19-year-old Norwegian starlet Jo Inge Berget is contracted to Udinese Calcio, but would rather be anywhere else than in Udine.
After a loan spell at his home club in Norway, the striker was expected by Norwegian media to get a call-up to the senior national team in November, alongside players such as Aston Villas John Carew and Le Mans Club’s Thorstein Helstad.
In contrast, at Udinese he plays for the Under 20s team. Is he an example of a curious collection of talented footballers to fall victim to a Serie A cultural barrier? The nature of the reception committee in Italian clubs requires another look.
Sometimes talented footballers do not fit in a particular footballing culture. Level of talent, personal motivation or outside factors can determine if a player manages to break through at a foreign club. Norwegian players do not have significant track records in Italy.
Apart from Per Bredesen, at Lazio, Milan and Bari, and Ragnar Larsen, at Lazio and Genoa, both in the 1950s, only two of the ten Norwegians ever to play in the Serie A lasted as much as two seasons. 19-year old Jo Inge Berget at Udinese is facing a similar situation – but it could be avoided.
Signed for about EUR 700 000 as a 17-year-old from FC Lyn Oslo in summer 2008, Berget was meant to quickly go the grades through the U20s team into first team training. Although the youth coaches at Udinese have been happy with his efforts in training, the progress did not go as planned.
Berget was often second choice for the Udinese U20s behind Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, who was also signed from Lyn. He quickly became disillusioned with the situation. Already in April the next year Berget was allowed to return to his home club on a 5-month loan deal.
The young striker, who has been described by skysports.com as ‘one to watch’, showed great maturity to earn a regular spot in the top division team in Norway. Europa League-qualified Molde FK attempted to buy him from Udinese, but upon failing his medical he was due back in Udine. Berget refused to go back, publicly stating he had no intention to do so. He was allowed a loan extension in Norway until the end of the season. With the end-of-season break beginning in November for the Norwegian professionals, Berget’s situation is still not in the clear.
There is no doubt about the reasons for his strong desire not to return to Udinese at this stage in his career – language barrier, homesickness, feeling of social exclusion, and promises of his footballing chances not being fulfilled. Berget has made this clear to Norwegian media. However, Udinese insist he comes back.
In this situation no one is happy – not Berget, Lyn or Udinese. It can be questioned whether anyone is at fault for creating this situation, and Berget’s situation indicates that someone is. Berget’s situation is just like that of hundreds of other talented youngsters who go abroad to try to make it in a bigger league. In Berget’s case, the situation could be solved with such ease. When the club is happy with his progress, at 19 he could be in line to make the Zebrette’s first team soon.
What Berget seems to need is someone who is present in his everyday life, helping him link up with the club community and the local culture. In the world of football, perhaps a man is expected to hold the traditional machismo stereotype of not needing help – but for young boys who travel abroad to play football a little help is sometimes all it takes. Football author Simon Kuper writes in Why England Lose that such ‘relocation agents’ make a huge difference in the experience of new players when they are used.
Jo Inge Berget has admitted that in his first month in Italy he only ate food with chicken, because the word for chicken, ‘pollo’, was the only word he knew. He felt excluded from the banter of the dressing room of the youth team, because no one helped him get included in the social life. His own social life consists of some contact with Swedish fellow youth player Gustav Hellman, and his mother who visits him every three weeks.
Even though Berget is happy with the football education he is getting, and Udinese strongly want him back, there is no wonder he is dreading a return to such a limited life.
If Udinese had used a relocation agent, someone connected to the club who eased Berget’s transition to life in a foreign country and at a big club, it would probably have been easier for Berget to justify the 700 000 EUR price tag, and to progress quickly into the first team as he was expected to.
Life as a talented footballer has a very strong psychological side to it. Evidence for that is provided every year – from Adriano refusing to travel back to Inter, now scoring for fun in the Brazilian championship, through Martin Bengtsson, the Swedish youngster at Inter who attempted suicide in Inter’s youth team residence in 2004, to the failures of Florent Sinama Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec at Liverpool, now both successful players.
Pressure is especially hard on players who have not yet had their breakthrough and live in uncertainty in a foreign country. The reflections of Jo Inge Berget to Norwegian press over that lacking component is perhaps a lesson for all top Italian clubs who want to convert foreign talent into Serie A-class players.
Argentinean and Uruguayan players adjust more easily to Italian life, but there is a steady stream of Swedish and other Northern European youngsters who travel to Italy and fail. Perhaps an analysis of the psychological side of youth transfers is necessary for Italian clubs, who are often dominated by ageing players.
This seems to be one aspect Italian top clubs can improve to help bring the Serie A forward again to be the most attractive league for talented footballers. Along with new stadiums and widened audience appeal, there are some steps Italian football can take to improve. Focusing on the psychological barriers in youngsters’ daily life can be a huge asset to the players and to the clubs in the future.