When you think of great players in the game right now, Erling Haaland is very much in that conversation. Having exploded onto the scene with FC Salzburg, when he made history as the first player to score in five consecutive Champions League games, the 21-year-old Norwegian striker has continued to smash records and defy our expectations at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 56 goals in 57 games (all competitions).
Now we’re waiting to see what the remarkable forward does next. Real Madrid? Manchester City? Manchester United? Somewhere else?
With the soccer world at his feet, Haaland sat down with ESPN FC’s Jan Aage Fjortoft to talk soccer, life, the idea of “balance,” how he continues to improve his game, and where he sees himself in the future.
ESPN FC: Most people know you as a scoring machine. You are a Dortmund player, a 21-year-old guy from Bryne, and you’re also a superstar to the point that whatever you say – your body language, interviews – means the whole football world has an opinion. Who do you think you are?
Erling Haaland: A good question. Before I came to Dortmund, I still saw myself as an easy guy from Bryne – I still do, but in a little bit of different way, you could say. Things have changed the last two and a half years since my debut in the Champions League, and I’m still a really quiet guy from Bryne. I’m a bit crazy sometimes, just with different limits.
Tell us about some of your limits.
As you said, people have an opinion about everything I do. And I have to take a little bit of care with the things I do, the things I wear. Everything in life, basically.
When you say you have to take some care … when people look at you, they don’t think you have a lot of limits. They see Erling Haaland.
I try to be myself as much as I can. When there is a camera, you have to be a little bit careful. That’s just how it is. So that’s one limit. But you can see that when I’m on the pitch, I’m myself all the time.
Do you think about the 14-year-old Haaland running around in Bryne, doing what you did then … is that the same guy who’s doing it now on the pitch and off the pitch?
Of course I’ve been developing a lot, but if you take only [what I do] on the pitch, I still do a lot of the same things that I did then. If you see clips of me when I was 14, 15, I play basically with the exact same themes and doing things I’ve been doing for a long time.
I’ve said this before: I’ve not been studying, but I’ve been watching a lot of players. Let’s take this example: The run in behind the centre-back when the No. 10 has the ball. [Maybe one of] the best in the world is Jamie Vardy; I’ve been looking a lot at him on exactly this. I’ve been watching a lot of football, I still do. When we play a game on Saturday, I go home on Sunday and watch football all day, and that’s always been me.
When there’s something you want to develop, you try to find role models or people who do it well (like Vardy). Are there other players you’ve learned from?
Yeah, I watch a lot of [football] … I mean, I always wanted to become a striker because striker is, for me, the best position: being the one that scores goals. And that’s always what I’ve been wanting to do. [Robin van Persie] I watched a lot. He was left-footed, so I watched him a lot as well. I am left-footed too, so it was natural to also watch him a lot. So yeah, I’ve been I’ve been watching a lot of strikers.
I don’t want to let that 14-year-old Erling off the hook just yet because I think people want to know something not everybody knows. And I had to check this, because you are very well-known in Norway for being part of a rap band. How old were you? And do you remember what the rap band was called?
Yeah: Flow Kingz! I think it was in 2015 or 16? … We [Erik Botheim and Erik Tobias Sandberg] were with the national team, I think under-17 or -16s, with Norway. And yeah, we were good friends. So basically, we were training and then the rest of the day we didn’t have anything to do with [coach] Erland Johnson. He was the coach then. So we just did a lot of random stuff. And then we were like yeah, maybe we should make a music video. Why not?
Erik Tobias, he was really good at rhymes… and Botheim said he’s good at rapping, so he was the rapper. And then I was the one that had [to sing] the chorus … in the end, it’s a really nice song. It has a lot of views.
Is there any chance that there could be a reunion at Dortmund, maybe a Flow Kingz concert?
At the Westfalen? I don’t know. Maybe we should do one time! But we also had the big [dream] … we also talked a lot about we wanted to be on — I don’t know what it’s called in English – the “listo.”
Yeah, the top 40 charts in Norway.
When we see you on the pitch, it looks like there is no tomorrow. You give everything in every game. What inspires you when you’re on the pitch?
First of all, it’s to win the game: I hate to lose, I have to say it’s the worst thing. So what inspires me is to win. And to play good football, to score nice goals.
You’re 21 years old. Can you explain the difference between what inspires you to be a footballer and what just inspires you in life? What is your inspiration to develop as a person? Is it still the football?
Yeah, for me the main thing in life is football. Of course. My whole life is basically football. Where I live, what I do, it’s all comes down to training every day and to play at the weekend. But what also inspires me is to have a really good, healthy life with really good people around me.
I think I’m a really closed person that not a lot of people can come and “touch” and “come to” and yeah, that’s how I am. I think that’s a good way to go. And I think that’s good for my football career.
When are you really happy? When is Erling Haaland happiest?
It has to be [when playing] football because that’s my whole life. If we win a game, then I’m mostly happy.
As a kid were you the same as most kids in that you had a dream of being a professional footballer? And did you feel that because your dad [Alfie Haaland, who played in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Manchester City] was at big clubs in England, your dream was quite close and that your dream could be fulfilled?
Yeah, I had the dream that when I grew up, I want to become the badass. I knew early in my life that my dad was a professional footballer, and I said early that I want to be better than him. So yeah, that was my dream and also to live the football life. That was one of my dreams. And yeah, it’s good. It’s good to be living that dream.
Have you and your dad agreed yet on who is the better player? Because for the record, he was the captain of Manchester City and has more Norway caps than you at the moment. You have more goals, of course.
For me, I think I have to beat him in all [categories] and only then I would say I’m better than him. But right now, for me, no: he has more, much more national team games than me, more professional games and more games at a higher level. So I’m quite calm on this right now.
We all know that you are a 24/7 athlete: you do everything to get better — whether that’s to do with sleeping patterns, the work/life balance, whatever you eat and drink. But if you have a day totally away from football, maybe in the summer… what is that perfect day for you?
Waking up without an alarm. If it’s good weather, I eat a good breakfast and then I lay in the sun all day relaxing, not doing a lot. Really just taking life as it comes to you. You know, with good people around me and having good conversation. That’s what I like a lot.
There was a photo of you last summer where you were home in Norway in Bryne. Bryne is a farming place, a lot of farmers there, and you were more or less looking like the toughest farmer in the world with a tractor. Is that a good day for you?
Yeah, it’s also nice. I think I like to do a lot of things to, you know, turn off the football head. I think that’s really important so you don’t get burned out or whatever, so you can relax completely in your mind. Because it’s not easy to be a footballer; it’s a lot of pressure. And it’s a lot of thinking, and the mindset has to be right.
It’s a lot of things, so I think when you can relax, you have to relax. And I think if you don’t have your mind with you, you’re f—ed. So when it’s possible, I’m trying to relax my head as much as I can. And one of those things is, for example, being on a farm or driving a tractor or feeding the cows or whatever, you know?
Do you own any cows?
I don’t, but I will for sure in the future.
You’d like to have a farm?
I think it will have a small farm when I after I retire in Bryne. I don’t know where but I’m quite sure I would have some animals.
What do you need to be a really good footballer?
You need first of all the mindset, as I said… but if you don’t have a body that’s in “check,” if you don’t have a good healthy body, you don’t have a chance. If you have a really good body, but you don’t have the mindset, you cannot make it.
So you have to have a good combination between these two. And yeah, for me, in the end, if you have the right mindset, you will take good care of your body and you will have a good body, so for me it’s all about the mind.
Speaking of your physical ability: you have still the technical ability and the speed. If you were in my position and I were to compare you with another player, past or present, who would you compare yourself with?
I really have no idea, so I don’t want to compare myself to anyone because I think I’m a bit special with my physical abilities. I don’t know where I got it from. My mother was really quick. My grandma was really quick and my father was quick, but not so quick. But to have a good mix between the pace and the strength and the eye for goal? I don’t think I know who to compare to.
When I look at your career from the outside, there’s always been a natural development. And I might also say that sometimes, it seems like your development has gone quicker than perhaps everybody thought in Molde, in Salzburg and in Dortmund. It looks so smooth, but have there been times when you thought things were going too slow? Or maybe you wouldn’t make the next step?
No, not really, but there have been times that it’s been more difficult than other times. The first half-year in Molde when I was younger, I grew a lot. I had some problems here and there and yeah, it was not easy, but I always knew that. Then I had [former Manchester United manager] Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a coach – I always knew he was going to take good care of me and he was going to give me the chance. And then I proved to everyone that I was too good for them and I was ready for the next step.
At Salzburg, the first half-year with [Jesse Marsch] was really difficult… but I was going to use the first half-year to develop. I still felt I deserved to play more because I was good, but for me, it was also a really good time for not playing and I had to work a lot. And I could train more because I didn’t, I almost didn’t play games. So it was good mental training, but it was also good for my body to train a lot.
After that, I think that was the time that really started to trigger my mind and to take the chance when I had it. Since then, it’s been really good. But as you know, it goes like that… if you don’t have a good game, that’s when you develop the most because then you have to really work with yourself, and that’s the hardest part – that’s where a lot of the footballers [fall short]. They cannot do this because you start to think too much, and for me as a footballer, to think too much is the worst part.
I don’t watch a lot of old clips of myself because I don’t like it; I prefer to look to the future.
I’m sure there are a lot of things that you feel you have improved on, but I think for people who see every game, I think, at the end of last season, you went from taking the ball on to being the guy who could take the ball, turn around, play the others in — that was a next step. This season, you’re getting better at your heading. Where do you feel now that you can most improve?
I think I can improve on everything. If you say I’m good at finishing, I can improve my finishing a lot. And I can become faster, so I can improve that. I can become stronger. So I can improve that. But if I should improve one thing, that is “don’t be injured,” because if I’m not injured, I’ll play much more games and I will deliver even more.
You do a lot of work in training with different things the whole day to avoid injuries, as any player should do. How frustrating is it then to have to go off?
Yeah, it’s the worst feeling to not be able to play, because that’s basically what your job is. If I could improve one thing, and if I could choose it right now, it will be not to be injured. And if you asked me if I have any goals for 2022, it’s to not be injured. And if I have any goals for the rest of my career, it’s not to be injured.
The last time we had an interview, you had scored two goals against Freiburg and you came running over to me a bit angry. First of all, because you didn’t score three goals: that was the first thing you said. And then you had some clear opinions that went viral: like we talked about at the beginning, a lot of people in the world kind of want to understand what you said. Why was it so important for you to say that at that time?
I think I don’t really want to say too much about it, but I felt it was time for me to say something and a lot of others were speaking [instead], so that was it. And now I, I really don’t want to say too much more about it. I think it’s been said, then we move on.
Be honest now. Because every journalist who comes to a Dortmund game gets a sheet of paper listing all the records you can break. How many of these stats do you know about? How many times do you think wow, have I scored so many goals?
No, I don’t know a lot. I think my father sent me a picture of the [stat that I scored] quickest 80 goals ever in a club. This I know, but I don’t know a lot of others. To be honest.
You just realise that you are breaking records.
Yeah, but I don’t read anything. So really, I don’t know. Not really.
You have done everything [at Dortmund], but you must miss the fans. Tell us just a bit about how you miss the fans to kind of play with them.
Yeah, I don’t like it. I’ve said this before. [In Germany], you can see we don’t have any fans in the stadium anymore. And you see in England, full stadiums. And if you look on TV, you’d rather put on the English game because it’s full of fans and there’s more emotion, it’s more alive. I really miss the fans. I played a couple of games this season with like 50,000 fans, and this was really nice. And then you imagine what if there were 30,000 more, you know?
Let’s talk teammates and friends and all that. Last year, you and Jadon Sancho had a great understanding, for example, and I always say that I’ve never seen a goal-getter enjoy as much when others score goals as you. But you seem to be having a great relationship with your teammates. Is that accurate?
Yeah, it’s true. As I said, I love to win games, and I want to win as many trophies as I can in my career. And to win trophies, you have to win games, and you have to be consistent and all of that, you know, but yeah, I enjoy when people succeed. That’s, for me, the best.
When I was younger, watching football, and a striker scored a hat trick in a game, you know, I was really happy for him. And then I was like, Oh, I think that will be a good feeling. You know, so this is what I would want to do. You know? And yes, I get happy for others. I love to see people succeed.
Sometimes when we see Dortmund play, I mean, you have so many young talented players from all around the world and sometimes you or Jude Bellingham… I think you and him are, like, Dortmund’s young leaders, you have more or less have the same temperament.
He’s a really good person. Jude is a phenomenal talent. And I play as well with him as I did with Jadon last year. I think we have the same banter together: Jude and me have a really good connection on the pitch. But I also have a lot of good connections with a lot of people on the pitch. So I think that’s really, really important.
Another one who’s been out, also a young kid, is Gio Reyna. Now he’s back in training. How much have you missed him?
Yeah, I missed him a lot. We all know how good he can be on the pitch, and he has to get his body right again. Then we’ll see a lot more from him.
Who is the toughest defender you’ve played against?
Good question. I’ve been playing against a lot of good defenders, but it also matters a lot how the team is playing, if I get into the right situations and so on, but Virgil Van Dijk… he was really good.
You know how tall he is, how strong he is and how fast he is. And also his timing is crazy. I don’t think I won one duel against him.
Who was the toughest team you’ve played against?
I never won against Bayern Munich, so I probably have to say Bayern. I think I played six times against them, six or seven times, I lost every game.
I can ask you now because you’re not in the Champions League… who do you think will win the Champions League?
I think either Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid, though PSG and Real will meet [in the round of 16]. So one of these three.
True or false: Dortmund will win the Europa League.
Cannot say true or false, but we have a chance. We have to perform at our best and we have to perform better than we’ve been doing this season and there’s a lot of good things, but we have a small chance
As a Norwegian, it’s very hard for us to win the World Cup. What’s the biggest trophy you can win?
Yeah, the biggest would of course be the World Cup, but we have to be realistic. The Champions League.
You were named to FIFA’s FIFPRO Men’s World XI in 2021. If you were to vote, for first, second and third, how would you have voted?
I think you have to say, you have to say Robert Lewandowski No. 1. And then you have, for me, Karim Benzema has also been amazing. Lionel Messi is also outstanding. So Benzema and Messi “share” second and third place.
OK, that was a bit diplomatic, but still great players. Is that something that inspired you to say your dream is to win the Champions League?
Yes, of course, but these things comes when you succeed with your team. So if you succeed with your team, you achieve a lot of good things, and if you win trophies, these things will come. So this is not the main focus. The main focus is to first achieve, and then these things will come.
Courtesy: ESPN FC