Bumper edition

It has been a very eventful week for little Norway. I have spent half of it in London, and just hours after arriving I got to experience one of the big stories from outside the country, as referee Tom Henning Øvrebø gained international notoriety for his management of the dramatic Champions League semifinal between Chelsea and Barcelona.

Øvrebø’s refusal to award Chelsea any of a handful of possible penalties, coupled with a miracle goal that allowed Barcelona to level the score at 1-1 in the dying minutes and win due to an away goal, resulted in aggrieved hysterics that spread from local players to fans, and the poor Norwegian was reportedly moved around between hotels before being smuggled out of the country. Facebook groups calling for his assassination, and the publication of his home address online, added further to the fears for his safety.

I happened to watch a phone-in program on Sky Sports (missed the match due to a meeting)  where callers insisted with trembling voices that this was the clearest case ever of a UEFA conspiracy to eliminate English teams, a bribed official, etc. The studio expert, though taking Øvrebø’s performance to be completely inept as a given, brushed aside the paranoid accusations, and made the very astute observation that this was an example of smaller nations being given pivotal roles in major football events, and that Mr. Øvrebø was undoubtedly a source of pride for Norway, and was doing his best (as pathetic as that might be).

For a calm analysis of Øvrebø’s performance, check out the Fat Ref’s blog, where (at least) three entries pertain to the Chelsea-Barcelona match.

Norway does indeed tend to have a severe case of small nation pride, and seeks a Norwegian angle on any story, so I was very curious to find out the immediate reaction at home. While the coverage there was fascinated, calm and collected, there was surprisingly little debate about his performance. Maybe Norway’s love of English football is even stronger than its pride in their representatives, and sympathies are with Chelsea. Football refs are never popular after a match.

A more typical bit of bigging up Norway has come in annual Eurovision Song Contest fever, where according to a report in Aftenposten, charming young fiddler Alexander Rybak is the clear favorite to win the event. Quoting the head of Norway’s Eurovision Fan Club, Morten Thomassen, who is already on the spot in Moscow despite the competition taking place on the 16th, Rybak is apparently the favorite according to ‘everyone’ – “fans, TV people, journalists, everyone is sure Norway will win.”

Rybak, who turns 23 just days before the big event, was born in Minsk, and quite possibly being originally from Belarus is an advantage with a voting system often loaded with Eastern European countries.

Norway is making more waves internationally. I will have to check the media coverage here in London to see the splash Progress Party (FrP) leader Siv Jensen makes – she was invited to address the House of Commons by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory cabinet minister during the Thatcher and Major governments. The Progress Party, which I usually tag as ‘populist’, is the farthest right and second most popular political party in Norway. Although the FrP has become gradually more palatable, it has its roots in vehemently anti-immigrant policies. To outside observers it has been labeled as similar to Thatcherite Conservatism in the past, in left-wing Norway it has long been felt to be more akin to Le Pen’s style of nationalism.

Ms. Jensen’s speech will explain ‘How to advance stability and freedom in the 21st century – a Norwegian perspective’. Aftenposten cites the foreign policy think tank Henry Jackson Society which has arranged the event. Their media director, Alex Try, expects MPs, business leaders and other policymakers to attend, and he bills Jensen as a ‘likely future Norwegian prime minister’, and ‘Norway’s Margaret Thatcher’. Wow.

She attracted their attention for her focus on issues ‘such as terrorism and the challenges posed by a multicultural society’, according to Try. A very interesting honor for Jensen in an election year. The FrP poses a serious threat to Labour Party dominance in Norway, though the FrP continues to struggle to find an alliance partner – Thatcher still doesn’t go down well at home – and no party is about to manage a majority on its own.

On the domestic news front swine flu has given way to a more relevant concern, an ongoing E. coli outbreak that has resulted in the death of one infant and which still has authorities baffled as to its source. A major outbreak in 2006 affected 18 people, 16 of them children, and also resulted in one death.

The coverage of that outbreak, which was eventually traced to a type of cured sausage, led to a series of stomach churning revelations about hygiene standards in the Norwegian meat industry, and these wounds are being reopened, with accusations of persistent poor habits. But there are no real ‘suspects’ yet, with authorities now working on the hypothesis that the infected product is one with a long shelf life.

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