“You are suffering from a double soul,” a faith healer once told Arild Berg. “A dead man’s soul went astray and entered your body. Now it has to look after two souls and it is only natural that you have no energy left. If I remove his soul then everything is going to be fine.” “His soul?” Berg responded with a smile. “If you are going to remove a soul here I would prefer it to be mine. I am quite tired of it.”
It says much about Berg that he was still able to draw on his self-deprecating humour because at that stage in his life he had been looking for a solution to a medical condition that afflicted him for more than 12 years. Berg had gone from being the most talented Norwegian footballer of his generation to a man with a single aim: to find out what was wrong with him.
Berg was born into a footballing dynasty in 1975. His father, Harald Berg, had won 43 caps for Norway between 1964 and 1974 and played alongside Dick Advocaat for Den Haag in the Netherlands. Arild’s two elder brothers, Ørjan and Runar, went on to represent their country too and had long and distinguished careers in Norway and abroad.
But Arild was the most talented of them all. “Arild Berg was well known as a footballing phenomenon long before breaking into the first squad at Bodø/Glimt,” recalls the TV2 football pundit Per Angell Berntsen.
Stian Høgland from the Bodø-based newspaper Avisa Nordland says Arild possessed “incredible technique and great vision. It felt like he always had more time than others on the pitch. His style could be compared to that of Andrés Iniesta.” Høgland’s colleague Freddy Toresen remembers: “His left foot was absolutely amazing – dangerous from any distance. Arild may have left the defensive work to his teammates, but his attacking qualities were unique.”
For the uninitiated, there is a YouTube clip of Berg in a small sports hall, just him and a tennis ball, showing off his technique. He made his first team debut for Bodø/Glimt in Norway’s top division at the age of 17 wearing Harry Potter-style glasses, and quickly went on to become one of the league’s best players over the next three years.
Every top club in Norway wanted him but then, in 1996, he suddenly retired. It was as if Michael Owen, or any other top footballer at the height of their powers for that matter, had quit football at the age of 20 for no apparent reason. Berg said long afterwards that he needed to regain his passion for football, to find out whether it was his true love. Advertisement
That quest to recover his passion for the game led him to try around 15 different sports, including snowboarding and diving. But after a year he was ready to return. “I got tired of losing in tennis every other day. I wanted to win again,” he told Bodø Nu in 2018.
However, his return was surprising, as he joined the Nordland club Gevir Bodø in the third tier. That season he enthralled the local fans with his outlandish skills and seemed happy again but that year, 1997, was also the year he recognised that something did not feel right. “I remember sitting in the dressing room after the last game of the season,” he told Recovery Norway. “We won but I was sitting in a corner and my heart rate would just not go down. It just carried on at 160. And that was just the start.”
He rejoined Bodø/Glimt in 1998 but his body was shutting down and he was forced to train less and less. The following year he practically did no training at all, only turning out for games, but his talent was so precocious that he was still widely considered the best player in Norway’s top division. As Berntsen says: “It was quite remarkable that Arild was the best player in Norway during the 1999 season because he was playing for a mid-table club while Rosenborg were at their absolute peak, dominating in Norway and even doing well in the Champions League. And he did this despite being ill and not training.”
Berg’s condition – at this stage undiagnosed – gradually deteriorated. At one point he had lost 15kg, dropping from 75 to 60kg. He signed for Lyn, the club where his father once won the league, for a fresh start but was forced to retire at the age of 25. By this stage he was travelling around the world trying to find someone who could accurately diagnose what was ailing him. Suggestions that he was suffering from mercury poisoning proved to be incorrect. “I spent about two million kroner [more than £180,000] on doctors and various healers for more than a decade,” Berg told Bodø Nu last year.
For a long time he harboured hopes of returning to competitive football but when the reason for his struggles was finally identified his dream was cruelly dashed. Football, it turned out, was in many ways the cause of his illness. In 2005 Berg was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. The medical condition, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis – or more commonly, ME – can be caused by a myriad of factors but for Berg it became apparent that football, and the attendant stress that it brought, was the main reason.
Ironically, considering he had travelled the world seeking a cure, it was a local doctor, Arne Stenstrøm, who identified the problem. Stenstrøm, himself diagnosed with ME, was able to recognise the problems Berg was facing and after several meetings, told the former footballer in 2009 that he had to cut all ties with football.
For Berg it suddenly all made sense. “I said goodbye to football,” he told Recovery Norway. “I deleted any trace of it. Football had triggered the illness. I kept away from all football in the media and distanced myself from friends who wrote about football on Facebook. In the summer of 2010 I tried to watch a World Cup game but when I did there was a violent sense of stress and the old symptoms came back to me. But this time I knew why I felt like I did. There was no mystique. I knew what I had to do and it quickly disappeared.”
Berg explained why he had ME and his brothers did not: “From when I was a kid I had trained twice as much as everyone else. Since my father and my brothers had achieved so much on the pitch it is possible that I always had this pressure on me. But as I have understood it, the stress was as much triggered by the excitement and enthusiasm. And an expectation of something that I could possibly achieve. What happened with me was that I was never turned off.”
Berg was gradually able to rebuild his life. He was happier, was able to exercise again and, perhaps most importantly, was able to help other ME sufferers through his experiences and ability to identify with them. But Berg encountered other problems – and in June he took his own life, aged 43.
His passing serves as a reminder that with great talent comes pressure that some find impossible to manage. “We all want to be gifted but that doesn’t suit everyone,” wrote Berntsen after Berg’s death. “For Arild Berg, his incredible talent was also his curse. It is much easier to be average, because you don’t have to live with high expectations – not just those of others, but first and foremost your own.”