The Haaland debate: Attitude problem or misunderstood?

(IMAGO images/Poolfoto)

The Norwegian star should learn to play game off the pitch as well as he does on it, but also be given benefit of doubt

In the wake of the Bundesliga’s return this past weekend — which, as we await the results of post-match tests, seemingly went swimmingly — a few talking points emerged. Some were taken back by ‘the new normal’, seeing games played out to an eerie echo of a supporter-less soundtrack. Others were entertained by the efficiency of Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach, or by Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz-inspired dismantling of Werder Bremen. Many were left disappointed but unsurprised as Bayern did what Bayern do, brushing Bundesliga underdogs and first-timers Union to one side in Berlin.

And yet, despite there being a multitude of football and coronavirus-related issues to analyse in the wake of BT Sport’s three-day watch party, an alternative discussion soon began to rage, which we can simply refer to as ‘The Haaland debate’. When the 19-year-old Norwegian wunderkind stood with an extended microphone hovering in front of his face and was asked to reflect on his and his Dortmund side’s successful return to action, the football-watching public were soon polarised. Were some of his snarky, humorous; monosyllabic responses starting to become part of a worrying trend for one of the game’s brightest talents, or was it an overreaction to call him ‘arrogant’ and establishing an unwanted reputation for himself? The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

On one side of the debate are the disapproving types, shaking their heads in contempt at the brazen disrespect of a young footballer. When asked why he and his teammates gathered in celebration in front of the vast empty “Yellow Wall” behind which Haaland had scored the game’s opening goal, he appeared insulted and defensively retorted ‘why not?’ The clip, along with a montage of his media ‘highlights’, began to circulate in the game’s aftermath and is what sparked conversation regarding the young man’s attitude to the necessary media side of the game at the elite level. One interpretation is that Haaland was making a point about the bland nature of the reporter’s questions by responding in kind — which is a debate for another day.

Admittedly, the video was slightly uncomfortable to watch, if not also mildly amusing. But a number of well-known faces within the media were less than impressed by the ongoing trend of some of Haaland’s interview responses. One such example was Jacqui Oatley, who believes that “Haaland is only young and English isn’t his first language, but I hope he realises soon that interviewers are not trying to catch him out. He’s missing a real opportunity to communicate with the fans who idolise him.”

This particular take seems to miss the point. Haaland is well aware of his ability to connect with fans, and there is enough evidence to suggest that he doesn’t think he is trying to be caught out either. When he feels engaged by questions or sees an opportunity to provide insight, he often does. Surely, though, if there is a problem, the responsibility lies with Dortmund to deal with it as they see fit? Haaland is a star in the making and is a valuable asset to the club on and off the pitch. The naivety of the matter is not connected to Haaland’s age — he knows what he is doing, for whatever reason — but lies instead with his employers.

Either way, the perception of Haaland as a stroppy teenage prima donna is not a brush he wants to be tarred with. Talk should rather be of his incredible rise and emergence as one of the best young players in the game in the past 12 months or so. From a jaw-dropping, nine-goal performance in the Under-20 World Cup against Honduras last summer to surging to the summit of the Champions League goalscoring charts in his first season in Europe’s elite competition, Haaland’s rise has been immense.

His latest piece of age-defying ingenuity came in Dortmund’s 4-0 Revier Derby demolition job of Schalke — a superb, half-volleyed finish oozing class and natural goalscoring instinct. The overriding emotion on Saturday, and throughout the 2019-20 season, has been that it is hard to comprehend that he is just 19, given his playing style and remarkable goalscoring rate. It seems ill-informed to invite the attention away from his powerful left foot and blistering pace, and to a perceived unwillingness to engage with media professionals.

Even if questions are predictable and banal, as they so often are, Haaland must learn to play the game. In fact, he probably knows he should and is refusing to do so either out of a pursuit of a Zlatan-esque maverick persona (the Scandinavian, domineering forward comparison is an easy one to make), or out of a unique sense of humour; as if media duties are a chore worth making fun of. The latter of these possibilities is something that was discussed by Norwegian football expert and journalist Lars Sivertsen, confirming that Haaland is hardly stupid. This flies in the face of those willing to mould their own tedious perceptions of hubristic young footballers — eager to tear them down at the first opportunity to do so — we have regrettably become accustomed to.

Dortmund players celebrated in front of the famous “Yellow Wall” after their victory over Schalke, despite it being void of fans. Haaland was asked about the post-match celebrations in his interview. (Image courtesy of DPA/PA Images).

“He doesn’t enjoy doing media, he just wants to play football,” Sivertsen says. Is that not acceptable? We are so used to hearing the same regurgitated answers from players, particularly in post-match scenarios, that Haaland’s exuberance is refreshing. “People point out that he can be a bit surly in interviews, he just doesn’t enjoy it.” And yet, while Haaland clearly finds himself “bored” by some of the responsibilities involved aside from playing and scoring goals, he should show a greater willingness to at least play the game. We know he can.

A key part of the problem is the desire of people to over-analyse. In the space of a few days, the issue has become something that it doesn’t need to be. What’s more, many people’s impression of the young man (and others like him) are tarnished when the full story is not told in order to suit an agenda. The former Stoke and Republic of Ireland international Jon Walters said as much when he jumped to Halland’s defence on Twitter: “The full interview from Erling Haaland…Not just the 10 seconds to fit your narrative of him. Maybe we should just let a 19 year old get on with enjoying his football!”

Sure, no one can deny that the evidence is there come the end of this interview, but it is unfair to misinform people of his character and extrapolate his supposed arrogance as if it is the only way he ever responds during interviews. That is an entirely more dangerous thing than him harmlessly poking fun at interviewers with one-word reposts to a minority of their questions, no? As with a lot of what you see and read online, Walters demonstrated that the clip required some greater context. As a matter of fact, Haaland had engaged for 90 seconds or so with insightful answers prior to the blunt ones at the end. A storm in a teacup.

The circulation of short snippets of interviews is yet another of how social media, in particular Twitter, has altered the way we consume football-related content. Even the staunchest of Haaland fans would be hard-pressed to deny his tendency for snarky and borderline egotistical responses to what he may describe as silly questions. But as we know, 10-second clips on Twitter doesn’t always tell the full story. Storylines, along with games, have been snipped into short, provocative and ultimately more digestible pieces. The problem comes when these pieces don’t fit together to tell the whole story.

My inkling is that it is a self-conscious thing, and that the Norwegian’s age is the core of ‘The Haaland debate’. It is rare that you see an emerging talent, still in his teenage years, prepared to occasionally veer away from towing the line without question. Haaland’s ‘arrogance’ — which seems to be a misconception of his character anyway — has rubbed people up the wrong way, particularly because he is so young. It is a rarity to see a teenage player making his way in the game on the pitch to have established a pattern, humorous or otherwise, off it in the way Haaland has begun to.

It may even be as simple as him acting on advice from an agent or family members. We can hardly pretend that, historically, some members of the press have twisted the words of some young players. Haaland may simply be hyper-aware of protecting himself from such shortfalls by literally keeping his thoughts to the bare minimum when he sees fit.

Ulitmately, for now, we must give Haaland the benefit of the doubt. It is easy to see both points of view but, given his talent and strength of character, we should give him the benefit of the doubt. He is a refreshing personality and a supremely talented player who will learn as much off the pitch as he does on it in the coming years. Whatever his motives, he could at least try to start evading negative media attention as effectively as he has lost defenders across Europe this season.

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