balls.
But perhaps the more important thing about Norway is that, historically, they have generally not been very competitive.
They have qualified for only four major tournaments — in 1938, 1994, 1998 and 2000 — and won a combined three matches in those appearances. They are similar to Italy who, at times, boast various high-level strikers whose careers have almost overlapped – John Carew, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Tore Andre Flo, Steffen Iversen – and among others points suffered from a complete lack of good centre-forwards.
At this point, Norway appear to have the most strikers in Europe, and it’s not unreasonable to consider where Haaland might end up on the all-time international goalscoring chart worldwide, never mind in relation to his compatriot
Haaland is currently averaging nearly a goal a game for his country, which will inevitably be difficult for the 23-year-old to maintain in his career. But it’s worth pointing out how impressive that is, even at this early stage. Again, excluding countries that have never qualified for the World Cup, only the aforementioned quartet of Juve, Riva, Puskas and Nielsen, along with Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto, hold their country’s international goalscoring records and boast also rate 0.75 goals per game or more.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo, the most prolific international goalscorer of all time with 127 for Portugal, boasts ‘just’ 0.63 goals per game, a lower rate than the likes of Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Kane and Aleksandar Mitrovic (Serbia), who owes his early days as a winger instead of a central striker.
Considering how many hat-tricks Haaland has scored for Manchester City, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he can score six goals this international break to draw level with Juve, especially if Norway’s first match is a home friendly against the Faroe Islands today ( Thursday), before a European Championship qualifier against Scotland in Glasgow on Sunday. That said, the Faroe defense is less leaky than you might expect — only twice in their last 22 outings have they conceded more than three goals in a game.
The broader question is whether we will see Haaland in a major tournament.
Despite the presence of him and Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard, Norway failed to qualify directly from their Euro 2024 qualification group, with Spain and Scotland already taking the top two spots.
They are, at least, likely to qualify for the play-offs, and will therefore have two must-win games in March to ensure their first major appearance in the tournament since 2000 – the summer when Haaland was born . But there has been little in recent performances to suggest Norway will go through those play-offs.
Juve’s individual record is close to being surpassed, but captaining his team to a bronze medal at the Olympics may stand as his country’s greatest achievement for a long time.
Erling Haaland is amazing – so why hasn’t he made Manchester City better?
(Top image: Sebastian Widmann – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)