On a cold September night in 2018, Denmark fielded a team consisting only of amateur players, including seven players from the futsal national team, in a friendly game against Slovakia. At this time, few people expected that the support for the national team would reach the height it has today.
The bizarre situation happened after a lengthy contract dispute between the male and female national team players and the player association on one side and the Danish football association (DBU) on the other side. And as the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement in time before the match, DBU had to field a team consisting of players who weren’t a part of the player association, which meant they had to go from club to club outside of the professional and semi-professional ranks.
Despite Denmark’s long history with unions and general support of worker’s rights, the public saw the national team as spoiled and the criticism of the well-paid superstars was massive from start to finish. The amateur players revealed that Christian Eriksen and other high-profile national players had called them and pressured them not to join the national team, and even though the superstars explained they were striking because they wanted to secure better circumstances for the lower league players and small clubs, it didn’t help their cause. The support for the national team was in shambles.
Fast forward a little over four years, and Denmark have just delivered their best result at an international tournament since the Euro victory in 1992 and are about to start the 2022 World Cup, which has brought the normally so quiet and restrained Danes into a state of complete football ecstasy. How did that happen?
That the Danish team would perform so well at the Euro was no coincidence. The team had been prepared well for the task by previous national team coach Åge Hareide. The Norwegian took over in 2016, and during his 42 games in charge (excluding the Slovakia game, which was led by former Arsenal player John Jensen), the red-whites lost only three times. Hareide took Denmark to the round of 16 at the World Cup in Russia, where they lost on penalties to the eventual finalists from Croatia, and Euro 2020 was supposed to be the culmination of his work over the past four years.
Unfortunately for Hareide, Covid-19 saw the tournament postponed for a year, after his contract with the national team expired Before his departure, he was on a 34-game unbeaten streak starting in the qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Hareide revealed he had looked in his crystal ball and already predicted the outcome of the European Championships. He foresaw that Denmark would get a massive boost from playing three home games in the group stage and that the lack of travelling in the group stage would be the decisive factor of the tournament. He had also expected Denmark to finish second in the group behind Belgium, and thus avoid a nearly impossible matchup with the second place from the Group of Death with Portugal, France, Germany and Hungary. In fact, he had his eye on the semifinals as the goal of his national team.
The introduction of a modern leader
Where Hareide was an authoritarian leader who believed in pragmatic and cautious football, his replacement was the exact opposite. Kasper Hjulmand took over the national team after stints at two of Denmark’s most successful talent factories, Lyngby BK and FC Nordsjælland, as well as a failed time at Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga.
Although Hjulmand quickly suffered a defeat at the hand of Belgium in the Nations League, which ended the streak he inherited, he brought with him increased optimism and a different football philosophy.The Red-Whites were now supposed to control the ball and dominate the game. The Danish players should dare to hold on to the ball, and with him came a number of young, hungry offensive-minded players. Mikkel Damsgaard, Andreas Skov Olsen and Jonas Wind became regulars, whereas Andreas Christensen and Daniel Wass also reconquered spots in the starting lineup after being ostracized by Hareide for not fitting into the system.
With Hjulmand, DBU wanted to bring the national team back to the Danes and make it popular again. Before taking over, Hjulmand spent time studying the Danish identity and mentality to understand how this should be done, and he especially noticed the level of trust in Danish society. “Denmark is a country where the distance between people is small,” he told Kristelig Dagblad about his findings. “Denmark has a special ability to combine being down to earth with being super ambitious.”
Hjulmand’s style is similar to what academics describe as servant leadership. He puts the needs and development of his players first and helps them reach their full potential. Ethics is furthermore an important part of his leadership, and since being hired he hasn’t been afraid of speaking his mind. He has criticized the national team’s sponsorship agreement with a bookmaker and spoken strongly against the 2022 World Cup being hosted by Qatar.
Being what many would describe as a modern leader, the new national team coach never positions himself as an all-knowing and mistake-free leader. Instead, he is open about his mistakes and doubts and always appears authentic. Since his arrival, he has created a unit on the national team where the players trust each other and appear free and motivated on the pitch. When taking the pitch, the players understand their tasks and they know they can trust each other to help out when needed. Hjulmand is an extremely transparent coach with clear and honest communication.
The hierarchy of the team is flat, and integration is easy for the young players. While there are obvious superstars such as Simon Kjær, Andreas Christensen and Christian Eriksen, Hjulmand doesn’t differentiate between them. Every single player plays an important role on the team, both starters and reserves, and every single player and staff member is acknowledged for his/her contribution to the unit.
Lastly, empathy is a keyword for the team. Hjulmand cares about his players. Not only as football players but as humans as well. This was obvious to anybody after Christian Eriksen’s collapse. He creates strong connections with his players, all of them, which makes them want to fight even harder.
A humanized national team
When Christian Eriksen collapsed during the opening fixture against Finland, the Danish team showed all of these virtues on the biggest stage of them all. While TV stations all over the world were hungry to show the drama from the first row with cameras zooming in on Eriksen, the players formed a ring around their friend and teammate and blocked the view of the media. Meanwhile, Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær comforted Eriksen’s wife on the sideline, and all the players were clearly affected. There were no machomen trying to hide their emotions, and Hjulmand’s influence was once again visible to anyone.
Following the loss of the best player and talisman, the expectations were quickly revised. The players were freed, and against Belgium, they delivered one of the best performances in recent years.
Although the Danish tournament ended prematurely with a debatable penalty against England in overtime of the semifinal, the summer was unforgettable in Denmark. Across the whole country, people came together, despite Covid-restrictions, to support the national team. Whether it was a packed Parken, big screen events, garden parties or just in front of the television, positive vibes were shared, and it is safe to say that Hjulmand succeeded in making the national team property of the people once again.
Since the Euro, the celebration has only continued for the Danish national team. The Red and Whites were one of the first European nations to qualify for the World Cup, and throughout qualification, they went on a memorable run of nine victories in a row, the first eight with a clean sheet, before losing to Scotland in the last, and meaningless, round. Denmark was drawn in a manageable group at the tournament in Qatar, and with Hjulmand on the sideline, they are entering the tournament as one of the most enticing dark horses.
Toke Theilade is the founder and editor-in-chief at Vilfortpark.dk.