Erling Haaland is no longer the brightest young thing in Norwegian football.
That honour now belongs to 18-year-old Antonio Nusa and, week by week, people are starting to know his name.
Naturally so. Nusa is a two-footed wide forward with gliding pace and beguiling skill, who can drive with the ball or caress it around the tightest corners. You already pity the full-backs who have to face him.
On Saturday night, he was a match-winner for Club Brugge, scoring the third goal in what would become a 4-2 win over Charleroi in the Pro League. Nusa was only a substitute in that game, but understandably given his exertions in the international break.
He scored his first goal for Norway on his debut against Jordan and, on his second appearance, against Georgia, created goals for Haaland and Martin Odegaard. The second assist sent a shimmer of appreciation through the crowd in Oslo. Nusa squared up a pair of Georgian defenders, then disappeared away from them with a blur of skill before cutting back for Odegaard to score. Stadiums do not make noises like that often.
But Nusa is in that moment, at that stage of his career. His promise is overwhelming and yet unrealised, meaning nobody can be quite sure what he might do next. What is certain is that Nusa is fast becoming appointment viewing.
He was signed by Club Bruges for €3million (£2.6m; $3.2m) in 2021 but was raised by Stabaek, the Eliteserien side from Baerum, just outside Oslo. He joined when he was 13 and was initially limited in the number of training sessions he could attend. Nusa’s family lived in Langhus, to Oslo’s south, and the journey – an hour there and back by train and bus – was too much to undertake daily. Instead, he trained with Stabaek twice a week, spending the rest of his time at home, playing local football.
Gaute Larsen has worked in football for over 30 years. He coached Haaland at Bryne and he has been managing Stabaek’s second team since 2017. He remembers Nusa as a self-starter – a teenager “who was always studying YouTube, watching Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar, and training by himself”.
That influence shows. Nusa has unhelpfully been christened the Norwegian Neymar by the media, but – in terms of talent at least – it is not such an outlandish comparison. He has confidence with the ball and a habit of scoring stylish, spectacular goals. Within those moments, it is easy to spot the influence of that trio of players: the way he teases defenders, how he flows into the space allowed by a defence, and the capacity to find shooting angles.
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Larsen tells a story from a youth game when Stabaek’s under-14s had travelled to face Inter Milan in a youth tournament. Stabaek drew 2-2 and were celebrating a creditable result in the dressing room when they heard a knock on their door. It was Christian Chivu, the former Champions League winner who is now the head coach of the Serie A club’s Primavera – their youth academy – and he wanted to know who Stabaek’s No 10 was. When Nusa raised his hand, Chivu told him what a good player he was destined to become.
As Nusa got older and his balance, technique and acceleration were fortified by a growing height and developing upper body that allowed him to protect the ball, his progress through Stabaek’s system quickened. He was playing for their under-19 side when he was 15, in autumn 2020, and by the beginning of 2021, he was training with the first team full-time. The Nusa family were still living in Langhus, so Gaute Larsen would drive Nusa to and from training each day, 30km there and 30km back, six days a week.
It was more than worth it. He made his debut for the first team as a 16-year-old substitute against Bodo/Glimt and punctuated the occasion with a goal of ludicrous quality. On his first start for Stabaek, away to Viking, he scored twice more.
The original development plan had been for him to stay in Norway for a further year. He was still just 16 when Club Bruges made a €3million offer in the summer of 2023 and Nusa, his mother, father, and the coaching staff at Stabaek were all initially apprehensive about him moving to a new country at such a young age.
Club Bruges helped assuage those concerns. Their standing in European football and reputation for developing young players was a reassurance in itself. In recent years, they have either raised or otherwise helped to develop Atalanta’s Charles De Ketelaere, RB Leipzig’s Lois Openda and Bayer Leverkusen’s Odilon Kossounnou, among others. They are a club built to nurture and they could also offer regular football.
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Club Bruges actually have two professional teams. The senior side play in the Pro League, but Club NXT – their under-23s – compete in the Challenger Pro League, in Belgium’s second tier, meaning that players not ready for the first team can be exposed to competitive, adult football. Highly rated Augsburg midfielder Arne Engels played for NXT before moving to Germany. Maxim De Cuyper, a Belgium Under-21 full-back, is another alumnus who has just broken into the Club Bruges first team.
Importantly, both teams also train together at Belfius Basecamp, the new €13million training base opened in 2019 and which offers a quality and range of facilities that many clubs outside Europe’s elite cannot. Ensuring Nusa had the benefit of those surroundings as early as possible was important to Club Bruges and a reason why his departure from Stabaek was accelerated.
So far, the move has been a great success. Nusa made an initial breakthrough last season, playing over 700 minutes across the Pro League season. He also had his first experience of Champions League football, scoring against Porto in the group stage, all before he had turned 18. This year, he has started four of six league games and has been among their most productive attacking players.
Inevitably, the interest is coming. In fact, it has already arrived. Over the summer, Chelsea made an approach that was worth 10 times what Club Bruges had paid for Nusa just two years before. Arsenal and Liverpool are supposedly interested, as well as Borussia Dortmund. Nusa seems in no rush, though, and he signed a new contract in April that runs until the summer of 2027.
That level-headedness does not surprise Gaute Larsen. He speaks fondly of many of the players he has worked with in the past and remains in regular contact with Nusa. His early success and those first thrilling steps on the international stage have evidently meant a great deal to him – and not just because of how brightly Nusa’s talent has flashed.
“I’m very proud because I know how hard he has worked by himself,” he tells The Athletic. “My philosophy has always been to develop players as humans and for them to play with respect, kindness and everything else. When you see that kind of person succeed, it warms your heart.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)