Posted by: Christian Wulff | September 6, 2012

105 – The legend of John Arne Riise

On the eve of John Arne Riise becoming the most capped player ever for Norway, there seems to be more a sense of grudging acknowledgment rather than a swell of appreciation and admiration for him in his own country. At what point did the perception of John Arne Riise in Norway change to one where the mention of his name is now more likely to conjure up snide remarks and mocking rather than praise and admiration?

Some would say he’s never been fully able to lose the image of an arrogant upstart after he burst on to the scene as a 17-year old in 1998 when he signed for Monaco, an unheard of step for a Norwegian youngster at that time. He was frequently – often voluntary – in the tabloid press, even selling the exclusive rights to his first wedding in 2003 to a glossy magazine. Rather than his achievements on the pitch, he is often more remembered for his lost pay slip going viral online, his many different hair colours and his rather embarrassing ‘Stevie G is my best mate’ celebrations every time the Liverpool skipper scored.

When his childish spat with John Carew ended with the giant striker knocking him out with a right hook on the Norway team bus after a training session, there were no shortage of people muttering ‘he had that one coming’. Maybe it’s just bad luck that he possesses ‘one of those faces’, like the kid at school who would end up with two choices: get bullied or be a bully.

All of the above has surely contributed to form an unflattering, although unfair, public view of Riise but make no mistake; the tipping point for the Norwegian public’s perception of him came in the summer of 2005. It started with a mention in the free newspaper Natt & Dag. Buried in an article there was a mention of the sad case of Riise sending out loads of flirty text messages to Norwegian celebrities.VG, Norway’s biggest newspaper, picked up on it and ran their own article. For the next couple of weeks it was the biggest story in the country.

Riise, single at the time after having divorced his childhood sweetheart a year earlier, had apparently sent an almost identical text message to as many female celebrities he could possibly get the number to, from big television personalities to third place contestants in TV talent competitions. As the days went by, more and more recipients of Riise’s cringe worthy text came out of the woodwork, some even going on to make whole ‘celebrity careers’ on the back of it.

For all his stupidity in sending out a template flirty text it was an ugly, undignified media campaign, completely out of proportion to what had actually happened. It feed a public more than happy to lap it all up. It was a total, personal humiliation of a young man by a laughing press, only a few weeks after they had celebrated his Champions League win with Liverpool.

A few weeks ago the former Swedish striker Daniel Nannskog – now a pundit on Norwegian television –said that John Arne Riise is criminally underrated in Norway. Inevitably, Nannskog cited ‘janteloven’ as one of the reasons. Janteloven is a famous concept in Scandinavia, deplored by must but at the same time still widely ingrained in these societies.

Janteloven – or the Law of Jante  – was the creation of the author Axel Sandemose and is today used to describe the attitude towards individuals who in some way ‘stand out’ from the norm in such a homogeneous society as Norway. There are ten specific rules in the Law of Jante, all variations on the theme of ‘don’t think are anything special, don’t think you are better than us and don’t think you can teach us anything’.

John Arne Riise, with his flashy personality and brash attitude, imported sports cars, tabloid personality and sporting success is the quintessential example of somebody likely to fall foul of the Law of Jante. He has always stuck out like an incredibly sore thumb in a country where sporting heroes were supposed to be humble, folksy and not ‘showing off’ any of their successes.

That in itself is a crude generalisation of Norwegian society, who to its credit has become a lot more modern, open to foreign influences and appreciative of ‘big’ personalities in the last two decades. But some old habits do die hard, and it’s has undeniably played a large part in Riise never getting the same credit for his achievements in Norway that he would have been given in another country.

It would be easy enough to point to the simple facts of Riise’s career to make a case for an elevated status in Norwegian football folklore. He’s the only Norwegian to play in two Champions League finals and together with the Manchester United trio of Solskjær, Johnsen and Berg the only one to lift the trophy. He has also won the F.A. and League Cup with Liverpool, in addition to more than 400 league games in England, Italy and France.

He currently has a career total of 62 senior goals, a very impressive return for a left-back. Debuting as a 19-year-old, he has held that position in the national team for over a decade, tying the legendary centre-half Thorbjørn Svenssen’s record of 104 caps against Hellas last month. He’ll break that 50-year old milestone when he takes the field against Iceland tomorrow, his sixth attempt at qualifying for an international tournament.

His records and stats are impressive enough, but the one thing that makes his achievements even greater is that he has accomplished them without being a naturally gifted footballer. His incredible endurance, strength, efficient technique and not at least his powerful left foot has been built up through an incredible amount of training from a very young age.

There are stories of him as a teenager in Aalesund getting up at a ridiculous hour to do gruelling personal training sessions every day before school, exemplifying a dedication and application that has been integral to his success throughout his career.

He showed great personal courage to go to Monaco as a 17-year without even having played in the Norwegian top division. It was a move heavily criticised by many in the Norwegian football community, but it speaks volume of Riise self-belief and confidence that he went there, broke into the first team and earned his move to Liverpool.

He marked his debut for Liverpool against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup with a goal, before he scored with a great solo effort away to Everton in one of his first league matches. A few weeks later he unleashed his thunderous left-foot against Man United to power home a free-kick, probably the most famous goal of his career, as Liverpool went on to beat their rivals 3-1. At the time that victory was seen as potentially heralding a great, new era for Liverpool.  In the end they could only finish second behind Arsenal that season, an apt parallel to Riise’s time at the club, never quite living up to those first few months where everything seemed possible.

While never becoming a world-class player, he did go on to become the most successful Scandinavian in Liverpool’s history, with Sami Hyypia the only non-British outfield player exceeding Riise’s 348 games for the club. He played an integral part in that famous night in Istanbul, winning the F.A. Cup the year after in addition to his league cup win in 2003 and two other final appearances, including a stunning goal in the League Cup final against Chelsea in 2007.

Like all of us Riise have made mistakes throughout his life. He’ll surely regret living out so much of his private life in the media when he was younger, not to mention the now infamous text messages. He’s taken wrong decisions financially, putting so much trust in his former agent Einar Baardsen that he in 2007 was declared bankrupt by a court in Liverpool, allegedly as a result of the many bad investments made by Baardsen on his behalf. Riise would end up pursuing his former advisor through the courts in Norway.

Wicked tongues will say that his worst decision was to attempt to clear Salomon Kalou’s injury time cross in the 2008 Champions League semi-final with a diving header, steering the ball into his own net and probably denying Liverpool its third final appearance in four years.

Highlighting those mistakes, be it personally, financially or on the pitch, is ironically the best way of truly illustrating John Arne Riise’s greatest strength; a remarkable ability to get back up time and time again no matter how many times he’s kicked to the ground, both metaphorically and literally.

On a personal side he is re-married with two small children, now keeping his family out of the limelight. He hired Jan Kvalheim as his personal manager in 2005 and the former beach volleyball player became a calm and wise advisor, helping to sort out his financial issues while smartly managing Riise’s media profile. As for his football career, nothing illustrates Riise’s resolve better than when he stepped up and converted his spot-kick in the penalty shot-out against West Ham in the 2006 F.A. Cup final, only a year after Dida had saved his effort in Istanbul.

That showed real courage under the highest of pressure and John Arne Riise’s career is filled with such examples of determination, focus and steely resolve that have allowed him to sustain a high level of performance in a top European league for 15 consecutive seasons. Turning 32 later this month, he is still a highly motivated professional set on squeezing every single last drop out of his talents.

Everything he has achieved in his life, John Arne Riise has done through an incredible amount of hard work, self-sacrifice, and to a back-drop of criticism and adversity. Tomorrow he’ll become the most capped player ever for Norway. Whether a lot of people want to admit it or not, he becomes a legend of Norwegian football.

And it’s bloody well deserved.

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