Denmark's World Cup soul-searching, a quarrel, and an absent superstar

Where to begin with an overview of the state of the Danish national team before the Nations League match in Dublin today?

Denmark's World Cup soul-searching, a quarrel, and an absent superstar

By Morten Glinvad

Where to begin with an overview of the state of the Danish national team before the Nations League match in Dublin today?

Should we start with the spectacular conflict between the Danish FA and the players’ union, which as a consequence sent a so-called “substitute national team” onto the pitch for an official international match in Slovakia?

What about the ambiguous World Cup in Russia, in which Denmark in terms of results did well, but where the football on show was so underwhelming that it raised the question if there was any reason to be excited at all?

And there is the current sporting situation — which has recently occupied little space in the media — where Denmark now have to make its way without the team’s superstar, Christian Eriksen.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the latest story about Nicklas Bendtner.

Last month he went to Copenhagen for rehabilitation after an injury in action for his Norwegian club Rosenborg. It ended up with a late night out in Copenhagen and an accusation that he broke the jaw on a taxi driver. Denmark now awaits the trial, which is scheduled to be heard next month.

Bendtner was also injured before the World Cup and was not taken to the tournament in Russia. Denmark reached the Round of 16, where Kasper Schmeichel saved a Luka Modric penalty in extra-time and even blocked two Croatian attempts in the penalty shootout. Nevertheless, Denmark lost after Eriksen, Lasse Schöne, and Nicolai Jørgensen all missed from the spot.

A place among the best 16 teams at a World Cup is no bad performance for a country with less than six million inhabitants. And Denmark had even met both World Cup finalists without losing in normal time. But the Danes did not win many new friends for their performances in Russia.

The defensive organisation was strong with Schmeichel in goal and captain Simon Kjær in central defence the standout players. But the attacking play was incoherent and primitive.

The aesthetes turned up their noses at the performance and accused Norwegian coach Åge Hareide of abandoning the Danish football identity — a debate that has had many twists and turns since Hareide took the job in late 2015.

Until then, Hareide’s predecessor Morten Olsen had varying success with a Dutch-inspired identity for the national team. Hareide secured the ticket to the World Cup with impressive wins against Poland and Ireland last year and seemed to have convinced the Danes. The World Cup left a much more divided and confused impression. Denmark is probably more pragmatic in its football-view than Olsen would like to believe. But there is a limit to the pragmatism, as Hareide realised.

The summer in Russia, however, seems an eternity away after the remarkable events since then. At the end of August, it was clear that Dansk Boldspil-Union (the Danish FA) and Spillerforeningen (the player’ union) could not agree on new terms on a deal for the players representing the national team. As a consequence, the players remained absent for the preparations for the friendly in Slovakia and the Nations League opener against Wales.

The country looked on with disbelief, while both parties criticised each other from their trenches without actually telling the public the core reason for the battle.

Personal conflicts between leading persons within the FA and the players’ union did not improve the negotiating climate, and the reputation of both the national team and the DBU suffered much harm. Many Danes addressed the anger at the national team players, who were considered greedy. #ikkemitlandshold — translating into #notmynationalteam — trended on social media.

In fear of Uefa sanctions for not showing up for the Slovakia match, DBU sent a so-called “substitute national team” with players from the third and fourth tier along with players from the futsal national team. The former Arsenal player John Jensen took the helm as a temporary head coach with a few hours’ notice, and on the plane to Slovakia he took a few minutes with each player to find out his position on the pitch — and to learn his name.

It was an embarrassing mess, although the Danes also saw the humorous aspect. On a sad and serious background, the substitutes were suddenly seen as cult heroes representing grassroots football in contrast to the millionaire professionals. That Jensen’s team only lost 3-0 to Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel’s Slovakia was impressive — and due to the heroics of futsal keeper Christoffer Haagh.

A temporary agreement was made the following day. Eriksen, Schmeichel, and Kjær were back in action in the 2-0 win against Wales. And a few weeks later the quarrel finally ended with a permanent six-year deal between DBU and Spillerforeningen. But the wounds are still open and the players did not help themselves by afterwards publishing an open letter with their view on the conflict. It has only reinforced the already negative view of them.

On the pitch, the big question is how Denmark will cope without Christian Eriksen, who is absent due to an abdominal injury. Back in November, Eriksen had his finest hour with the national team with a hat-trick in Dublin, and under Hareide, Tottenham’s playmaker has now scored an impressive 19 goals in 26 matches for Denmark.

In the midst of the turmoil, DBU has now hired the former national team striker Peter Møller for a new position as the football director of the FA. Møller has for many years been a popular host at the national TV broadcaster Danmarks Radio — a Danish Gary Lineker — and the hope is that he can bridge the gap between the players, the DBU, and the public. For a long time, DBU has been criticised for a lack of football knowledge in its organisation, and the players have criticised a lack of professionalism and understanding from DBU in the organisation around the national team. This is Denmark now. One of the happiest countries in the world, you may have heard.

Apparently, the country’s footballing elite has not.

- Morten Glinvad is a Danish freelance journalist.

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