National coach Morten Olsen’s casual approach has taken the Danes to the brink of World Cup qualification
Jim Holden in Copenhagen
There are three kinds of big-time football manager who shout and suffer on the touchlines. One wears training gear to prove he sweats blood for the job, and the second wears a fashionable smart suit and tie to show he’s an intelligent and elegant man of the world.
Then there is Morten Olsen. He wore jeans on the day Denmark played Portugal in a high-pressure 1-1 draw that took his Danish national team to the brink of qualification for next summer’s World Cup Finals.
Olsen is 60 years old now, a great player who became a very fine manager, and who is probably the longest-serving national team coach of any country with serious pretensions in international football. He is nearly 10 years into the job with Denmark and ready for his greatest triumph in leading an unconsidered team to the World Cup from the toughest of all the European qualifying groups.
Victories away to group favourites Portugal and Sweden were remarkable achievements for a Danish side that had been dubbed “Landshold X” at home because of their anonymous players and utilitarian style.
The unknown warriors have done just fine, though – and maybe having a laid-back leader in jeans suits their mood perfectly as they quietly subdued the flashy, catwalk talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Many critics in Denmark reckoned this was the worst Danish team for 30 years when the qualifying campaign started with a low-key 0-0 draw away to Hungary 12 months ago.
For a nation that enjoyed the scintillating Danish Dynamite side of the 1980s, then triumph in the 1992 European Championships, followed by progress to the 1998 World Cup quarter-finals, and which had feasted on generations of superstar players from Olsen himself and Allan Simonsen through the Laudrup brothers Michael and Brian to goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, it was easy to see why the current team was scorned.
Yet nobody should mistake Morten Olsen as a man who lacks passion or purpose. He has patiently created a new team that keeps the ball with technical skill and makes the very most of its components.
The best known player is striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, who has scored 51 goals in 105 internationals, a better record than any English footballer. He is now 33 and in a second spell at Feyenoord towards the close of a productive career that peaked at Milan.
Alongside him in attack is Nicklas Bendtner, who scored in both the 1-1 draws last month against Portugal and Albania, and whose physical presence has given the side a more robust feel. Yet Bendtner is never a certain starter with his club team Arsenal.
Olsen wants more youngsters like Bendtner to force their way into the team should the Danes complete qualification for the World Cup finals. One who already has is 20-year-old centre-back Simon Kjaer, who plays his club football for Palermo in Serie A. If and when Liverpool’s Daniel Agger recovers fitness, this pair will form a high-class duo.
Otherwise, the side is workmanlike, with Christian Poulsen of Juventus symbolic as a hard-running tackler in the centre of midfield. His namesake Jakob Poulsen, from Aarhus, has also impressed in recent matches.
Nobody predicted these anonymous Danes would do well, yet they go into the final two matches, at home to Sweden and Hungary, in charge of the group. A draw against their near-neighbours, the Swedes, would guarantee qualification even before the final game.
But that will be easier said than done, given that Sweden won in the Parken stadium in Copenhagen the last time they visited in a Euro 2008 qualifier marred by a Danish spectator running onto the pitch to try to assault the referee who had given a last-minute penalty to the Swedes.
It will be a night of tension in the stands and on the touchlines, even if Olsen is wearing his jeans again.