Every night Erling Haaland sets himself a reminder of what he wants to achieve in football. What it means to play the game. How he is living his “dream”. How far he has already come from his rural, picturesque hometown of Bryne on the southern shores of lake Froylandsvatnet south of the Norwegian city of Stavanger.
That reminder is the alarm call on his phone. Each morning Haaland wakes up to a rendition of the Champions League music. “I have been having that for a couple of years now,” he says, smiling. “You know, it’s a very good anthem!”
In fact Haaland agrees that playing in the Champions League became an “obsession” for him.
“For as long as I can remember, even when I was a really young kid, I was watching the Champions League,” he recalls. “There were great teams with huge legends scoring goals. So that became my dream. My dream was to play in the Champions League, to score in the Champions League. You know that is where the best players play and that’s where the best players belong.”
It is certainly where Haaland belongs. It is where he, too, wants to become a legend. Still aged just 20 (his 21st birthday is in July) – he often jokes about just how young he is – few players have made such an impact and none so quickly on the biggest stage in club football. Ever. His rise has been incredible and, frighteningly for opponents, he is getting better and better.
To put that in context Haaland scored 20 goals in his first 14 Champions League games including a hat-trick on his debut. That is more than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappé achieved. Combined. It is the best start in the competition’s history, a goal every 56 minutes. The next best is Harry Kane who took 10 games more to reach 20 goals.
Few players are talked about as much as the powerful, eye-catching, 6ft 4in striker with, for his club, an astonishing goal a game record. His campaign with Borussia Dortmund ended with 41 in 41 matches.
Is that now the standard he has set himself?
Haaland laughs. “I mean last season I scored 44 (in just 40 games) so maybe I am now a couple under! But around there is very nice.”
Little wonder he also agrees with his childhood coach from Bryne, Alf Ingve Berntsen, who described him as “fearless”.
“In terms of goals, yes,” Haaland says. “In terms of football then, maybe, yes also. It’s what I do and what I love. It’s the positive thing about me and football. When I play I try to enjoy what is a very beautiful game. I just really love the fact I am a professional footballer. And I am lucky that I have scored a few goals. Some of those moments you cannot describe. All I can say is whatever that feeling is I want more and more of it.”
Haaland was born in Leeds, but grew up in Norway where he fell in love with playing football
The football obsession has been there for as long as Haaland remembers. It is in his blood. Born in England, in Leeds – “that’s where my sense of humour comes from,” he says – his father, Alf-Inge, played as a midfielder for Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Leeds United before returning to Norway when Erling was four.
“I remember playing football with my big brother (Astor) and even then I wanted to be a footballer,” Haaland recalls. He also has an older sister, Gabrielle, and their mother, Gry Marita Braut, was a Norwegian heptathlon champion. His parents sporting prowess helps explain his athleticism.
“I would carry a ball around me. I collected football cards, I played Fifa, I watched all the games I could, watched the goals again. I would go to school with my sticker album and trade the cards with my friends and get the players to complete the teams.
“Every weekend the first thing me and my friends did was go down to this football hall that we had in my hometown and play for free. I always knew they would be there. We would be there all day, chilling, hanging around, playing football. All day. It brings back some good memories just thinking about it. We would organise our own practice sessions. I was maybe 10 years old. I would jump on my bike and ride the five minutes down to the hall.”
Haaland smiles at the memory. He may, already, have come a long way but he is still, as he once said in a TV interview, “just a guy from Bryne”, with its population of only 12,000 near the North Sea and its simple farming economy. “It’s true I said that,” Haaland explains. “It’s also what I think when I play football. I am still just the same guy who used to play in my hometown with my friends. When you watch me when I was younger I am still doing some of the same things now. It’s something I think about a lot – I am just a normal guy from Byrne.”
Except he is far from normal.
During this interview, conducted for Icon magazine Haaland often mentions the drive to push himself, to improve, to make the extra gains, on and off the pitch, which are needed to be the best. There is even a phrase he repeats. He does not want to be in a “comfort zone”. Ever.
“I have been taking a couple of steps over the past few years and I think they have been good steps for me, personally, to get out of my comfort zone and to develop even more,” Haaland says.
“I want to challenge myself in everything that I do. It’s something I think about. It’s also for everyone to always do this. People can sometimes be too comfortable staying in their ‘zone’ so I think it’s important to get out of that.”
Erling Haaland alongside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during their time together at Molde
Those steps have also involved the careful development of his career which is managed by Mino Raiola, the agent who also represents one of Haaland’s idols, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Haaland started with lowly Bryne, where he made his debut at 15 before leaving his family a year later to go north and join one of Norway’s biggest clubs, Molde. There he worked under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Haaland is already the top-scoring Norwegian in the Champions League, beating Solskjaer’s record of 19 goals and achieving it in 63 fewer matches).
“To leave my parents, my family and friends was hard,” he admits. “But it was also important to for me to do that at that stage.”
Haaland thrived. In one memorable match he scored all four goals in the first 21 minutes to help beat the league leaders, Brann, 4-0. Everyone took notice.
It was to Red Bull Salzburg – another sensible step – that he moved on January 1 2019 and it was there, nine months later, that he made his Champions League debut against the Belgian club Genk.
“The week before, the day before, it was all I was thinking about – to walk out and make my debut in the Champions League with the music. It is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Haaland says. He even played the anthem as he drove his car to the final training session.
It is a game that will stay with Salzburg and their fans, also. Haaland scored after precisely 101 seconds and ran almost the length of the pitch in wild, ecstatic celebration. By half-time he had a hat-trick – the first teenager to do so on his first appearance since Wayne Rooney in 2004 – as Salzburg went on to win 6-2.
By now the whole of Europe had woken up to the blond sensation who had found his stage and the Austrian club knew they would not be holding onto him for too much longer. The phones began to ring.
“After the first goal I was so tired because I ran around, going crazy! By the third goal I was not sure I was onside or not so I took it a bit more easy,” Haaland explains. “Then when I knew it was a goal, yeah…I cannot describe the feeling. I mean… I am motivated for every game, of course, I am. But, as I say, I have been thinking about the Champions League my whole life, wanting to play there. So maybe it gives me one per cent extra motivation when I go out on the pitch with the anthem.”
So how much would it mean to him to win it?
“That’s my big dream,” Haaland says with the broadest of smiles. “To win the Champions League one day. Hopefully I can lift that trophy and that really would be, well, amazing.”
Do not mistake Haaland’s confidence for arrogance. He is, for example, hugely respectful of his father’s playing career and dismisses any suggestion that he has already surpassed his achievements.
“He has played more national team games than me and has played more matches at a higher level. I still need to play a little bit more before I can say I’m better but hopefully, one day, I can,” he says while also praising his “supporting dad” who has helped him with “some tips and tricks” as to what it is like to be a footballer. “Sometimes he tells me stories about when he played. It’s good to have that experience in the family,” Haaland adds.
Inevitably he did not stay at Salzburg long. The next step was another shrewd one with Haaland choosing, in late December 2019, to join Dortmund. Again it was a well thought through move where he could progress his career to another level. Like Salzburg, Dortmund have a strong record of developing young players.
Such has been his impact – he scored another hat-trick within 23 minutes of his Dortmund debut – that there was quickly even more attention on him. He is already, despite being so young, a superstar. How does he deal with it and the pressures of playing football?
One way is to meditate and Haaland has even struck a ‘Zen’ goal celebration on the pitch in tribute.
“It started back in my Molde days, I learnt it from a friend,” he explains. “Sometimes I think it’s also important just to relax your head. You know, from everything from making sure that you sleep properly. But also to do a little bit different to make sure you are ready and perform in the best way you can. We are all different so it depends on how you want to do it. Some relax by watching TV and that’s fine. It’s very individual. But I like to meditate.”
It helps with his mental and physical state and his preparations. Haaland’s life is all about maximising performance. Whether that is training, eating or sleeping. He wears blue-light glasses to protect his eyes from screens and he turns the wifi off at 10pm every night when goes to bed for his nine hours sleep. His determination to be the best – “as a person as well as a footballer” – is incredible.
“I try to train as best I can and to deliver when I have to deliver and be prepared when I have to be prepared,” Haaland explains. “That is how I feel about it. It’s what I try to do. But it’s also important not to get too stressed – to enjoy the game and to have fun. That’s the most important thing. I always try to have fun.
“My career has already been going very fast but also at a speed that I like. It’s true that I am young but I am setting myself goals all the time and I will do everything I can to achieve them.”
Which raises one final question, how far is he from his peak?
“I am still only 20 years old!” Haaland says, again laughing. “So I think that says it all.”
Analysis: Right move appears more important than quick move
By Jason Burt
It is clear that Haaland’s career is being carefully mapped out which is why it remains far more likely he will leave Borussia Dortmund next year rather than this summer.
Nevertheless the 20-year-old is the most in-demand young player in world football, along with Mbappé, and Chelsea are among the clubs pushing hard to negotiate a deal for this transfer window or, more likely, 12 months later once he has completed two full seasons at Borussia Dortmund.
The Bundesliga club insist the Norway international striker is not for sale and are far keener to negotiate the departure of Jadon Sancho to Manchester United than countenance also losing Haaland in the same transfer window.
But Chelsea’s tactic is one that could eventually succeed, if they remain patient, and not least because they have a good relationship with Dortmund following the signing of Christian Pulisic who they agreed a deal for in January 2019 before he joined the following summer.
Chelsea will face strong competition but it appears to be a deal that is more about securing the right move – as Haaland has progressed from Molde to Red Bull Salzburg to Dortmund – rather than throwing money at it. Choosing Dortmund over Manchester United in January 2020 was a sign of the shrewd step-by-step approach and that is unlikely to change.
Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola and father, Alf-Inge, flew to Spain at the end of March to hold talks with Barcelona and Real Madrid and every big club across Europe would be interested in the player.
The situation is complicated because of a reported release clause in Haaland’s contract which would significantly reduce how much it would cost to sign him if a deal is done next year. However the clause is unconfirmed and it is far from certain that it actually exists.