The unexpected emergence of Norway’s sharpshooter
“I did not expect to play so much. It is a blessing. And a huge honour to represent your country on the highest of stages.”
Erik Thorstenstein Toft has been a breath of fresh air for Norway at the EHF EURO 2022, adding to the Scandinavian team’s depth and impressing with his powerful shots.
As Toft took the court for the first time in the European premium competition in Košice, against Slovakia, there were no worries. Just some butterflies in the stomach and a huge pride to sing the Norwegian anthem and have the badge of the national team near his heart.
But Toft’s road to this point has been tough and filled with setbacks. In an era where everybody is looking for the next best thing, scouting young players with tons of potential, a rookie making his debut at the EHF EURO at the age of 29 can be easily overlooked – especially when his designated role is a backup to Sander Sagosen, a player who is Toft’s junior by three years, but now ranks 16th in the all-time scorer list of the EHF EURO with 155 goals.
“I knew that my role was to take to the court when Sander needed some rest, but it is amazing to play in the same team with him, as he is one of the best that ever played for Norway,” says Toft.
Yet Sagosen’s form has been up and down in this tournament, as the top goal scorer from the EHF EURO 2020, with 65 goals, has been nursing an injury coming into the tournament.
He still played the third largest amount of minutes for Norway in the tournament, 175, but the need to rest to have fresh legs in the business end of the main round was paramount. Enter Toft, who is Norway’s third-best scorer, with 16 goals, despite being on the court for only 91 minutes.
“I go on the court and do my job, which is to shoot and score goals. It has always been like this and it really makes me happy,” adds the 29-year-old left back, who failed to score a goal only in the 34:29 win against Lithuania, when Sagosen was flawless.
Instead, Toft started to play better and better in the main round, including a seven-goal outing on Friday evening in the 28:23 win against Germany, when he was also named the Grundfos Player of the Match.
He truly impressed with his powerful shots, having only one goal registered at a speed under 100 km/h. His fastest was clocked at 130 km/h, impossible to stop by German goalkeeper, Johannes Bitter.
Norwegian pundits have joked during the live commentary of the game that Toft shoots so hard, the net will be ripped by the next goal. In fact, Toft’s average speed for a goal in the tournament is 109.46 km/h, the 32nd fastest in the competition. Yet Norway’s left back has scored the largest number of goals from this pool of players, many of which had a maximum of five goals.
“Erik always shot hard, since we were juniors, in the under-14 national team. It is nothing special for me to see this, I knew it and I was happy when he was called up for the national team,” says line player Petter Øverby, who has known Toft for over 15 years.
Boasting the best attack in a competition like the EHF EURO 2022 is no small thing for any team, but Norway have been especially good, topping the standings and averaging 32.4 scored goals per game, their best-ever output for a single European tournament.
They also set a new record for goals scored in a single game at the EHF EURO in the 42:31 win against Poland, beating the previous record by one goal. And it could not have been done without players like backs Sander Overjordet, Kent Robin Tönnessen or Toft, who strive to do their best whenever called to replace the first-choice option on their positions.
Not everything has been free-flowing for Norway in Slovakia this January, with the 22:23 loss against Russia in the preliminary round being a huge blow. They are still second in main round group II, with four points, and need a win against Sweden, in the last match of the group, to proceed to the next phase of the competition.
First up, however, are Spain, a team that Norway have lost the last 11 games against in a streak dating back to 1998. Despite this, the mood in the Norwegian camp has been surprisingly upbeat.
“We bounced back after that loss against Russia and won the last three games in a row. We built our confidence back, we talked a lot and really got everything going for us. We need to win against Spain, I think it is high time to do that,” says Toft.
But what about him, personally? What does a 29-year-old rookie feel when he performs on the biggest of stages and really shines, captivating the interest of millions?
“I still have a lot going for me. I am only 29, so I think I have a few good years ahead. Hopefully we will be able to be back in the semi-finals here, that’s the first target,” concludes Toft.