How Erling Haaland Became the Most Terrifying Young Striker in the World

19 total views
Sitting down with the 22-year-old Norwegian nightmare.

Sweater by Dior. Bracelet by Bleue Burnham.

Sweater, by Dior. Bracelet, by Bleue Burnham.
GQ Hype: It’s the big story of right now.

The way they talk about him, you’d think he was an old wives’ tale. A creature of folklore, a beast of the deep. They call him “a monster” (former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger), a “force of nature” (Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp), a “freak” (former player and manager Paul Dickov). His own manager at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola, calls his stats “scary”; “just not normal,” says Thierry Henry. Opposition goalkeepers (in this case, FC Copenhagen’s Kamil Grabara) describe him as “not human”. Similes are tested, overstretched: he’s “like a superhero in a cartoon,” “a prime Mike Tyson,” a “one-man wrecking ball.” Even the newspapers, who should know better, lose it. Spain’s Marca depicts him as a cyborg. The New York Times describes him as “a glitch in the system,” and The Guardian, most bizarrely, a “ravenous nordic goal-yeti.”

This being the 21st century, they share clips, too. Of the time Erling Haaland scored nine goals (nine!) in an under-20s game against Honduras, a humiliation that left his dejected opponents crying on the sidelines. Or the hat-trick he scored on his Champions League debut. Or the time he nearly broke the world 60-meter sprint record in a midweek game against Paris Saint-Germain.

By 18 he is the best player in Norway; by 20, he is voted the best player in Germany; by 21, FIFPro names him among the 11 best players in the world. Such potential at a young age is difficult to compute, literally: he is so good that the developers of the Football Manager video game have to tweak his stats to prevent him from breaking it. Soon he is a regular midweek trending topic. His exploding popularity on social media is so overwhelming that the tourist board of Halland, a picturesque region in Sweden, complains that Haaland’s online popularity has almost wiped them off the face of Google: “If nothing is done,” they write in a statement, “we fear our dear region is at risk of becoming a forgotten Atlantis, a place only known in stories and ancient scriptures.”

Shirt and necklace, by Dolce & Gabbana. Top, by MSGM. Pants, by Gant. Shoes, by Duke + Dexter. Socks, by Falke.

When Haaland finally arrives in the Premier League in 2022, he continues to gobble scoring records like Pac-Man does those little yellow pips: 18 goals in his first 13 games, including three consecutive home hat-tricks. Twenty-five goals in 20 games in the Champions League. Routine goals, spectacular goals, goals of dazzling skill and brute force. All the while, his admirers, opponents, teammates, and managers struggle to put Erling Haaland into words.

But, for my money, I think former England striker Peter Crouch puts it simplest: “I haven’t seen this from a player this young. Ever.”

Erling Braut Haaland, still only 22 years old, has grown used to all of this by now—he enjoys it, preys on it. Strikers want to be feared; soccer, Haaland knows, is a game played not only on the pitch, but in the mind. For the last couple of years, on October 31st, he’s taken to posing elaborate photoshopped memes on Instagram—himself as lasagne-eating Terminator, himself as chainsaw-wielding maniac—along with a joke: “Happy Haalandween!”

“It’s fun,” Haaland says. “It’s good banter.” But otherwise, he says, he tries not to pay that kind of thing too much attention. Haaland is not someone who avidly checks match reports or watches the post-game chatter. And he certainly doesn’t read the comments. “I’m not sitting on social media reading about myself,” he says. “You cannot control what people say, think, and write about you. So there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Then he adds something that in the moment seems throwaway, but which I later come to suspect might just be the key to all of it. He says: “I don’t care.”

In person, he is almost disappointingly normal: tall, at 6ft 4in, but not imposing; muscular, but not freakishly so. We meet at the Manchester City training ground on an icy Wednesday in December, during this Premier League season’s strange winter hiatus. Norway did not qualify for the World Cup, and so Haaland has been enjoying a rare break—“getting some sun in, trying not to think about soccer,” he says—while also trying to maintain match fitness for the January restart. When I arrive, he is the only player in the gym, dressed loosely in City’s Puma training kit and slides, his hair pulled back into a ponytail. Without an arranged place to talk, we take a seat in a nearby meeting room. In the oppressive confines of an executive chair, Haaland exudes an almost dangerous boredom, a predator without a quarry.

Haaland has settled in quickly in Manchester. His $62 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund in June felt like a homecoming of sorts. Haaland was born in the UK; his father, Alfie, played for Manchester City himself from 2000 until his early retirement in 2003. Erling Haaland was just a toddler at the time, too young to remember much—“a little bit when I see pictures, but not a lot,” he says—and the family moved back to Norway when he was three. But still, he felt a connection with the club. “My parents knew how the country was, so that was a good thing. And for me to then play at the same club as him is also special.” (That Manchester City was one of perhaps a half-dozen clubs in the world who could afford his wages is a happy coincidence.)

The ease of his transition has been aided by his success on the pitch, where his impact has been both immediate and stupendous. After a quiet first game in the Community Shield, Haaland scored twice in his Premier League debut and has not stopped since: at the time of writing he has scored 24 goals in 19 games, or on average a goal every 60 or so minutes, and scored more alone than 11 out of 20 Premier League sides have with their entire teams. (Update: it’s now 26 goals in 20 games—he scored two while I was writing this.)

It is not just the numbers that invite hyperbole, but the style in which he finishes them. Take his opening goal against Brighton in October, when Brighton defender Adam Webster effectively bounces off Haaland as he sprints through on goal. Or the one against Dortmund in September, in which he beats two defenders to a Joao Cancelo cross and hits it not with his head but with the outside of his left boot, which he has suddenly swung up above his head like a ballerino in grand battement, a feat of such absurd athleticism and proprioceptive precision that the commentator can only say, “Sometimes you cannot believe your eyes.”

Shirt, by Bottega Veneta.

Countless hours of commentary and column inches have already been spent dissecting Haaland the phenomenon—why he, above others, is so prolific at such a young age. Is it his athleticism? Well, yes. His natural finishing instincts? Sure. The problem with trying to analyze Haaland is that he is what a lazier pundit might call the “full package”: quick, strong, as skilful running with the ball at his feet as he is with his back to goal. Even among elite strikers he is an uncommonly accurate shooter, seemingly always able to find a pocket of space beyond the reach of the keeper’s outstretched fingers, or, when required, able to blast the ball with almost zero backswing, a fizzing sand-wedge of shot hit so hard that the highlights are playing before the keeper knows what’s happened.

But what is truly remarkable about Haaland, if you watch him closely, is his ability to disappear. Throughout the course of a game he’ll hang off the shoulders of the opposition center-backs, hiding in their blind spots, waiting patiently for an opportunity—and then suddenly he appears again, like an apparition, only this time he’s a half-step ahead of the defender, goal-side, and the ball is in the net. All the best strikers do this, of course—but Haaland has elevated the craft to near-perfection. It’s mesmerizing to watch how many times in a game top-level defenders look genuinely shocked to see him, as if they’ve forgotten the giant Norwegian that they’re there to mark is not only still on the pitch, but right beside them.

“I try to be a bit more smart, a bit more sharp, ahead of the people I play against,” Haaland says, trying to explain it. “I try to be a bit more turned on in my head. Because if I do that, if I get one second, then I might be able to finish and he cannot block, for example. They think I go here and I go there”—he mimes a body fake to his right, before cutting left—“and I score. Things like this. It’s something I’m always thinking of.”

Haaland grew up watching other strikers obsessively, mimicking their movements, working out what made them unique. “From Zlatan to Van Persie to Vardy to Aguero, Messi,” he says. “Negredo, Edin Dzeko, Balotelli…” Over time, he has picked up things from each of them. But he is particularly attuned to the mental side of the game. Scoring goals at the very top echelon of the sport is about more than physical attributes—it is equally a mental contest, a game built on confidence, calculus, outwitting your opponent. Says Haaland: “I think in the end, it’s a lot about being aware in your mind.”

Jacket, and sweater, by Givenchy.

Erling Haaland didn’t start out as a striker. As a child, he first played on the wing. “I was really fast,” Haaland says. Although his scoring talents were by then already evident—it’s said that his first touch at youth level led to a goal.

After the Haaland family left the UK and returned to Norway, they moved to Bryne, a small town on the country’s west coast. There wasn’t much for kids of Haaland’s age to do in Bryne, particularly when the weather was cold and wet outside (which in Norway, during the winter, is most of the time). But the local team, Bryne FK, has an indoor pitch turfed with artificial grass, and Erling and his friends would spend their weekends there playing pick-up games—two on two, three on three—for hours. “When it was snowing outside, we trained inside,” Haaland says. “It was a really important place for my life and my career.”

Haaland has always been naturally athletic; not only is his father a former pro, his mother, Gry Marita Braut, is a former champion heptathlete. But as a child he was far from the monstrous physical presence he is now. “He was skinny,” says Alfe Ingve Berntsen, then a coach at Bryne FK, who trained Haaland through the youth ranks. Still, Haaland was naturally gifted and unnaturally dedicated, and pretty soon he was playing with kids a year or more older than he was. “He played against two center-backs who were strong and fast, so he had to be clever in his movements, otherwise he wouldn’t get a chance,” Berntsen says. You can see it in videos on YouTube, many of which Bernsten filmed himself: Haaland ghosting through defenses to reach a cross, or blasting the ball past the keeper from close range, the way he does now.

“I still try to do exactly the same things I did when I was 13 in my hometown,” Haaland says. “I still do exactly the same runs. Show clips of me at 13 years old, you will see exactly the same thing.”

Unlike many pro-athlete parents, Haaland’s father Alfie avoided putting much pressure on Erling’s burgeoning soccer career, and instead chose to keep his distance. “I learned a lot from training his older brother [Astor],” Alfie says. “There was a lot of attention around him, because he was my son; I don’t think either me or him handled it very well. [Erling] was five years younger, but he wanted to play the game, and I could see the passion. So I stayed in the background, especially around the organized training—and the matches. I didn’t say a word.”

Berntsen, Haaland’s former coach, likes to describe a soccer player as an edifice built on four pillars. “One of them is technical, one is tactical, one is physical, and one is mentality,” he says. “If you are good, at 14 or 15 years old you have two of these four. If you have three out of four, that’s very promising. We could tell Erling was very good with the technical, tactical, and mentality, and so the only part missing when he was 13 or 14 was the physical.” But from looking at Haaland’s older sibling, and his parents, the Bryne coaches knew that he would grow eventually. “I told him over and over, when he was down, ‘Just wait; in four, five years, you will be bigger and stronger than them. Relax,’” Berntsen says. “Now he has four out of four.”

Haaland was around 16 when his growth spurt hit. “Honestly, my goal every day was to eat as much as I could, because I was growing a lot,” he says. “I had a lot of growing pains in different places in my body.”

He continued to grow on the pitch, too. At 15, he had been given his professional debut for Bryne FK; the following year, he signed with Molde, a side in Norway’s top division. Not coincidentally, Molde was then being managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, arguably the most famous striker that Norway has ever produced. (As Alfie Haaland puts it: “We thought, ‘if you can’t learn from him…’”)

At Molde, Solskjaer helped Haaland develop the habits of a top predator, focusing on the finer details of finishing and movement. “The first thing I think he said to me was ‘You have no idea how to head the ball. We have to work on that’,” Haaland says. So during practice, Solskjaer and his assistant coach would send in crosses for Haaland to head at goal. “This is what we did for two years, the whole period I was in Molde. And it was a good thing, because I couldn’t hit the ball, and now I’m scoring goals with my head—thanks to them,” Haaland says. The work paid dividends: after a slow start, Haaland scored 16 goals in 30 appearances in his second season at Molde. Soon, approaches started coming in from clubs all over Europe.

One of the advantages of having a former professional for a father is that by that time, Erling and Alfie had already been thinking strategically about potential moves. “We set up our targets three or four or five years ahead,” Alfie says. “You know: ‘if you can’t tackle it in Molde, then you can’t tackle it in Europe.’” As clubs started to show interest in Haaland—from Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim in Germany, to Brugge and Ghent in Belgium, and even one of his father’s former clubs, Leeds, in England—Haaland knew that he would need to pick his next destination intelligently. Few things stall a young player’s career faster than riding the bench just for slightly more money. “I spoke in Molde with a psychologist about experience and he said, ‘The one way to get experience is to be in the game and to play games,’” Haaland says. “I want to get experienced quite early, then I have to play games. I can’t go to a place to sit on a bench forever.”

In the January of 2019, Haaland chose to join Red Bull Salzburg—the dominant Austrian side that had just qualified for the Champions League, was known for playing youth, and happened to have a starting spot for a striker.

At Salzburg Haaland exploded, scoring 25 goals in just 23 appearances in a fluidly attacking side that also included the likes of Takumi Minamino and Hwang Hee-chan. But the game that really changed things didn’t come until that autumn, in his Champions League debut against Genk.

Haaland scored in the second minute, and then again in the 34th, and again in the 45th. A first half hat-trick—the grandest of debuts, on club soccer’s biggest stage. In many ways, it seemed like a form of manifestation. Haaland is obsessed with the Champions League; he has long used the anthem as his alarm clock, and has in the past been filmed listening to it just driving around. (You have to wonder if this is a particularly successful case of desensitization—transferring something that should be a source of nerves into a source of calm, even strength.)

“It was a crazy night,” Haaland says. Haaland’s family were at the stadium to watch. After the match, Erling went for a routine drug test, then joined them in the players’ lounge. “He finished about half past 11. We said, ‘OK, we’re going to go home, have a nice beer, have a nice wine,’” Alfie says. Erling drove them home himself. But rather than stay to celebrate, he got back in the car at 1am and drove to the training center to do his recovery routine. “That’s when we realized he means business,” Alfie recalls.

Erling also saw that game as a turning point. “I was thinking after the game, like, ‘OK, you know, what’s next?’ I cannot stop now. Now people actually start to look at me, I’m going to perform,” he says. “There was another game in three days, I think. For me it was important that I could keep doing this not only one time but several times.”

When Haaland finally made it home, around 3am, he found he couldn’t sleep because of the adrenaline. After the game, he found that his notifications were going crazy. “That was the night things kind of blew up a bit,” he says. The news of his debut ricocheted around the soccer world. His Instagram followers skyrocketed. “That’s when I knew, ‘Oh wow, this is crazy. This is next level.’ I was buzzing.” He turned his notifications off.

Shirt, pants, and slides, by Bottega Veneta. Socks, by Falke. Shoelace (as belt), stylist’s own.

If the Genk game was a breakthrough, it was less for the display of scoring prowess—Haaland having scored plenty before—than it was the stage that he displayed it on. The sheer balls of it. Another teenager facing their Champions League debut might have shrunk at the occasion. Many do. But the thing about Haaland that astonishes pundits and terrifies defenders above all is just that: he is unshakeable. Unflappable. The same thing happened when he moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2019. Haaland came off the bench in the second half and scored a hat-trick in 23 minutes. Premier League debut: two goals. In all, Haaland has scored in his debut in seven separate club competitions.

“He’s never afraid,” says Bernsten. “He doesn’t care who he’s going to play against.”

It’s a strange thing, confidence. For athletes—and none more than elite strikers—it is the trait desired above all others. In abundance, confidence is nuclear fusion: self-sustaining, with goals begetting goals begetting goals. But a sudden absence of it can doom a season and, over time, entire careers. The history of the Premier League alone is filled with expensive and highly esteemed strikers who failed to gel immediately, stuttered, and limped away bereft. It doesn’t take much for doubt to take hold: a falling out, a nagging injury, issues in one’s personal life. But Haaland? He seems to live in a world that is post-doubt. Like Ronnie O’Sullivan or Steph Curry, Haaland doesn’t shrink in the spotlight, but rather thrives on it. That’s where the cyborg comparisons come from—that sense he is unerring, unmoved. “I like to be under pressure,” he says, unfazed.  “I like to be challenged.”

How one attains that state is less easily said. “I think a lot is [you’re] born with it,” he says. “I think it’s a lot in your head, you know—to be focused, to be ready, to be relaxed in your head. I think that’s one  of the most important things for a footballer.”

It does not all come naturally. Haaland focuses on the mental side of the game more intently than most. A few years back, he garnered some attention for what has become his signature goal celebration: sliding into a lotus pose and closing his eyes, as if in a meditative trance. The celebration led to a wave of imitators (you can now do it in FIFA) as well as questions about his own meditation practice. “I think it’s a really good thing,” he says. “To relax, to try to not think too much. Because stress is not good for anyone. I hate to be stressed, and I try not to be stressed. But the concept of meditation is to try to let go of these kinds of thoughts. It’s really individual, but for me it’s worked really well.”

Haaland came to meditation not by accident, but through his own continued efforts at self-improvement. (“He’s very curious, even outside football, of how you can become better,” Alfie says.) He often wears blue-light-filtering glasses in the evening, for example, to prevent screens from interfering with his sleep; for the same reason, he switches his Wi-Fi off at night. “I’m really focused on sleep,” Haaland says. “For me maybe the most important thing in life is sleep—not only a lot, but good sleep.”

In person, Haaland emanates a sort of yogic calm; it would not surprise you to find out that he has at least partially transcended. But then he lives a life of almost monk-like discipline: he doesn’t go out much. He doesn’t really play FIFA. He doesn’t watch a lot of movies. “I get this question, ‘What do you do?’ I really don’t do a lot,” he says, genuinely seeming perplexed by the question. “I wake up in the morning at breakfast and I come here. After that I have my treatment. The day is almost gone; I go home, I relax and prepare for the next training, make some dinner and then I go to sleep.”

He does not practice visualization, as some players do ahead of important matches.

“I don’t think too much about the game before the game,” he says. “I try to live here and now, not trying to think of what happened yesterday, what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

One of the core principles of yogic meditation and mindfulness is the idea of unburdening oneself: to release negative thoughts, to try and let go of things that might make you angry or upset, in order to appreciate the now. This, one senses, is one of Haaland’s great strengths: his ability to shed self-doubt, the way an ascetic sheds possessions. He is one of the most intensely watched and highly paid athletes in the world, one with the hopes of millions of fans and his entire nation upon him, and he just… rolls with it. As if he doesn’t even notice.

“Sometimes I’m really like… I don’t know the word in English.”

In your own world?

He smiles. Agrees. “Not in this world.”

Shirt, by Fendi. Necklace, by All Blues. Ring (on necklace), by Bleue Burnham.

It is in part that mindset that Manchester City were buying when they signed Haaland for such a monster salary (a little over a million dollars a week, if you believe the reports in the tabloids) this past summer. While City have been the dominant team in English soccer for the past half-decade, they have as yet failed to secure European soccer’s most coveted prize. Since Pep Guardiola joined the club as head coach in 2016, City have been ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the knock-out stages every year—making it as far as the final in 2021, but no further. Over time, they have gained a reputation, earned or not, of choking—whether that is down to odd tactical choices, lack of confidence, or just bad luck. Mentally, something has been missing.

Signing Haaland is thought in many corners to be the final piece of that puzzle—the clinical finisher missing from an otherwise near-perfect team of expensively assembled parts. I ask Haaland if he thinks that it’s true that City have lacked something mentally at these crucial moments.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” he says. “Sometimes, like the game against Real Madrid last year, when you see the goal Rodrygo scores—where Asensio heads the ball and misses it, and it hits Rodrygo’s leg and goes in the goal—sometimes I think actually there is a God up there who decides these things,” he says. “This mentality kind of thing, Madrid knowing that they’ve won it before? I don’t know if that’s a thing. Maybe.”

That, typically, doesn’t faze him. “I will try to do everything in my power to win trophies here with Manchester City and to try to be the game changer,” he says. “My goal is to win the Champions League, hopefully.”

There are similar expectations at home in Norway, who despite failing to qualify for the World Cup are stocked with an upcoming generation of talent: Arsenal’s Martin Ødegaard, Napoli’s Leo Østigård, Brentford’s Kristoffer Ajer. “Norway is a small, small nation; 5.5 million, I think less. So we’re not a big nation. But again, you see at the World Cup small nations that do fantastic things,” he says. “We hope to qualify [in 2026], that’s my biggest goal with them. Hopefully one day I will get to play knockout games with Norway.”

At the time of going to press, Haaland has 21 goals in the Premier League, eight more than England captain Harry Kane in second place. Failing an unprecedented drop in form or serious injury, he has the Golden Boot race sewn up—even if the title race is proving more open. Should he keep it up, his name will surely be among those mentioned at year’s end in the voting for the Ballon d’Or, soccer’s most prestigious individual prize.

I ask if he cares about winning it one day. “I think everybody cares. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to think about this. If you and your team is playing really well, you will perform well, you will begin to win trophies, [and] you will probably be on the list. Like De Bruyne was—he was third place, I think well deserved, by the way. But yeah, you cannot think of these kinds of things.”

The stupefying thing about watching Haaland is how young he is; realistically, we may have another decade-plus of him operating at this level. “Look at Benzema, he is 35 now and I think even better,” Haaland says. “So in 12 years I hope to be even better than I am now.”

Given a certain Argentinian is nearing the end of his career, it’s not hard to look at Haaland and Kylian Mbappé—realistically the only other forward as good in world soccer—as the two players most likely to dominate the next decade of the Ballon d’Or, and club soccer’s biggest stage. Both of them have already outscored Messi and Ronaldo at their respective ages; here, then, is perhaps the next great rivalry in the sport. It’s electrifying to witness.

The only real threat to Haaland shattering every Premier League scoring record, you’d imagine, is injury—something that Haaland has some experience with. His father, Alfie, had to retire at 30 due to a series of knee injuries. I ask if that worries him. The fragility of it all.

“I don’t think you should walk around being worried about things. I don’t think that’s a good way of thinking, so I don’t worry about getting injured. Injury is a part of our job. I will probably get injured in my life again. Hopefully not—you never know what will happen in this game of soccer. It’s a dangerous sport.”

He says this with the same kind of calm that he does almost everything else: a wry smile, big, clear eyes, his hair shining like he’s stuck in a ’90s shampoo advert. This is Haaland’s power, the cyborg in action. “In Norwegian we have a saying like, ‘Life is not glowing every single day.’ Some days are worse than others, and that’s just how life is,” he says. “I think I’m really good at that—letting go of things, and to not give a…”

Haaland hesitates; he’s being careful not to swear, having been chastised for it in previous interviews. “To relax into it. Enjoy your life, because life is short.”

Jacket, by Fendi. Sweater, by Aimé Leon Dore. Pants, by Brunello Cucinelli. Necklace, by All Blues. Watch, by Breitling.

This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “Erling Haaland is football’s Norse god”

Photographs by Buzz White
Styling by Angelo Mitakos
Grooming by Mike O’Gorman 

Share this Post

About Us

Celebrating our best lives at fifty and beyond! 50ismorefun brings you motivational news and stories centered around life, fitness, fashion, money, travel and health for active folks enjoying the second half of lives.