A land of relentless, if modest, innovation and integrity, Denmark serves as a welcome addition and an integral aspect of only the second tri-Nordic representation at a World Cup tournament this summer. Encapsulated within their material identity – the slogan En Del af Noget Større, translating as ‘A part of something bigger’, sewn reverentially into their apparel for Russian exploits – an ancient and universally conscious philosophy, coveted throughout national history, will descend upon their first forays into a much-altered international scene since underwhelming 2010-2012 group stage exits.
This summer, competitive admission will be of no small importance for all involved in the Dansk Boldspil-Union’s (DBU) fortunes. On face value, the equation is simple; intermittent modern qualifiers deemed beyond their mid-1990s peak, the oft-devalued Danes aim to affirm internal reform in only their fifth World Cup finals appearance. Delving deeper, however, the idiosyncratic value of Danish sporting, and more so social, toils unveils numerous evident investments that must pay off.
Pre-emptive misconceptions of local destinies will doubtless be rewritten in 2018. Embracing the fulsome assets a politically accountable migration policy allows for, the true ethnic diversity – though paling to the circumstances of many fellow UEFA qualifiers – of a culturally remodifying North Sea peninsula will first come to the fore for a Danish, and arguably Scandinavian, squad on the most prestigious stage conceivable. Near-lifelong English resident Kasper Schmeichel, respectively Albanian and Gambian-derived full-back Riza Durmisi and centre-back Mathias Jørgensen, Ugandan-born talisman Pione Sisto (of South Sudanese heritage) and Guyanese, Tanzanian and Ivorian-fathered strikers Martin Braithwaite, Yussuf Poulsen and Kenneth Zohore each feature in and amongst the DBU’s Norwegian helmsman Åge Hareide’s relatively formative regime as second-generation, or in Schmeichel’s enigmatic case distanced, nationals at the forefront of patriotic selection. Not only that, but theirs forays in elite European club competitions consolidate personal entrepreneurship, and Danish youth institutions, as rivalling any throughout UEFA’s ranks.
Though renewed, the Danish will be far from unrecognisable in Russia. Unapologetic in their reliance on a long-serving spine (consisting of Schmeichel, captain Simon Kjær, defensive midfielder William Kvist, the 77-time-capped Christian Eriksen and cult hero Nicklas Bendtner, who has himself amassed 81 appearances), De Rød-Hvide’s – Red-Whites – legacy from former steward Morten Olsen is in equal respects honourable, both to the heralded coach and his former players, and indicative, perhaps, of a relatively shallow talent pool. Though perhaps reasonable when drawing from minimal demographic capacity – a population of roughly 5.8 million entering as the sixth lowest of all competing nations this summer, while Index Mundi assesses nearly 20% of this as an over-65 demographic – prior minnow achievements render this rhetoric obsolete; amongst those below them this summer by population, 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica, two-time victors Uruguay and, fresh from a QF exit in Euro 2016, this year’s debutants Iceland.
Before being deposed amidst failure to reach an expanded Euro 2016, Olsen had, in the context of the modern era, maintained patriotic pre-eminence for an inconceivable age. So fleeting was the ultimate closure of his managerial reign, when ousted by Sweden, or more noticeably Zlatan Ibrahimović, in an underwhelming late-2015 qualification play-off, that the 45 years, albeit intermittently, spent in various guises pivotal to the DBU struck onlookers as both unduly abrupt and insincerely emotional. Though deprived of a fitting send-off, the then-66-year-old would nonetheless recognise, given all of his service, the priority of the nation above any one individual. Results long since awry, and questions of succession ever-intensifying, the incomparable incumbent was dethroned, chiefly, with the dignity he deserved.
Not a single figure involved in Danish football would forego the service Olsen had extended, however, when recounting where his reign was upended. Captain, as for roughly half of his 102-cap international career, of the nation’s first ever World Cup squad in 1986, in addition to only the nation’s second and third European Championship contingents of 1984 and ’88, in his first managerial task leading Brøndby to consecutive Danish league titles, and almost the 1990-91 UEFA Cup final, with a squad that featured through four members – John ‘Faxe’ Jensen, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte and Mogens Krogh – in the renowned events of Euro 1992 and since the very turn of the millennium permanently entangled with every act the DBU persevered through, he had long since been cemented as the absolute national pinnacle. Never equipped with the technical prowess of the trailblazing Finn Laudrup, and alienated by era, moreover, by the striker’s finely-tuned and inherently privileged offspring – brothers Michael and Brian – alongside fellow profiteers of Laudrup Snr’s pioneering early-1970s exploits in Ajax midfield alumni Jan Mølby, Jesper Olsen and Søren Lerby and fellow one-time Manchester United full-back John Sivebæk; even in spite of his disadvantaged physical qualities, the Vordingborg-born defensive midfielder remained steadfast as an imperceptible, straight-laced icon of patriotic tradition throughout. Even today, fascination around the innermost contextual factors of such a career ensure its enduring appeal.
Belying the relationship Olsen grew with son Michael as manager, and later colleague, of arguably the nation’s finest ever product, Finn Laudrup affirmed a reputation as the total antipathy to Olsen at a time of great change within Scandinavian, and even European, football. A prodigy born into post-war Frederiksberg – the affluent enclave of Copenhagen, formerly a flagship Danish Royal residency – Laudrup had joined local 2nd Division outfit Vanløse as a 17-year-old and impressed sufficiently not only to be able to surrender his right to national team recognition by becoming a professional overseas, but also to trust his promise; having just turned 23, signing for Austria’s historic and highly respected Wiener Sport-Club. Firing them to consecutive runners-up finishes in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 Austrian Football Championship, he returned an icon to grace the gentrified Danish capital in the form of Brønshøj, a relatively lucrative stint as player-manager of an ambitious yet relatively unknown nine-year-old Brøndby and a four-year employment at Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (KB), where coincidentally 1st Division titles were won two seasons prior, and a season hence, from his involvement, and followed by Michael at the latter outfit, his legacy was sealed.
As aforementioned, Olsen lacked the testimony of an outstanding goalscoring contribution, and furthermore the background, to ever dazzle the realms of professionalism. Tucked inside the various southern archipelagos at the base of the nation’s largest island Zealand, the sleepy ferry town of Vordingborg – though then harbouring a second player of national team pedigree in Birger Pedersen, who made his debut only two matches earlier in 1970 – remains far more famous for its ties to national stately history in the formation of its imposing Castle as the foremost defensive fortress of expansive 12th century tendencies. Plying his trade as a local amateur until B 1901 – now Nykøbing FC – elevated him to 1st Division football as a winger-turned-midfielder at the relatively delayed age almost of 21, certain talents were not left externally unnoticed and, when recommended by Rød-Hvide teammate Benny Nielsen, by 1972, Cercle Brugge recruited his services.
In a similarly amateur Belgian First Division, where he would eventually entertain 12 years of his playing career, the fundamental principles of Olsen’s approach flourished while employed in a flexible variance of positions; following Nielsen to reigning champions Racing White Daring (RWD) Molenbeek in 1976 before, again in a delayed pursuit of Nielsen, joining Anderlecht in 1980. Professionalisation was now in full flow, both in his native and adopted homelands. Entrusted with a retracted libero role in triple-title-winning manager Tomislav Ivić’s seismic strategy, he played a key role in the club’s 1983 UEFA Cup final victory before a missed spot-kick, when stepping up first, in the deciding penalty shoot-out of the subsequent season’s final against Tottenham proved decisive. Nonetheless promoted to Brussels-based captaincy in a squad that would feature closely in Belgium’s captivating 1986 World Cup campaign, his seemingly unperturbed consistency – even at the age of 36 – saw the Danish captain close out his playing days, still in elite-quality fashion, with third and second-place finishes for Köln in the final years of an exclusively West German Bundesliga.
Whereas Laudrup’s 19 caps – the first achieved only three years before his seldom-concurrent teammate entered the fray – were splintered by overseas professional commitments (at the time opposing DBU selection requirements), and fame evidently employed to gain his sons a foothold in the sport (pivotal in enabling the elder Michael with youth coaching at former employers Vanløse and, more inconspicuously, for Brøndby when player-manager in the south-west suburbs of Copenhagen), then, there is little comparison to be had between the two. Despite their ideological diversions – one bullishly challenging policies, the other teetering around the edge of such parameters from emblematic honours – however, a single and irrevocable status adjoins them; the innovative pursuit of long-bereft global relevance, still unfolding today, at club and national level placing them forever in the fulcrum of their homeland’s history. Only one, however, could ever court post-retirement favour.
Once the conceited and self-effacing, albeit idealistic, DBU selection policy had been modified with Laudrup’s high-profile extortion serving as a catalytic act and culturally pivotal brand Carlsberg investing heavily in the transition, in the early 1970s, the adaptation undertaken by top-class Danish clubs was understandably gradual, and unfortunately saw the casualty of many. Twice national champions, B 1909 (named after the year of their formation) never again held aloft the 1st Division trophy after their 1964 triumph, and fellow Odense outfit B 1913 failed to ever amount to more than consecutive second-place league results in 1962 and ’63; when both merging with Dalum IF in 2006 to form FC Fyn, little of the conglomerate’s desired success arose, and by 2013 the outfit was disbanded. Similarly, Copenhagen’s B 1903 and aforementioned KB – stalled on seven and fifteen Danish titles, respectively, since 1980 – resorted to a merger in 1992, as the Danish Superliga was formed. Perhaps inherent when bestowed by prolific forefathers, their shared vision achieved unrivalled modern success – not only retaining, but expanding public backing, targeting annual continental qualification and most pivotally seizing upon the redevelopment of the national stadium to gain permanent accommodation at the Parken Stadium – all under a now immediately familiar guise; FC København.
What sacrifice was this? Forcibly evicted from amateur roots and left to fend alone for the first instance in their history, these clubs – traditionally multi-sport, community-focused organisations such as Denmark’s oldest KB, having been formed in 1876, and Akademisk Boldklub Gladsaxe (AB), an 1889 institution originally representing Copenhagen’s universities, who fell from nine-time champions to recent yo-yoing between 1st and 2nd Divisions – would scarcely compete for national honours ever again. The reticence, and ultimate demise, of some while cynical Brøndby were fired to 1980s dominance, the DNU considered, would prove a small price to pay for eventual continental engagement. Once again, reminiscent of their entry into Olympic Games previous, they were at the top table of international competition; cemented with 1986’s qualification, and furthermore with group stage victories against the established forces of Uruguay, Scotland and ’82 runners-up West Germany before being blown out the water by Spain’s Emilio Butragueño in one of only seven individual four, or more, goal returns in a single World Cup match to date.
Internal instability was the next issue to be remedied. Revealing of the theory behind granting København ongoing occupation of Parken Stadium, the DBU desperately need to reconcile and uncover reliable hope in traditionally inferior, but eminently investable, outfits. As championship rebranding demonstrated the path relevant powers could not now renege on, the unstoppable drive of European, poignantly post-Communist dissolution, capitalism caught up; after Brøndby had ended triumphant in five of the final seven years of the 1st Division’s utmost structural position and Olsen departed as coach, Lyngby, København, Silkeborg and Aalborg (AaB) were awarded the first four league honours of a revamped era. Admittedly, near-terminal economic factors had debilitated the overly-ambitious Drengene Fra Vestegnen (boys from the western outskirts) with Interbank’s purchase of the club in 1992 collapsing after an unexpected European Cup qualification exit and a backup Hafnia Insurance bid marred by bankruptcy; only in 1996 was footing truly regained.
In the intermittent two decades, the shared ambition of global investors has only found more profound influence on the fate of Danish club football. Amidst Londoner Matthew Benham’s statistically-literate chairmanship at regular Europa League fare FC Midtjylland and Mancunian coach-turned-philanthropist Tom Vernon’s takeover at similar continental over-performers FC Nordsjaelland, while rumours swirl of both Brighton & Hove Albion’s Tony Bloom and Aston Villa’s Tony Xia’s aspirations of salvaging Lyngby from potential administration this term, they are assured of multinational relevance, with each an invaluable encapsulation of the appeal of a relatively stable competitive field.
The predominant force, meanwhile, of the 21st century, København – with 11 of 17 post-millennium titles achieved – have buttressed their ties with the national team through increasingly recurrent Champions League appearances and astute managerial appointments. In 2000, Roy Hodgson, then prised for his former involvements in central and northern Europe with Malmo, Inter Milan and the Swiss national team, set the cycle of championship achievements into motion; following his swift avail, Swede Hans Backe and former Norwegian international Ståle Solbakken advancing club philosophies over the subsequent decade. Reneging on such expectations during the latter’s misjudged spells with Köln and Wolverhampton Wanderers, finally his return fell into place in 2013; two more Superliga crowns emphasising potential stagnation in domestic affairs, but 2017-18 falling flat in what may prove an unenviable end to Solbakken’s second five-year managerial tenure.
It was in the very midst of Danish domestic revolution – Odense and Copenhagen, the chief footballing harbours, sacrificing history for finance – tangibly, that the Premier League, unified Bundesliga and Champions League arose from the socially muddied waters of an FA-suffocated English First Division, solely West German capitalist luxuries and a tired European Cup. Less so the political implications of war-torn Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Swedish-hosted Euro 1992, nor even a Boris Yeltsin-helmed Commonwealth of Independent States’ qualification and a reunified Germany’s first international competition, the undertones of Danish victory – regularly emphasised as achieved amidst the elimination of 1990 World Cup semi-finalists England, pre-tournament favourites France, star-studded Euro ’88 victors Netherlands and remodified reigning World Champions Germany – were roundly of underestimation and a lack of external comprehension. A cohesive unit like no other stage in their professional history (only seven of Richard Møller-Nielsen’s squad plying their trade outside of the Superliga, while in the fallout of a group stage exit bereft of consolation four years earlier Jan Mølby had ended his international career at the age of 27 and Michael Laudrup, then of Barcelona and perceiving himself above the coaching of a figure to have never managed outside of Denmark, refused to attend the tournament), elevated by the overseas forays of Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup and old hand Sivebæk, it was irresistible momentum and ambition that guided their path across the North Sea; their only defeat of the tournament arriving against their hosts and eternal rivals, in the most socially critical tie of their campaign.
As Superliga clubs reached unprecedented heights in continental competitions, the repercussions of Swedish-based merriments extended gratefully to the form of each interested party. Only two years later, Odense defeated Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup third round – regardless of Los Blancos’ state, a timeless accomplishment – with a second leg fightback at the Bernabéu, while only a season later Brøndby fell at the same quarter-final hurdle to an agonising 119th-minute Tenerife second leg winner. Meanwhile, similarly in 1995-96 a convoluted controversy (immediately comparable to Yugoslav politics) saw Aalborg awarded the first ever Champions League group stage berth of a Danish club; qualification victors Dynamo Kiev accused of intended bribery by referee Antonio Jesús López Nieto against Panathinaikos, and though succumbing to the wooden spoon in their group, achieving the nation’s first victory in the competition against the Greek outfit.
Not until 2010 had the nation produced a knockout-stage Champions League performance; København emerging above Rubin Kazan and, yet again, Panathinaikos, to face a narrow last-16 elimination at the hands of reigning Premier League champions Chelsea. At a present standstill, again it appears that revolution is not the Danish way.
Evidently, permanent innovation serves as somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy throughout Denmark’s identity. Though always challenging the parameters imposed by population size, economic consolidation and geographical imposition, the national populous cannot be expected to apply a constant introspection, nor opt to plough on regardless of infiltrating factors. As Olsen’s national team profited from his own previous tenure at Ajax and the post-1992 academy alumni of various cities – Dennis Rommedahl, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Thomas Helveg, Martin Jørgensen, Thomas Sørensen and Christian Poulsen each plying their trade in Europe’s elite divisions – their destiny ultimately unravelled into an unerring and unfulfilling series of qualification successes followed by failures. Never relinquishing honour in their entrances – when ousted at the group stage, not finishing bottom at either the 2010 World Cup or 2012 European Championship, while succumbing to simply superior outfits in England and the Czech Republic at WC 2002 and Euro 2004 – the line toed was nonetheless a fine one; as evident in the first six-year tournament absence, public frustration rising.
Naturally, admissions of inferiority to the rampant ilk of German, Dutch and Swedish neighbours ensured expectations remained grounded. 1992, and its protracted rousing influence, were not memories for Olsen to shirk. Once exposed and inclined to silverware, it required a skilled handler to content this deprived magpie.
One would dare to suggest that the events of that particular summer will never again repeat themselves. The back-pass rule – made such a close ally of the underdogs, immortalised in video of Schmeichel engaging in a farcical ploy – was banned by FIFA as a result of the tournament’s controversy, the Championships were never to be restricted to eight nations again and three points were to be awarded for a win henceforth. Yet these are mere constitutional practicalities; the true alteration caused by one glorious Swedish midsummer was that of an establishment’s psychology. Every entrant, only emphasised by the mushrooming of nations in Communist dissolution, was now relevant. Though Greece and, more recently, Portugal rose from lesser ranks to seize European glories, their victories were not met with even a modicum of the early 1990s’ suspended disbelief.
Perhaps the DBU has never managed to emerge unscathed from this predominating curse. Cleansing the walls of Olsen’s service, though without compare in its cultural contribution, was an unavoidable task. A decaying leadership nucleus spurning the enviable qualities of era-defining Messrs Eriksen, Schmeichel Jnr., Cornelius, Jørgensen, Sisto, Kjær, Schöne and potentially youngsters Dolberg and Christensen was the observation of many, and elimination to Albania in Euro 2016 qualifying vindicated these unwanted, but warranted, views.
Reverting to the inexhaustible qualities of a regional fraternity was not an unlikely approach; Hareide, as the only man to have held league titles aloft in Sweden, Denmark and his native Norway, the ideal candidate with an extensive knowledge of the region at both club and international levels. If an admission of internal talent vacuums while Solbakken helms København and German Alexander Zorniger chairs Brøndby, it was far from the most alarming.
Jess Thorup – an outstanding Superliga coach after directing long-term employers Esbjerg to promotion from the 1st Division and a 4th-place league finish and Danish Cup win on their return to the top flight, a former DBU employee with credit for guiding the under-21s to the 2015 European Championship semi-finals, and at the age of 45 potentially a reinvigorating lifeblood to a stagnated Danish men’s team – was overlooked for the role in late 2015, having opted to step outside of the national team structure to steward Benham’s Midtjylland ambition.
Unfolding as a sage appointment in the meantime, the Norwegian’s professorial stance, aided by Rød-Hvide record goalscorer Tomasson as assistant manager, requires little interrogation; inheriting an outfit nearly devoid of a protagonist above Olsen, he has continually professed talisman Eriksen as the underpinning asset of a direct, free-flowing 4-3-3 philosophy certain to examine conspicuous French, Peruvian and Australian defences with pace, guile and six-yard-box efficacy. In this group of counter-attacking entities, surely Didier Deschamps’ outfit will resort to enforcing possession and drop explosive, but tactically stricken, forwards they would typically overcompensate on – much to Hareide’s pleasure, I’m sure. Few would offer Bert van Marwijk’s Socceroos great scope for progression, while Peru’s long-overdue World Cup reprise will be a stage few in Ricardo Gareca’s squad will wish to spurn. Nonetheless, given assertive prior pedigree, the surprisingly swift tactical assurance of ideological reformation and the sheer will in this instance to repair prior wrongdoings, it would be churlish to regard the Danish as outsiders to escape group stage pitfalls, and not inconceivably defeat the winner of a wide-open Group D; Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland all likely to be bruised after vying for first-round honours.
Reconciling with Aarhus-based kit manufacturers Hummel after a 12-year absence and in doing so publicly investing in the values typified by the wholly admirable Roligen fanbase, the distinctions that elevate this to the first nationally provocative sporting appearance for many years are multifaceted. The complexities of Danish football, though often chronologically aligning, serve as the intrinsically fascinating contexts of each endeavour. Seldom, even, have they strayed from the guiding poetic ethos of Hans Christian Andersen, mired in introspection. If still to surpass expectations and realise the ambitions of an irrefutably skilled modern elite, engaging the unburdened and unbounded spirit of their forefathers would hardly go amiss. Otherwise, etching the strands of a new history serves as the constant prospect. Ever approximate, who is to know when it eventually arrives?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!