There is an image in the lobby of the striking Stormen library, perched on the edge of the harbour in cosmopolitan Bodø, that speaks to the Norwegian city’s past. An old family photograph shows an elderly couple from Nordland but what is not instantly recognisable is that the man’s Sami footwear, traditionally made from reindeer hide to cope with subzero temperatures, has been purposefully scribbled over and hidden.
Bodø is one of the northernmost cities in the world – it is 200km north of the Arctic Circle and among the best spots to spy the aurora borealis – and while skrei cod fishing represents the historical currency in the area, it now has a modest football club turning heads on the European stage on the equivalent of a healthy League One budget.
Bodø/Glimt are riding the crest of a wave and visit Roma on Thursday hoping to advance to the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League after a 2-1 first-leg victory in a spiky contest on their artificial pitch.
Uefa is investigating clashes between coaching staff long after the final whistle, which could result in the Bodø head coach, Kjetil Knutsen, and the Roma goalkeeper coach, Nuno Santos, being suspended for the return but that humbling was another remarkable chapter in an extraordinary story. Bodø are hunting a hat-trick of victories against Roma this season, having trounced them 6-1 earlier in the competition, the heaviest defeat of José Mourinho’s career.
Bodø were prevented from playing in Norway’s leading domestic division until 1972, with north Norwegians more than geographically isolated from society (the nearest major city, Tampere, in Finland, is a 15-hour drive); north Norwegians struggled to book hotels in the south. Bodø won the Norwegian Cup three years later – members of that side meet for coffee most mornings – and are entwined with the area. These days Bodø supporters carry giant yellow toothbrushes to games as a riposte to jibes from southern Norwegians about their teeth.
“The only thing I could really compare it to on a European level is maybe some of the beliefs in the Basque region or Catalonia in Spain,” says Gregg Broughton, Bodø’s academy director who sits on the club’s management committee. “We have to remember that and embrace that. We have to be really, really brave, on the front foot and proud of being from the north of Norway.”
The team once spent a week of their summer on the picturesque Lofoten Islands, where locals recently partied to celebrate the end of the cod fishing season, playing a couple of training games to further immerse the club in its community. “Living here in the north of Norway was very, very hard and unless you worked hard you wouldn’t have survived here previously,” Broughton says.
“It is one of the roughest seas in the world so if you didn’t get your timing right and didn’t grab that moment, your life was at risk, but if you did your family is going to be able to live for the rest of the year. We have to have that in our DNA. The cod exports work their way down the west coast to Bergen, the big commerce town where fish is sent across Europe. Salmon farming is now also very big in northern Norway.”
Bodø have won the league for the past two seasons and will partake in the Champions League first qualifying round in July. This calendar year started with victory at Celtic in February and next week they could secure a place in the Norwegian Cup final. Bodø’s most recent accounts detail a record turnover of €18m, aided by television revenue and player sales; Roma’s is about 10 times that. Bodø have seamlessly replaced key cogs.
The prolific forwards Philip Zinckernagel, Kasper Junker and Erik Botheim have departed in the past 18 months, Zinckernagel for Watford, and Ola Solbakken, who made his Norway debut in November, could be next. The academy graduate Mathias Normann, now on loan at Norwich, was their first notable sale, to Brighton in 2017, and Patrick Berg, whose father, grandfather and uncles played for Bodø, and Jens Petter Hauge have since moved to Lens and Milan respectively.
Bodø’s wage bill is €5m and their highest earners take home about the same as counterparts at Wigan Athletic or Wycombe Wanderers, in England’s third tier. “The funny thing in Norway is that everyone’s tax records get published annually so you can see what anybody earns so there is no point trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes in the dressing room,” Broughton says. “The budget is tiny, tiny, tiny and that is what makes the achievement so huge. You’re certainly not going to come here for the money, you’re certainly not going to come here for the weather but you are going to come here if you’re serious about career development.”
Far bigger fish than Bodø could learn a thing or two about their holistic approach. They do not flip-flop in the face of adversity – they bounced back from relegation as recently as five years ago – and are focused on performance, with the mental coach, Bjørn Mannsverk, an ex-fighter jet pilot who served in Afghanistan and Libya, a key voice for players and staff. “He said to the management team: ‘By the way, you might not get the answers you want.’ They said: ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said: ‘If I get the player group to open up to me, it might be they say: ‘We need to change head coach or I don’t want to be a footballer any more. Are you prepared for those answers?’ That was probably a ‘wow’ moment for us.”
Broughton, who completed his Uefa pro licence alongside Graham Potter and Nemanja Matic, is among the English staff at the club, which includes the head of medical, Mike Brown, and three physiotherapists. Tom Dent, who began as Under-16s coach, left last year and is now assistant at Hamarkameratene, and Dan Leivers, a youth coach, recently departed to become academy manager at Notts County. For Broughton, who joined Bodø in 2017 and previously coached Ben Chilwell at Rushden & Diamonds, James Justin at Luton Town and Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis at Norwich City, it has been a rewarding experience.
“When an agent mentioned to me that they were looking for an academy director, although I had travelled extensively in Scandinavia, I wasn’t sure where Bodø was so I looked at a map and was like: ‘OK, that is quite far north.’ The scenery is absolutely beautiful. Within five minutes you can be in the wilderness. It is the only football club I know where you can walk to the airport.”
Bodø is a European City of Culture for 2024 and the club is planning to build an all-wood stadium to mark the occasion. The club’s finest hour was that trouncing of Roma in October but they may yet trump that on Thursday. “Mourinho had never lost 6-1 in his career,” Broughton says. “He is the best-organised coach in world football … to catch him unprepared was amazing. It goes back to the skrei fishing; when you have the moment, you have to grab it.”