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Hege Riise: Team GB’s shy but determined leader

Riise, pictured at the 1991 World Cup, would go on to win the competition in 1995
Riise (number nine, at the 1991 World Cup) would go on to win the competition in 1995
Venue: Sapporo Dome Date: 21 July Time: 08:30 BST
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC Sport website & iPlayer from 08:15

Hege Riise had one objective in mind when she dug out her Sydney 2000 gold medal before meeting her Team GB squad in late May.

It was not to show off her own achievements, but to inspire her charges with the tale of her own Olympic journey to the final 21 years ago.

It worked.

“Now that’s going to be my manager going into the summer and she’s already experienced such amazing things,” said Sophie Ingle, the Wales captain and one of three GB captains named by coach Riise.

A legend in the game, Riise, 52, is a World Cup winner, European Championship winner and Olympic gold medallist with 188 caps and 58 goals for Norway. She has tasted domestic and international success as a coach, but is known for a shy personality that covers a steely determination to succeed – something those who know her best can attest to.

When Even Pellerud named his Norway squad for an invitational friendly tournament in Canada in July 1990, he included uncapped 21-year-old Riise.

“She was a pure natural football talent,” says the former Norway coach. “One of those you think, ‘What can I teach her? Let her play!'”

He did, handing the newcomer three caps in Winnipeg and four more before the year was out, one of them against England at Old Trafford.

Pellerud says that even though her scores were low when it came to physical testing, she shone on the pitch and he would go on to build a team around her qualities.

“She didn’t jump high, but won more balls in the air; she was slow, but always first on the ball; and was one of those rare team players,” he recalls.

“It all showed that in team sport, smartness is the number one quality you’re looking for.”

April Heinrichs faced Riise as an opponent, captaining the USA side that beat Norway in the inaugural World Cup final in 1991, but losing the battle to a Riise-inspired Norway as coach of her country in the Olympic final in 2000.

“Hege influenced every game I’ve ever seen her play in,” Heinrichs says. “She was small in size but huge in impact, a technical, tactical wizard with a little engine that never stopped.”

Riise may have had all the tools to be a world-class player, but she was also extremely shy.

Norway captain Heidi Store recalls in their first camp together that Riise was so quiet “you hardly noticed her”.

“That changed totally when you gave her the football,” Store says. “Hege knows football, she is football, and if you have that kind of player in your team it’s extremely valuable.”

Store would get to know Riise well over the years. As room-mates on their way to World Cup glory in 1995, they came up with ‘the snake’ – a silly but now iconic goal celebration that saw the team walk on their knees while holding each other’s ankles.

They would also go on to play club football together in Japan, living on the same compound, cycling to training and enjoying life as professionals after years of juggling jobs with football in Norway.

“Hege might seem shy when there’s a lot of people, but when you’re with her as a room-mate, she’s a funny girl,” says Store. “A great sense of humour, laughing, joking, and she’s humble, cares about people and is an asset to everything.”

Riise, pictured with striker Ellen White, will lead GB into a group containing Chile, Canada and hosts Japan at the Olympics
Riise (second from left, pictured with striker Ellen White), will lead GB into a group containing Chile, Canada and hosts Japan at the Olympics

Former USA international Marcia McDermott would experience Riise’s value first hand while head coach of Carolina Courage, coaching the then 31-year-old in the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association.

“Hege has tremendous knowledge and was a real professional,” says McDermott. “She would come out early to work on stuff; her habits were great.

“She’s direct, so she’ll tell you what she thinks and she loves to play – there’s a lot of fun for Hege in the game.”

The two women would go on to enjoy coaching together a decade later, assisting Pia Sundhage as a USA side packed with big personalities reached the final of the 2011 World Cup.

“The thing about Hege is she saw the game so well as a player, sees it fast and is ahead of the game and it’s the same as a coach,” McDermott says.

“There’s so much respect for Hege and her knowledge and she has so much respect for everyone around her that she manages that incredibly well. She might be quiet, but when she speaks you listen.”

Among those to have benefited from that brand of quiet but inspirational coaching is recently retired Norway defender Ingrid Moe Wold, who starred for Everton last season having enjoyed a trophy-laden career under Riise at LSK Kvinner.

“Hege is a big personality in Norway, but she’s really humble,” Wold says. “She’s not a person that talks too much or too highly about herself. That’s what I liked about her as a coach.

“She taught me to be humble and focus on the next step, never be too satisfied and never be done, always wanting to improve as a team and a player.”

Wold, who moved to Oslo from a small town to play for LSK, saw the caring side of her coach, Riise welcoming her into her family, inviting her to share meals with her daughter and mother.

As Riise’s captain, the 31-year-old also saw her steelier side.

“She involved me in a lot of decisions and discussions,” Wold says. “It was always funny because I knew that if she had made her mind up she would not listen to me anyway. But it’s nice for the players to at least feel like they’ve been involved.”

What can Team GB expect from her?

“She will focus on letting the players believe in themselves,” Wold says. “That everyone feels comfortable, professional, thinking about the next game and staying positive. She is a positive person.”

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