I first heard about Erling Braut Haaland roughly one year ago, when the Norwegian teenager scored a stunning nine goals in a U-20 World Cup game against Honduras. Two goals is a brace, three goals is a hat trick, and we run out of cutesy terms somewhere in between three and nine. Let’s call nine goals a Haat trick.
However, I figured Haaland’s haul had less to do with his skills and more to do with the foibles of mismatched international competition. In 2001, an Australian named Archie Thompson scored 13 goals in a match against American Samoa, a territory that has produced more NFL players than soccer stars. While Thompson had a stellar career including a Golden Boot in Australia’s A-League, his utter destruction of America’s fifth-most populous overseas territory was hardly a sign that he was the greatest pure goal scorer on earth. Haaland’s goals seemed a matter of circumstance: Norway had lost its first two games, and their only hope of advancing out of their group was via goal differential. Meanwhile, their opponents were wildly outmatched in the tournament, having been outscored 7-0 in their first two matches. So Norway ran up the score, fishing the ball out of the goal instantly after each of Haaland’s goals instead of wasting time with celebrations. It did not seem like Haaland was a budding superstar; he was simply the striker for a goal-hungry team in a strange circumstance.
But in the past 360 days, something remarkable has happened: Even as Haaland has advanced from matches against hapless Honduras in a U-20 tournament to games against top-tier professionals, he has not stopped scoring. In July, two months after the nine-goal game, Haaland notched his first hat trick for Red Bull Salzburg in a cup match against a lower-tier Austrian club. Nothing special. But then, a month later, he scored a hat trick in an Austrian Bundesliga game. A month after that, he scored a hat trick in a Champions League game against Belgian club Genk and then added a goal against Liverpool, and tallied two more against Napoli.
Soon, Haaland was too big for Salzburg, with rumors circulating that he would play for fellow Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. In January, he signed for Borussia Dortmund, one of the top teams in Germany’s Bundesliga, with Red Bull Salzburg receiving a $22 million fee in return. In his first match for Dortmund, he came on as a substitute in the 56th minute, with Dortmund trailing 3-1 to Augsburg. Three minutes later, he became the first Norwegian to score for Dortmund; within 23 minutes, he had tallied a hat trick in a 5-3 Dortmund win.
In his second match for Dortmund, he scored two goals in 22 minutes against FC Köln. In February, he scored both goals in a Champions League win against Paris Saint-Germain. When the Bundesliga returned from a two-month pandemic break last weekend, Haaland was the first player to score, getting the fun started in a 4-0 win against Schalke.
Since the start of the U-20 World Cup, Haaland has played in 40 matches for club and country and scored 50 goals. While the level of play has increased to one of the top leagues on earth, he’s maintained better than a goal-a-game pace—he’s scored 28 goals in 22 appearances for Salzburg, and has 13 goals in 13 appearances for Dortmund.
Tuesday, Haaland will play in what is, for all intents and purposes, the biggest sporting event in the world in the past three months—a match against Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich. FiveThirtyEight gives Bayern a 90 percent chance to win an eighth consecutive Bundesliga title, but with a win, Dortmund will pull to within a point of the league leaders with six matches to play. And it hasn’t even been a year since Haaland played in a little-watched youth tournament.
Haaland plays as though he was created in a lab. (A Spanish magazine recently put him on the cover as “CYBORGOL,” a half-human, half-robot soccer machine.) He’s 6-foot-4 and possesses the power you’d expect from his hulking frame—listen to the THUNK on this goal. But he’s got track-and-field quality athleticism. When you time his on-field sprints with a stopwatch, he’s on par with the world’s best, and as a youngster, he reportedly set the world record in the long jump for 5-year-olds. (What other track events do kids do? Do they get to throw javelins? Is there a 5-year-old 100-meter dash? Can I watch?)
He plays like a force of nature. He’s brilliant off the ball, instinctively surging into open space as if powered by osmosis. He makes the act of redirecting the ball into the back of a net seem simple, as if it doesn’t require spectacular amounts of dexterity and skill. It doesn’t matter if he’s sitting on his ass or facing the wrong direction when the ball is passed to him—he always manages to point the ball goalward, like an airborne cat that always knows which way his paws need to go to find the ground.
Haaland doesn’t necessarily play the beautiful game—he just shovels any balls that come his way into the net. His efficiency is off the charts. In the Bundesliga, Haaland has scored on 48 percent of his shots, while no other player has scored on more than 40 percent. (He shows up on the Champions League leaderboard in goals per shot twice—once with Dortmund, once with Salzburg.) He’s also third in the Bundesliga in percentage of shots on goal, one of just four players to put more than 60 percent of their shots on target.
Of course, Haaland wasn’t created in a lab. He’s from Norway, which isn’t exactly a country known for soccer superstars. Norway hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since 2000. Like America, their men struggle but their women are dominant—the Norwegian women’s team won the 1995 World Cup and produced 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg.
But Haaland has an impressive pedigree—he was born in England while his father, Alf-Inge Haaland, played for Manchester City. The elder Haaland, a defensive midfielder, played on Norway’s 1994 World Cup team and played seven years in the Premier League, but had to retire at 30 after a particularly brutal tackle by Manchester United’s Roy Keane. Meanwhile, Haaland’s mother was reportedly a national champion in the heptathlon.
It feels like it’s getting increasingly hard to find sports stars who aren’t the sons of former pro athletes. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson seem to put basketballs into hoops as effortlessly as Haaland puts balls into nets, and while that effortlessness may seem natural, you have to imagine it comes from having an ideal sports upbringing. The kids of former athletes have the genetic material of their pro parents, a burning desire to emulate them from the time they leave the crib, a parent with tips about how to play the game, and connections in the sports world. The resources that come with having a highly paid professional athlete as a parent probably help, too.
So Haaland wasn’t created in a lab, but he may as well have been. (A former teammate of Haaland’s father jokes he was conceived in the Leeds locker room.) Haaland cross-trained in handball, tennis, and (warning: extremely Norwegian content incoming) cross-country skiing from a young age to build his dexterity and endurance. Those who saw Haaland as a toddler say he was constantly milling around training sessions with a ball; his youth coach says he scored on his very first two touches at 5 years old and needed to be moved up to play with 6-year-olds. The only evidence of him performing normal childlike activities is this video of Haaland rapping while wearing an emoji-covered sweatshirt when he was 15. (I cannot grade the quality of his bars, since I do not speak Norwegian.) Haaland has said on multiple occasions that his dream would be to win the Premier League with Leeds United, the team his father played with the longest. Leeds has since fallen out of the Premier League, but he still says he’s motivated by the idea of being better than his father. (His father scored only 18 total goals in his entire English career, while Haaland has 10 Champions League goals this year alone, so I’d say he’s getting close.)
I suppose the idea is that Haaland will keep getting better, because he’s only 19, and unless we’re talking about gymnastics or memes, people tend to get better at things after they turn 20. But it also feels strange to speculate about how much better Haaland can get. Sure, I suppose he could be more useful at dribbling past defenders, and oddly, he rarely scores with his head considering he’s such a massive target.
But it feels like Haaland is very much already the thing he was born to be—an idealized goal scorer, perpetually lurking in open space and shoveling any ball that comes his way into the back of the net. The thing that seems likely to change is his competition. Even though he’s already been signed by a big club, there are bigger clubs, and it seems inevitable that he will continue moving up the chain until he reaches the club whose international ownership conglomerate is willing to spend the most to get him on their team. The question is whether Haaland will continue to be as ruthlessly effective at goal scoring as the game grows around him.
Thus far, it hasn’t been a problem. Everywhere he has gone, he has continued scoring. Is there anybody who can stop him?