KFUM in Oslo prove money isn't everything in football

Johannes Moesgaard is not a coach with access to a big budget or cutting-edge facilities. He doesn't have the best players or the resources to sign better ones. He is, though, in charge of a team on the up -- and he has a message for the rest of football.

KFUM-Kameratene Oslo is the sports branch of the local YMCA in Oslo, Norway. By Moesgaard's own admission, KFUM are a club with very little, but that hasn't stopped them from steadily climbing the divisions and, last season, winning promotion to Norway's top flight for the first time in their 85-year history. After beating Skeid in November to clinch promotion, Moesgaard gave an impassioned speech on the pitch.

"When we started the year, I thought that you just have to get through the summer and hope you have a job," he roared, a reference to KFUM's failure to win any of their first six games of the season. "It is the greatest achievement made by a group of players in modern times in Norwegian football. It shouldn't be possible. It shouldn't be possible at all."

In the six months since, Moesgaard has had time to reflect on what his team has done. And so back to his message, which he shared with ESPN in an exclusive interview: "In football, money isn't everything."

He doesn't have far to look to prove his point.
Valerenga, traditionally Oslo's biggest club with its own 17,000-seater stadium and playing UEFA Champions League football as recently as 2006, were relegated as KFUM were promoted, and so Moesgaard's team is Oslo's only representative in the top division. The gulf between the two clubs is stark, but the biggest difference is that one is playing in Eliteserien this season and the other is not.

"Valerenga have all the facilities and a big stadium," Moesgaard told ESPN. "They are a big club and the players earn proper money -- millions of Norwegian Krone a year. We're such a small club. People would be shocked if they visited us. We've got a very small budget compared to everyone else. We believe in creating an environment which isn't built on money."

KFUM -- or Kristelig forening for unge menn -- haven't got a choice but to do things differently. Not that long ago, they were an amateur team playing in Norway's regional leagues before promotion to the third tier in 2008. It has not been an overnight rise, but rather a steady progression.

A shock promotion in 2015 to Norway's second tier (known as 1. divisjon) was followed by instant relegation and a return to the third-tier 2. divisjon. They went back up to the second tier in 2019, and after five seasons and a couple of close calls, they've reached the top-tier Eliteserien, earning their place alongside the big boys for the 2024 season.

"KFUM have been on the brink of promotions in the last few years and last year they were finally able to pull it off," journalist Lars Magnus Igland Roys told ESPN. "It's the first time in their history, which is incredible. There's no comparison in terms of budget, KFUM's budget is miles away. What they have done is quite remarkable really."

No one has seen more change at KFUM than captain Robin Rasch. He was still a student when he arrived in 2016, and until the pandemic hit in 2020, he had a job with the club's academy alongside his role in KFUM's midfield.

"From 2016 until now, it's been a big change," Rasch told ESPN. "It's much more professional now than it was when I first came. When I first came, we were coming to training and coming directly to the pitch. Some guys would come a little bit late. Our captain would arrive on a motorbike and park on the pitch."

Promotion to the Eliteserien has meant extra money coming in from KFUM's share of media rights -- an increase of around 6.5 million Norwegian Krone ($620,000) -- although most of it has been used to compensate players who still had second jobs as recently as last season.

"Last year, a lot of our players were working night shifts, so when they came to training, they came straight from working a night shift," Moesgaard said. "This year, with the extra money we got from the association, we've used that to give them the extra money so they can stay and train. Last year we trained at 9 a.m. and some of them were going straight to work afterwards. The extra money gives them the chance to stay after training and get some food."

Even with the increased revenue, KFUM are way behind their rivals in the Eliteserien. Their yearly budget is around 28 million Norwegian Krone ($2.5 million) with players earning around 7,000 to 8,000 Norwegian Krone ($645 to $735) a month. Other Norwegian top-flight teams offer monthly salaries of 100,000 Norwegian Krone ($9,000).

The financial discrepancy has forced KFUM to be smart with their recruitment of players and take some calculated risks. On their tight budget they can also afford two full-time coaches, a full-time sport director and one full-time physio, but beyond that, the club's staff is limited to a part-time goalkeeper coach and part-time analysts, as well as some casual help with marketing and communications.

"We've taken players from lower divisions who we can get as cheap as possible," Moesgaard said. "We find small details in their play that we think we can develop. Then it's about making them a unit.

"We can't pick players who have everything in order. We try to find the players who have something. Maybe he's very fast but lacks a bit of intelligence with the ball, maybe he lacks a little bit of the attitude. We think we can change these things. We try to find the things they are very good at and we think we're good at handling players individually."

Former Norwegian international defender Haitam Aleesami was picked up on a free transfer in the summer. Midfielder Simen Hestnes arrived in 2022 having spent time at college in the United States with Xavier in the Big East, and Adam Saldaña has recently arrived from the LA Galaxy.

"We see potential in players when other clubs don't think they're good enough," Moesgaard said. "I believe we can change attitudes in players by giving them confidence and trust and respect."

Los Angeles native Saldaña and Senegalese forward Mame Mor Ndiaye are the only players in the squad not from Norway.

Johannes Nuñez, born in Oslo to a Chilean mother, was the top scorer last season with 10 goals and has four already this term, including one in a creditable 2-2 draw at top-of-the-table Bodo/Glimt in May.

"Our scouting has been good," Rasch said. "We've had to pick players up from lower divisions and develop them. Our sporting director has been really good at spotting talent in nearby districts in lower divisions and we've been able to develop them.

"For sure, everyone would like to play for bigger clubs with better facilities, but we have to do the best with what we've got. We've been pretty good at doing that."

It's far from an even playing field for KFUM, but you wouldn't know it looking at their results this season. After 11 Eliteserien games, they've lost only twice, winning three and drawing six.

The 0-0 draw with Brann in April was the first game played at their refurbished home stadium, which has undergone improvements costing 20 million Norwegian Krone ($1.8 million) to make sure it's up to code to host top-division games.

Spectator capacity has almost doubled to 3,200, and for the first time the club has a section of around 1,100 seats under a roof. New floodlights have also been installed to satisfy the requirements of TV2, the Eliteserien's domestic broadcast partner, as have a new media tower and portable VAR screens.

It doesn't mean KFUM have lost the feel of a small club in a big league, though -- on match days, traffic has to be stopped to allow players to cross the road running between the locker rooms and the pitch.

Bodo/Glimt, who beat Jose Mourinho's AS Roma 6-1 in the Europa Conference League in 2021, will visit at the end of July. Molde, Erling Haaland's former club and once managed by ex-Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, will visit in September. KFUM are growing in popularity and, after attracting crowds of between 600 and 700 last season, their game against Brann sold out in 75 minutes.

"Bodo/Glimt and Molde make hundreds of millions of Norwegian Krone from playing in Europe," Roys said. "KFUM's budget is miles away from theirs. It will comfortably be the smallest budget in the league. I think most of the predictions will have them in the relegation places. They've never been in the league before, they've got the smallest budget and they're the smallest club. But in Norway, you never know."

Bodo/Glimt and Molde have already established themselves among the leaders, but for KFUM it's so far so good as they sit seventh in the 16-team league on 15 points. Crucially, they are already six points clear of the bottom two.

"I think we can stay up," Rasch said. "There are five or six top teams in the league but the next 10 or 11 are pretty close. Absolutely there's a chance of us staying up.

"It's hard work. That's all. For us, that's what we strive for. Of course, when you see the players and the teams we compete against and see what they have and what we don't have, it's a motivation for us."

Regardless of how the rest of the season goes -- whether they stay up or go back down -- Moesgaard argues that KFUM have already won.

"You hear coaches often giving excuses, but we have nothing compared to them," he said. "Hopefully we have shown other teams -- not just in Norway -- that it's possible. Luton Town have made it to the Premier League, and we need these things in modern football. We put an emphasis on culture and togetherness. In the end, money isn't everything."