Born in Veme, not too far from Norway’s capital Oslo, Erik Hagen played his first senior seasons for local clubs Jevnaker and Hønefoss before taking the step to the Norwegian top flight, Tippeligaen, and Strømsgodset in 1998, a club located in Drammen a few kilometres outside of Oslo. Here, Hagen stayed for two years before eventually leaving the club after they got relegated in 2000 to try his luck in the capital with Vålerenga.
Hagen quickly gained popularity at Vålerenga for being the toughest man on the pitch and it earned him the nickname “Panzer” or “Panzer-Hagen”, after the German word for armour or tank, by both fans and the media.
After some successful seasons on the pitch, winning the Norwegian Cup in 2002 and finishing second in the league in his last season, Panzer-Hagen moved to Zenit St. Petersburg in January of 2005, at the age of 29.
Panzer became the first Norwegian to ever play in Russian football, but his stay in St. Petersburg didn’t get off to the best of starts. At his first training session, the team didn’t have any training kit for him so he couldn’t participate. Luckily for Hagen it was only a light jogging session so he didn’t miss much. Instead he spent three hours in an office signing work permit papers.
As soon as he took the field though, he immediately left his mark. He made his debut against Dynamo Moscow in the first game of the 2005 season in March at home at Petrovsky Stadium, and he went to play every single game bar two in his debut season.
At the time Hagen moved to Zenit, they were far from today’s powerhouse. Managed by Czech Vlastimil Petrzela they played some wonderfully attacking football, which was however also very naïve, and after he led Zenit to second place in his debut season in 2003, the results were getting worse and worse. In 2005 they finished 6th, which was far from enough for Gazprom who bought the club shortly after the season ended.
In the squad, however, there were numerous talented players, among these Igor Denisov, Andrey Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Martin Škrtel who would all go to become key players later on.
In the young team, Panzer-Hagen was one of the experienced leaders, and he continued to impress in the 2006 season, only missing a handful of games as Zenit finished fourth. Halfway through the season, Petrzela was replaced by Dick Advocaat as the Czech failed to deliver the results demanded. Zenit finished the season in a strong manner, and eventually reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup before losing to Sevilla the following spring.
In both his first seasons at Zenit Panzer was named as part of the Russian Football Union’s prestigious list of the top 33 players in the league, three for each position.
Then came the 2007 season and the start of the downfall for Hagen. After becoming the team’s vice captain in 2006 he captained the side for five games at the beginning of the season. Zenit’s captain was originally Arshavin, but after he was caught partying Advocaat took the honour from him. His replacement, Vladislav Radimov later lost the captain’s band after he got into a fight with teammate Fernando Ricksen during a pre-season friendly, which left Hagen with the responsibility.
“It is impossible to say for how long I’ll be team captain because things happen quickly in Russian football,” Hagen told VG after becoming captain in April. And he was was right.
Because just a few months later came the July transfer window, where Zenit began investing heavily in the squad, and from KAA Gent in Belgium came Nicolas Lombaerts. After a short period of adjustment for the young Belgian it became clear that the Zenit management wanted to pair Lombaerts with the younger Martin Skrtel, rather than the older and more experienced Panzer, now 32 years old.
He didn’t play a single league game for Zenit from September to the end of the season in November. He did feature twice for Zenit in the UEFA Cup however, as he played the full 90 minutes in a 3-0 win over Standard Liège and he had a half-hour cameo in a 1-0 loss to Everton at Goodison Park.
Lombaerts’ arrival had effectively killed Panzer-Hagen’s Zenit career.
Then came the January transfer window and immediately came a chance that Hagen could not say no to. Out in the cold, literally, at Zenit, Premier League club Wigan came in and wanted Panzer on loan with a view to a permanent deal in the summer.
But things did not work out well for him in England.
Being far from match fit when he arrived at the JJB Stadium he wasn’t named in any of Steve Bruce’s first five match squads. When it looked like he might be ready for action Panzer got injured and thanks to a strained groin he had to sit out the next six matches as well.
In the end, Panzer-Hagen only turned out once for Wigan, in a 2-0 loss to Portsmouth where he was subbed off after 73 minutes and never played again for the English club. Meanwhile, Zenit made history as they won the 2008 UEFA Cup.
When he returned to Zenit in the summer, after both he and Wigan agreed that nothing more was going to come of the partnership, he once again found himself out of favour. He spoke to Norwegian national newspaper VG about his situation in the middle of June: “I have other offers, and I’ve already been in negotiations with a couple of clubs. Norway is out of the question right now. I’ve said that I want to be abroad a couple of more years.”
Panzer never played for Zenit again and just over a month after he spoke to VG, on the 28th of July, he was announced as having signed for his old club Vålerenga.
After returning to Norway Panzer never quite found his old level that saw him capped 28 times for the national team and score a stunning overhead-kick in a match against Greece, and even though he was loved by the Vålerenga fans he moved back to another old club, Hønefoss, in 2010. Just a year later he moved back to Jevnaker and saw out his career that ended in 2013.
After his retirement, Panzer revealed that his hip had been damaged as early as in 1993-94 but that it hadn’t become a problem until he went to Vålerenga in 2000. He told local paper Ringerikes Blad that he had his hip replaced in 2012 and “ate painkillers several times a day and had been doing so for over ten years.”
He also pointed a finger at the medical staff at Zenit: “Zenit had eight masseurs and one doctor, but no medical follow-ups. There you were told to go home, get well, and then come back when you were.”
Nevertheless, a man who can play at that level for that long with a busted hip is a tough nail to crack.
Hagen’s post-Russia tales
Since coming home from Russia Panzer-Hagen has told the Norwegian media some quite amazing stories from his time there, and they do not paint a pretty picture.
In his first match for Zenit against Dinamo Moscow on a cold day in March, Panzer played well but ended up breaking the leg of Dynamo’s Cicero. Cicero, who was dark-skinned, was stretchered off and put down by the side-line to receive treatment. What he then saw, shocked him.
“He lay out there and from the stands it rained down with snowballs and bananas towards him” Hagen recalled in an interview with Norwegian national paper Dagbladet, in 2012.
“They really went for the “white power” thing and all that. I was as white as a sheet and had no hair on my head.”
Not a good first impression by the Zenit faithful.
Hagen quickly denied any kind of talk about racism on his behalf to the press after the game. “I told them immediately that there were no such motives and that hard tackles were just a part of my playing-style.”
Another story that also gained international attention came in 2014 when Panzer-Hagen and former Rubin Kazan player Jørgen Jalland both came forward and admitted to having been part of or witnessing things that could be classified as match-fixing.
Hagen said: “It seemed like it was decided in advance who was going to win the league.”
He recalls a UEFA Cup game: “One of our players knew the referee. That in itself was dubious enough.”
“We had some insane bonuses for a win in Europe, $12,000. Before the match this player says that we should give $3000 of our bonus to the ref, so that we’d win.”
Hagen, being one to speak his mind, didn’t want to do that: “I stood up and said that this was some f***ing piss, and that we were better than them anyway. Yet the players decided to go ahead with it.
According to Panzer the opposition was robbed of four goals after strange offside calls. After the match the temperature was high in the Zenit dressing room: “The opposition was pissed off and so was I. I flipped completely and broke mirrors and doors.”
But Hagen, like all the others, paid the $3000. He felt like he had achieved something by his outburst of anger however, as one other player came over to him and said that it should never happen again.
Both the referee and Zenit has denied all claims of this since then and nothing has come of the story Hagen has told.
Despite the racism and bribery claims, Panzer-Hagen enjoyed his stay in Russia.
“No, listen, it’s never nice with stuff like that [the racism from Zenit fans]. But I had a fantastic and great stay there.” He told Dagbladet in the interview about racism at Zenit.
Other than these two stints in the media Hagen has retreated from the public spotlight – he isn’t an expert on TV, or a professional coach anywhere. He lives his life back in his childhood town of Veme and has recently been involved in successfully saving the football pitch that he played on when he was a kid. It was supposed to be sold to finance a better Astroturf pitch for a pitch ten kilometres away.
A tough man on the pitch, but a man with a heart of gold, who believes in doing the right thing off it.
Author: Ola Bjerkevoll
Norwegian sports journalist student in England. Lover of all football, from Germany to Tonga and everything else