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Arild Stavrum's killer instinct

PROLOGUE The attacker received the ball in space on the edge of the penalty box.

After a successful career in football Arild Stavrum has turned his hand to fiction. Photograph: Kirsty Anderson
After a successful career in football Arild Stavrum has turned his hand to fiction. Photograph: Kirsty Anderson

The dip of the shoulder to avoid the lunge of the defender was a matter of instinct, as was the rasping left-foot shot at goal. The keeper, who had anticipated the danger, narrowed his angles and succeeded in parrying the ball … into the path of the onrushing striker who, also acting on instinct, stabbed the ball into the net with the precision of an assassin wielding a stiletto.

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That goal, in the Scottish Cup semi-final of 2000, was one of 26 the Norwegian striker Arild Stavrum scored in 54 games for Aberdeen. It was probably the most important of his career in Scotland, sparking as it did a fightback against Hibs that propelled them to that year's final. He also laid on the winner.

I really didn't like him then. I was part of the Hibs support whose hopes he crushed. When we meet 14 years later, to talk about his burgeoning career as an author, I'm not sure what to expect, my last memory of him a haze of curly locks and arms held aloft in triumph. The hair is shorter now but the physique is virtually unaltered, and the demeanour is calm, assured.

Stavrum, 42, is succeeding in scratching his football itch by treading a path rarely followed by his fellow ex-professionals. The roar of the crowd has been supplanted by the solitary art of writing. He has had five books published in Norway. His second novel, Exposed At The Back, a crime thriller set in the world of football, has been translated into English and is published here next month.

So, is writing now as all-embracing a passion as football? "It's getting there," he admits. "I don't think you can imagine two more different professions. Soccer is physical and you're surrounded by a lots of people, and in writing you're alone. What they have in common is if you have to really commit. You have to put all of yourself into it if you want to get better at it - you have to give it everything you have.

"There's one difference, of course - if you play a bad football game you can rectify that in one week. It takes lots of time to write a book, and if that doesn't do well it takes lots of time to write another one …

"You always miss the match-day buzz, but you get close to the same feeling when the book is being launched and it's getting out there."

Just like football, though, there's a lot of hard work that has to be put in before you can experience the exhilaration of the goal. "I love making up the characters, the plot, all that part. Every writer will tell you the same: that when you come to the end of the book, when you have to go over and over it - the editing - that's the painful part. You're emotionally drained at the end."

That, then, is the equivalent of the grind of the training field. A match, though - the creative part - is a different ball game: "When you get into that mode you can sit and just write and write and write. I can write for 10 hours at a stretch. You get tunnel vision. Nothing else matters.

"It's similar in football. I remember a lot of my goals, but there's a lot I don't. I don't remember a lot of the games where I played my best. It's strange … you're totally committed, it's all in the moment. A lot of players remember their bad games, where things were not working, because you haven't been that focused."

When Stavrum's focus switched from playing - injury caused him to quit at the age of 32 - he had a spell in management in his native country, but found the politics "frustrating". So he concentrated on his writing. Always a voracious reader (when we talk, he is heavily into Iain McEwan), his first novel, a psychological study of a footballer, 31 år på gres, was published in Norway in 2008. His second, Exposed At The Back, looks likely to gain him international attention. It carries on the cover an endorsement from the hugely successful Jo Nesbo, in which the creator of Harry Hole says: "Finally, a football crime book!"

Crime - especially in Scandinavia (and for that matter, Scotland) - is a pretty crowded market. Stavrum, though, as Nesbo hints, may have found his niche. Thrillers and the beautiful game are shared passions for many, and they make perfect partners in crime, don't they?

"Yes, in the world of football there are so many foundations for a crime story. There is so much jealousy, so much money, and people wanting it so badly.

"Sometimes I think the truth is more criminal and complex than the fiction. Take the things that can happen around a big transfer, for example, where money disappears. And you only have to read about Fifa … you might say you have the biggest crime syndicate in the world there."

There are, it seems, plenty of villains to write about. In a career that has seen him play in Norway, Sweden, Scotland and Turkey, Stavrum has rubbed shoulders - often unwittingly - with more than a few. His move from Aberdeen to Istanbul-based Besiktas was not without controversy - it came as a shock to the Dons management -and he found himself in an environment where match-fixing, one of the strands of his thriller, was prevalent. "I was never offered money … but obviously something was happening.

"Recently I was planning to go to a match in Istanbul and I tried to contact a couple of people from my time there. But they were in jail, because of match-fixing."

Corruption, he says, is widespread in football, but he does not believe it is all-pervading. He could sense it in Turkey, but not when he played in Sweden or, thankfully, Scotland. But there is no room for complacency. "In Norway a journalist criticised me for writing about this stuff, then three months after the release of the book there was a match-fixing scandal, so it can happen.

"I'm happy to be highlighting this problem. Football is a beautiful game, and I hate people who steal from it."

I chip in the thought that this should bring the talk round to the subject of agents - Exposed At The Back centres on the murder of a high-powered member of the breed. Stavrum traps it neatly.

"There are so many bad seeds. I know of a few exceptions, but I can't see why football lets this happen. Why don't we just hire lawyers? I get that a player needs help to understand a contract, stuff like that, but the agent shouldn't get so much of the money and he shouldn't be able to own players. Agents have to be licensed, but that's not a problem, because they just hire someone who has one."

In Norway, there was the case of Rune Hauge. "They took away his licence [Fifa banned him for life following allegations of corruption involving the then Arsenal manager George Graham, later reduced to two years' suspension]. Then a few years later the Norwegian Football Association hired him to negotiate their television deals. It's incredible."

It turns out that match-fixing was not the only way in which life imitated art. The heroine in Exposed At The Back is a survivor of leukemia. During the writing of the book, Stavrum's wife Lisbet (they have a son, Ole, seven) developed cancer. Happily, she is now fully recovered. He wrote a book about that experience, too - a forensic examination of what happens on the outskirts of an illness.

Lisbet had followed Stravrum to Aberdeen, where, to coin a phrase, life was fine and dandy. "I have only fond memories of Aberdeen. It was easy to get along with people there," he recalls. "I come from a small town in Norway [Kristiansund] that has a lot to do with the oil industry. It's on the coast and there's lots wind and rain, so Aberdeen is very similar.

"Lisbet loved it there, too. We had a lot of friends there we still keep in touch with. If I were to decide to move permanently to another country, Scotland would be such an obvious choice, because the mentality of the people is very similar."

He won't move, of course. Things are going too well in Norway for that. He has followed up his crime thriller with a couple of books aimed at children (he will return to crime, though - he enjoys being able to write in a different voice). He has stayed in the world of football, conjuring up a fantasy about one of his heroes. "It's about generations. My generation, we have grown up with Maradona, we think he was the world's best player. But my son's generation, they will say it's Messi, or Ronaldo. So this is about the argument between generations.

"I was writing this really serious story [following Lisbet's cancer], and I was writing a children's book at the same time. And this gave me a bit of release. The children's story was such a positive thing, about what happens when children play football. Its title translates as Maradona's Magic. The second one is Maradona's Goal and I've started to write the third one - this is going to be a three-book series. The first is doing quite well in Norway. It's been taken into the biggest book club for children.

"I'm enjoying it. The difference between writing for adults and writing for children is that you get to meet so much more of your readers than with an adult book. In the next month I'll be going to a school for a day and I'll meet 400 students."

Their parents will know all about him, of course? "Yeah, they do. But the kids have no idea. But that's good and it's fascinating. Everybody's heard about Maradona, but there their knowledge will stop."

Young Ole, of course, knows all about his father's career. He was fairly indifferent to football - until this summer. "This year his interest has exploded due to the World Cup and he's now playing football all the time. But I'm not pushy when it comes to this. This was my thing, it doesn't have to be his."

If Ole did want to be a professional footballer, what advice would he give him? "I would say to get the most out of it, to experience different places. For me the biggest thing that I got out of football was I travelled a lot. I've seen a lot of places, met a lot of people; I've lived in four countries.

"It's been a fantastic experience and I would be a totally different person if it wasn't for that. But I think I would recommend to him that no matter what he was doing, he should study abroad, just get out there."

And what about himself? If he hadn't become a professional footballer at an early age? "I think I would have tried to be a doctor. But I also love to write, so that would have come as well. I loved school, so I would have gone into some academic career."

Arild Stavrum, you suspect, would have made a fine doctor. Just so long as nobody tried to get him to stick to one specialism. n

Exposed At The Back is published by Freight Books on September 8, priced £14.99.

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