- Norway prevailed on penalties after a last-16 draw with Australia
- Their four brilliantly dispatched spot kicks were preceded by a key pep talk
- “It looked like we hadn’t done anything other than take penalties our whole lives”
As Norway coach Martin Sjogren gathered his players gathered in a ring after 120 pulsating minutes that ended in deadlock against Australia, there were no fiery words and no roars of encouragement. But the one thing he did say gave his side the confidence to go out and win the penalty shootout.
The 42-year-old Swede simply told his players that, no matter what happened with the spot kicks, they would win together or they would lose together, and that no individual would be forced to bear responsibility alone.
Emboldened by his message, the Norwegians rattled off four superb spot-kicks, while Australia’s Sam Kerr fired wide and Ingrid Hjelmseth pulled off a superb diving save to deny Emily Gielnik.
Having expressed some doubts in the huddle, midfielder Ingrid Syrstad Engen then stepped up to confidently smash home the decisive kick and put the Scandinavians into the quarter-finals.
“Martin just said to us that no matter what happened out there now, we do this together and it doesn’t really matter because we’d done a fantastic job so far,” playmaker Caroline Graham Hansen said as she received her Visa Player Of The Match award.
“Really, that was the point of no return because everybody just relaxed, went out there and did their job. There was this great feeling of confidence in the group. To be honest it looked like we hadn’t done anything other than take penalties our whole lives,” added Graham, who scored Norway’s first penalty in the shootout.
The victory was a hugely cathartic one for 1995 champions Norway, who have found themselves eclipsed in the top echelon of the women’s game in recent years by the likes of England, France and Netherlands.
Four years ago they were dumped out of the Women’s World Cup in Canada by England at the same stage, and UEFA EURO 2017 finished without a point having been gained, or a goal scored.
That humiliation precipitated striker Ada Hegerberg quitting international football, and the shadow cast by her absence hung over the team as they arrived in France. But on Saturday night in Nice there was only joy and a new-found sense of self-confidence, thanks in no small part to Sjogren.
“If we win, we win as a team, if we lose, we lose together. Absolutely no-one will be the scapegoat in our group,” he explained to reporters.
“It is no more complicated than that, and I really had a good feeling for our group spirit. Ingrid Engen was a bit doubtful if she wanted to take a penalty, but she decided to do it. And she went out there and actually did it.”
The team was greeted by a hollering, whooping knot of fans as they arrived back at their hotel in the early hours of the morning, and their World Cup adventure now moves to Le Havre, where either England or Cameroon await in the quarter-finals.