Denmark’s football history has been defined by two teams. One of them caused a sensation by winning the UEFA EURO 1992, while the other was thumped 5-1 by Spain and dumped out at the last 16 of the 1986 FIFA World Cup™.
The fact that the latter continues to command more affection might raise a few eyebrows. But this is a nation in which the achievement of that determined, functional ’92 side is balanced against the flamboyance of their ostensibly less successful predecessors.
Kasper Hjulmand, the current coach, summed it up perfectly. “People can say that that 1980s team didn’t win anything, but they won hearts; football fans across the world were talking about them,” he told FIFA last year. “It was a team that made a real impact with the football they played, and I think that’s a big thing.”
Hjulmand is not, however, a hopeless romantic preaching style over substance. His plan all along has been to mould a team that combines the best of both worlds – of ’86 and ’92 – by achieving success in a manner that delights Danes and impresses neutrals.
His side came close to glory at EURO 2020, having somehow recovered from the trauma of their star player’s on-field cardiac arrest in the opening match to enjoy a goal-laden run to the semi-finals. Even more impressive was their form in World Cup qualifying, with a place at Qatar 2022 secured with a couple of games to spare – and without a point having been dropped or a goal conceded. Add to that two UEFA Nations League wins over the world champions in the space of just four months, and it’s easy to see why the Danes are being discussed as potential title contenders.
The style with which they have done all of this, allied to the personal qualities Hjulmand and his players displayed in the wake of Christian Eriksen’s collapse, have already led to suggestions they could eclipse those teams of ’86 and ’92 in the nation’s hearts. And the man in charge knows what will be required to ensure that happens.
“We have two goals with this team: one is to win something, and the other is to inspire and unite our country,” he has said. “Right now we can really feel that we’re doing that second part. The next step, of course, is to win.”
Denmark’s Group D fixtures
Denmark-Tunisia, 16:00 local time, Education City Stadium
France-Denmark, 19:00 local time, Stadium 974
Australia-Denmark, 18:00 local time, Al Wakrah
Hjulmand’s approach and tactics
As the Denmark coach himself has been quick to point out, there wasn’t much broken in need of fixing when he first took charge. Predecessor Age Hareide had, after all, led the team to two major tournaments and had strung together a 34-match unbeaten run.
With those building blocks in place, Hjulmand’s main contribution has been to inject a little spirit of ’86 into an already solid and successful team. His Denmark are more attacking and expansive, less direct in their play, and employ a higher, more aggressive press than was seen under Hareide.
Hjulmand has also made a virtue of tactical flexibility, refusing to wed himself to a particular formation and often changing systems mid-match. Certain features, though – the use of high, attacking full-backs and the affording of creative freedom to the likes of Eriksen, for example – remain regardless of the preferred set-up on any particular day.
The Denmark coach also brings an invaluable human touch to his role. Never was this more in evidence than in the wake of his star playmaker’s health emergency at EURO 2020, when he struck the perfect tone with his players and the wider public. As Joakim Maehle, his free-scoring full-back, said at the time: “He is a good coach and now a friend for us too.”
Key player: Christian Eriksen
Simon Kjaer might be Denmark’s skipper, and an inspirational one at that, but Eriksen has been described by the team’s coach as “our captain in the rhythm of the game, the reading of the game and the feeling of a match”. “His eyes see everything,” added Hjulmand. “That’s how he leads. He is the heart and rhythm of this team.”
In truth, Eriksen has been Denmark’s key player for the best part of a decade, and was their undisputed star when the team qualified for – and participated in – the 2018 World Cup. With 38 goals, he is both the current’s team’s leading marksman and its most potent creative force. All the same, when he suffered that shocking on-field cardiac arrest, and Denmark thrived in his absence, many wondered if he would ever again reclaim such a prominent position.
The nature of his subsequent progress for both club and country has, of course, removed any doubt. After watching him score with his first touch on his comeback in the Netherlands, then net on his return to the Parken Stadium, Hjulmand spoke of “seeing a relaxation and lightness in Christian’s game which is fantastic”.
The Denmark coach went as far as to suggest the team might “get something even better out of Christian for the next few years”. Given Eriksen’s outstanding international exploits to date, that is a prospect that will leave the team’s fans salivating.
One to watch: Mikkel Damsgaard
Damsgaard stepped into the Eriksen-shaped creative void at EURO 2020 and emerged as the one of the tournament’s standout players.
At the time, he played up to the role of eager apprentice. “I really looked up to Christian when I was younger and played more like a No10, just like him,” said the then Sampdoria youngster. “I looked at many of the details in his game, the space that he finds, and I tried to include that in my game from a really young age.”
But while Eriksen’s spectacular comeback might suggest a return to the bench for his highly rated deputy, there is definite scope for both playing in the same team. After all, Damsgaard dazzled in Serie A playing off the left – so much so, in fact, that coach Claudio Ranieri labelled him “a prodigy”. Sure enough, when Denmark beat France 2-0 in the UEFA Nations League last month, it was with the youngster floating in from the wing and Eriksen pulling the strings from a more central role.
Kasper Hjulmand, who gave a 17-year-old Damsgaard his first start at club level during their time together at Nordsjaelland, is certainly a big fan. “Mikkel is one step ahead, just one or two seconds quicker in his head [than other players],” the Denmark coach has said. “He has always had an incredibly quick awareness of time, space and movement around him.”
Those qualities were very much in evidence at the EURO, and will make Damsgaard an exciting player to follow in Qatar.
Denmark’s World Cup history
Although they lack the pedigree of the game’s giants, the Danes have progressed beyond the group stage in all but one of their five World Cup appearances to date. That famous 1986 campaign made for a spectacular debut, but their best performance came in 1998, when they thumped Olympic champions Nigeria 4-1 to reach the last eight.
Having crashed out in cruel fashion in 2018, when they were pipped on penalties by Croatia in the last 16, the Nordic outfit are now aiming to set a new benchmark at Qatar 2022.
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