Last season the world of European football was mildly surprised to see a new name join the Champions League jet-set. Many words have already been written on the miraculous rise from regional cup final to the world’s richest club competition of FC Nordsjælland. Whilst the champagne corks were popping in the Farum, a sleepy northern Copenhagen suburb, back in May, the usual end of season soul-searching on the other side of the Capital of Cool began in earnest. Brøndby IF, for so long the title also-rans, had experienced a season from hell, finishing just two places and six points above the relegation zone.
For Brøndby fans, this was another kick in the teeth. In the past few years, the big two, or “New Firm” of the Blues and arch rivals FC Copenhagen have seen their power base eroded by the likes of OB from Odense, AaB from Aalborg and FC Midtjylland from Herning. Add to this list the new Superligaen champions, FC Nordsjælland, and you can begin to understand the pressure that Brøndby are under to recapture form in a league of just twelve sides.
Danish football is not flush with money. FCK’s Champions League millions aside, teams are successful in the domestic game today because they invest in their youth and scouting structure. This approach has benefited the national side as they seek qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which would be Denmark’s third major tournament in a row.
To understand how far Brøndby have fallen behind the rest of Danish football we need to go back to the 2002/03 season when rivalry with FC Copenhagen was just a decade old. The Blues had finished the previous season as Superligaen champions, pipping FCK to the title on goal difference following a 1-1 draw in the final New Firm derby at Parken, the national stadium, in front of a sell-out crowd. In a major coup, the club also managed to convince Danish legend and ex-captain Michael Laudrup to join the club as coach.
The name Laudrup is like royalty in Denmark and at Brøndby it is revered as that of a deity. The Laudrup legacy at the club goes back three generations, starting when Finn Laudrup joined as coach in 1973. The major Danish teams at the time were KB, Vejle, Hvidovre and B1903, small amateur clubs who relied on spirit, windswept muddy pitches and little else. Brøndby were a small club playing in the fourth tier of Danish football in an athletics ground with no spectator facilities. Finn’s sons, Michael and Brian, started off in the youth leagues in the mid-Seventies, with elder son Michael making his debut for the team in 1982, the same season that Brøndby finally made their bow in the top tier of Danish football.
A season later, Laudrup was a star in the making. Liverpool had been on the verge of signing him, but terms couldn’t be agreed and instead Denmark’s Player of the Season headed to Juventus for around $1million. The money enabled Brøndby to build a foundation both on and off the pitch that delivered a Danish Championship for the first time in 1985. In the next seven seasons the club were never outside of the top two, winning a further four titles as well as reaching the quarter finals of the European Cup in 1987.
Life looked rosy for the Blues but a team made from a controversial merger of KB and B1903 and given Parken as their home stadium was formed across town. FC Copenhagen were never going to be popular in Denmark, let alone in Copenhagen. Whilst the next few seasons still saw three further titles for Brøndby, it was the off the field activities that had the club hitting the headlines. After becoming only the second football club in the world, behind Tottenham Hotspur, to float on a stock exchange, a strange policy of diversification saw the club invest in a bank that led the club to the brink of financial oblivion.
Fortunately, events on the pitch helped to stave off meltdown. The Superligaen title returned to western Copenhagen in 1995, 1996 and 1997, and a huge redevelopment project began to deliver a stadium fit for European football. But the turning point for Brøndby came in the summer of 2003 as the club basked in the glory of their ninth title and Michael Laudrup returned.
His plan, along with assistant John Jensen, was to build a dynasty based on his principle of a short passing style, with a very structured 4-2-3-1 formation. He started to bring in young players such as Daniel Agger, Casper Ankergren and Johan Elmander, players who would go on to make an impact in the English Premier League. In his first two seasons Brøndby finished runners-up to FCK, but there was a feeling power was about to shift back across the city.
The 2004/05 season will go down as the best in the history of Brøndby IF. Despite a poor start with a home defeat to Odense, the Blues soon moved towards the top of the table. They threw down their marker in the first Ny Derby game at Parken in September when they won 3-1. After that the club recorded eight wins and a draw to head the table going into the winter break. The title was theirs to lose and they didn’t taste defeat until April, losing at home to FC Midtjylland before a humiliating reverse in the game against FCK threatened to blow open the title race. But on the night of the 16 May, the Blues and Laudrup finally put the nail in FCK’s coffin. A five nil win at home the resounding endorsement of Brøndby’s championship credentials.
While everything seemed in place for a new dynasty of Brøndby dominance, the following season saw FCK in resurgent form. Going into the final few games of the season with the teams neck and neck at the top, there were mutterings that all was not well off the pitch. Laudrup and Jensen had met with the club to discuss a new contract but so far nothing was forthcoming. Whether this was a contributory factor to the team gaining just four points from their last five games we will never know, but the title was conceded after a 4-1 defeat to Horsens.
Laudrup left the club in the summer, and so too did the hopes of thousands of fans. Brøndby never really recovered from the decline of the Laudrup era, never really looking able break the dominance of FCK that has seen the white half of the city claim five out of the last seven titles. Laudrup has now arrived in Wales, looking to try to repeat his success in the Premier League with Swansea City.
Following last season’s disappointment, few thought that things could get any worse for the Brøndby, But just three wins from their opening nineteen Superliga games has seen them fail to get out of the relegation places for some weeks. Nine points from nine games at home has seen some fans start to turn against the team.
The good times seem to be a million miles away at the moment, and they can only look on with envious eyes at the full houses champions FC Nordsjælland have enjoyed for games against Chelsea and Juventus. With every team in the Group Stages due to collect a base of €8.6 million it is hard to see how Brøndby will be able to compete financially with a club who were once seen as a small provincial outfit in Danish football.
Football can be a harsh mistress at times, having no respect for reputation or past glories. Brøndby have a passionate fan base and will support their team to the end, however, with relegation a very real threat, those fans will be hoping that this time next season they are still looking forward to the volatile atmosphere of a New Firm derby with FC Copenhagen rather than one against Brønshøj BK.
By Stuart Fuller
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona