How the virtual world is helping Sheffield United's Sander Berge cope during these troubling times
In between working up a sweat on the watt bike and Fortnite sessions with old pals, Sander Berge is preparing for an important game of football between Norway and Germany.
Not a proper one of course. He won’t be forced to break any social distancing protocols, or even haul himself off the sofa which dominates the lounge of his city centre apartment.
But the midfielder, whose career at Sheffield United has been interrupted by the coronavirus crisis, admits it will go some way towards scratching his sporting itch.
“There’s four of us getting involved in it,” Berge, capped 20 times by Lars Lagerback’s side, said. “We’re going to be competing with some of the German players; someone from our women’s team, an e-sports professional and another one of the lads and myself. The people from the Norwegian FA asked us to do it because no other fixtures are going on and I told them I probably would. It’s happening on Monday or Tuesday, I think.”
Berge has been living much of his life in the virtual world for the past fortnight, ever since Chris Wilder’s squad were told to isolate at home because of the worsening health crisis. Training sessions take place over the internet while video conferencing tools including FaceTime and Zoom provide a link to friends and family back in Scandinavia who are also locked down.
As United defender Chris Basham acknowledged last week, it has been a difficult time for every member of a team which, before the fixture calendar was suspended, had climbed to seventh in the Premier League table and was getting ready to face Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. But for those from overseas, who were still adjusting to life in England when the draconian measures were announced, the break in competition has presented an extra set of challenges.
Berge, who joined United from Genk in January, believes he is psychologically equipped to confront them head on.
“If I hadn’t experienced moving before it’d be tough, if it was my first adventure outside Norway,” the 22 year-old explained via Skype. “But I’ve had 35 months alone in Belgium, knowing how to keep myself busy and enjoying my own company. Otherwise, yes, it’d be difficult.”
“I’m still in touch with people and that’s the good thing about video games and things like that,” he continued. “All of my family are safe and well and, when we play on the computer, the way things are now four or five of us can all join in at the same time.
“We play FIFA, Call of Duty and Fortnite; that’s the really popular one at the moment. So I’ve got nothing to complain about, because I am fit, I am healthy and I am a footballer playing for Sheffield United. I’m in a privileged position, really.”
Despite his upbeat outlook, the decision to temporarily halt the season could not have come at a more unfortunate time for Berge, whose £22m fee was effectively bankrolled by United’s new owners. After making his debut for the club during the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, Berge had been getting to grips with the unique demands of English football when the campaign was mothballed.
“I’ve been getting used to a new system and a new role, with 5 at the back, but I’m settling in well,” he said, acknowledging the pace of the game in this country is much quicker than the Jupiler League. “It doesn’t happen overnight, or as a miracle but day by day you pick it up more and more and think I can produce a lot with my qualities and get better every week and month. I’m looking forward to the future and feel at home. The guys have looked after me and I’ve learned a lot, a big difference, already.”
“It’s a huge difference from Belgium, more direct and the football players are in better shape,” Berge added. “In Belgium it can be so open box to box whereas here the speed to begin with felt unreal – can be too fast at times and you can get hurt by small mistakes so it’s about playing smart.
“If you lose it (the ball) in Belgium you don’t get as hurt as you can do here. You don’t have three or four seconds to make a decision here either, you have to be a lot quicker. Everyone here is fitter and stronger but when Genk got to the Champions League, I played against Liverpool so I knew how good the top (clubs) are here. That gave me an insight.”
Speaking earlier this month, Wilder insisted Berge possess both the physical attributes and the intelligence to adapt to the way things are done in this country; describing him as a “wonderful technician with a great deal of knowledge.”
Although staying in shape comes first - “Our days are still structured, because we have things to do on the bikes we have at home and then exercises and running (on treadmills) in the afternoon for the club” - Berge has also been improving his understanding of United’s culture and history.
“In a sense, this is a good time to speak to lots of people, read and listen to podcasts about us,” he said. “I have been looking even more into where we come from and what we are about, studying the background of United, because I think that’s important.”
Berge, regarded as one of the most exciting talents in Europe, was courted by clubs including Napoli and Manchester United before arriving at Bramall Lane.
His outing against Norwich City - United’s last game before the enforced hiatus - was the youngster’s fifth appearance for a side he believes boasts the expertise and the camaraderie to achieve its European objectives.
“My team mates have been very helpful and I felt very welcome from the start,” Berge said, outlining why he is happy with the choice he made. “I’m used to being a leader in the dressing room but it’s an older dressing room here, so I’m just taking my position a little bit and just learning day by day.
“It’s been a good period since I signed, I played 5 games and have been in Dubai with the boys, I’m settled in an apartment and saw the city before lockdown, so I’m very pleased.
“I’m fit, happy and a Sheffield United player in the Premier League which is a dream. So I have nothing to complain about in what is a terrible time for many people.”
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