Philip Barker

Just as it has dominated the recent news cycle, 40 years ago this week, FIFA World Cup qualification also took centre stage. One match in particular has gone down in history.

It was played in Oslo in September 1981. That Norway defeated England was memorable in itself. What elevated it to folkloric status was the radio commentary delivered by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) commentator Bjørge Lillelien. Such was its impact, it was nominated as a cultural treasure.

In 1981, the Norwegians were not considered to be among the leading football nations. They had not qualified for the World Cup finals since 1938. Although skipper Hallvar Thoresen played for PSV Eindhoven and a smattering of players played for other clubs in Europe - or were about to do so - most of the squad was still largely comprised of part-timers, including goalkeeper Tore Antonsen, who worked as an electrician. 

By the time they faced England, Norway sat at the bottom of a qualifying group that also included Switzerland, Hungary and Romania. 

English domestic football was shown each week on Norwegian television and had become essential viewing. The chance to watch England live was an attractive proposition for local fans. Over 28,000 crammed into Oslo’s Ullevaal Stadium for the match. 

Kevin Keegan was one of the England stars who were defeated by Norway in the 1981 World Cup Qualifier ©Getty Images
Kevin Keegan was one of the England stars who were defeated by Norway in the 1981 World Cup Qualifier ©Getty Images

England brought with them some big names. Skipper Kevin Keegan was by now a Southampton player, but well known and respected in Europe after a highly successful spell with Hamburg in Germany. The dynamic midfielder Bryan Robson was soon to leave West Bromwich Albion for Manchester United. The England team also included Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Phil Thompson and Terry McDermott, all of whom had been a part of Liverpool’s 1981 European Cup-winning team.

The prospects for a historic night for the Norwegians did not at all look promising when Robson scored for England after 15 minutes. Yet a second goal did not come, and after 35 minutes, a cross by Tom Lund drifted in for the Norwegian equaliser to give the home team and their fans some encouragement. 

Less than five minutes later, the crowd were on their feet again after Thoresen finished sharply from close range to make it 2-1. That was the remarkable scoreline at half-time and, in the second half, the Norwegians even had chances to increase their advantage. 

Lillilien was unashamedly partisan and criticised tackles made by the England players, in particular Liverpool’s Neal, in no uncertain terms. As the clock ticked down, he joined the crowd in calling for the Polish referee Jerzy Kacprzak to blow the final whistle. 

As the match ended, fans rushed onto the field to acclaim their heroes. Lillelien described the moment in a mixture of Norwegian and English. "We are the best! We have beaten England 2-1 in football!" he exclaimed. "It is absolutely amazing, we have beaten England, the giant’s birthplace," in a reference to England’s role in establishing football.

"It was not a surprise when he did this. Lillelien was totally comfortable in English," Tor Aune, a senior figure in Norwegian broadcasting, said many years later. "At the time, he was the biggest radio star, because of his enthusiasm, the language he used and his way of colouring a situation. A lot of people tended to turn down the television and listen to his radio commentary."

As Lillelien continued his description, there came the sequence for which he will be forever remembered.

"Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, we have beaten them all!"

This was followed by a famous call to the British Prime Minister. "Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? I have a message for you. Norway have knocked England out of the World Cup. As they say in your language in the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden in New York, your boys took a helluva beating. Your boys took a helluva beating!"

His son, Marius, stood on the roof of the commentary box as his father spoke those famous words. He is now a senior broadcasting executive.

"The person we meet in the big radio moments is a man who has built himself up," Marius told NRK for a television documentary feature made many years later. "Like an artist, he prepared himself for a concert. He was a very different man off air."

In his commentary, Lillelien stated that England were knocked out of the World Cup. At the time, most observers felt that this was the case. In fact, there were some remarkable results to follow, meaning, ultimately, England did qualify alongside Hungary for the final stages of the 1982 World Cup. Norway finished bottom of the group, not that it mattered.

In the weeks which followed, Lillelien was invited onto chat shows on Norwegian television to discuss his great moment. "At its best, radio is almost unbeatable when describing the moment, in some situations it can even beat television," he said.

At the prompting of the interviewer, he calmly recited the names of the English celebrities that he had invoked. "These things are spontaneous. I can assure you if these things were prepared, written down, then you can be sure it would be used in the wrong place."

The technology used in sports commentary has come a long way ©Getty Images
The technology used in sports commentary has come a long way ©Getty Images

Lillelien had already become known throughout Scandinavia. "‘I heard this commentary live from the game, and he went totally bananas," Icelandic broadcaster Ingólfur Hannesson - later a senior figure with the European Broadcasting Union - said.

"He was an amazing commentator and, during this era, not many radio commentators on the international stage could fit into his shoes. He had a lively, skilful, understanding of sport and a humorous crazy repertoire within the Norwegian language."

Lillelien had made radio listeners sit up before, although not quite to the same extent. When Norway’s footballers qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Lillelien announced their achievement with the words, "Comrade Brezhnev, here we come!" In fact, the Norwegian team never did go to Moscow as a result of the boycott.

As a nine-year-old, Lillelien had been inspired by hearing a description of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Norway beat Germany in the football tournament, much to the disappointment of Adolf Hitler watching from the grandstand. 

After the Second World War, Lillelien headed for America, where he studied at Northwestern University. He later worked for newspapers in Chicago and New York before returning to Norway. He joined Fremtiden, a newspaper published in the city of Drammen. He then made his first broadcasts for NRK on shortwave broadcasts for seafarers.

It was not until shortly before the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics that he was reporting on winter sport. He was to cover it for the rest of his life.

A jazz enthusiast, he also presented a music radio programme. He remained best known for his work on Nordic skiing and football but died from cancer in 1987. He was only 60, but the memory of his work lived on.

Almost 30 years after his death, a short clip of his voice was selected for inclusion in a soundtrack played during the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer. 

His famous football commentary from that night in 1981 was replayed on the BBC World Service and has never been forgotten in England. In 2002, the Observer Sports Magazine listed it top of a ranking of great moments. Then in 2011, NRK and the national library nominated the commentary as a fine example of Norwegian broadcasting for UNESCO’s "Memory of the World" project.

It sat alongside other Norwegian contributions which included original notes of a score of a concerto by the composer Edvard Grieg, the manuscript of "A Doll’s House", by the revered Norwegian author Henrik, Ibsen and a letter from the polar explorer Roald Amundsen to King Haakon VII.

The official citation describes Lillelien as "one of the foremost sports commentators of all time." It is signed by Vigdis Lian, President for the Norwegian National Commission, and archivist Arne Skivenes. And now, 40 years later, it is made immortal in NRK’s headquarters as a testament to that magic and unforgettable moment.