Over the years, several artists have had to wait until after their death to receive the recognition they deserved, the most famous being Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch impressionist painter committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37 after producing more than 2,000 works but only selling two. Through his short career, van Gogh suffered with both mental illness as well as depression over his lack of success. Now, however, millions of people visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam every year, and his paintings are sold for millions of euros.
One of the great things about the game of football is that even the common man can recognize the players and coaches who are doing well by their results, and give them the praise they deserve at the time they deserve it, which is why we don’t see people sharing van Gogh’s fate.
There is, however, one man who came close, despite being the mastermind behind one of the biggest achievements in European football history: Richard Møller Nielsen. Nielsen was the Head Coach when Denmark surprised everyone by winning the 1992 European Championship, but it wasn’t until after his death in February 2014 that the small country in northern Europe realized just how much he meant to the nation.
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The story of Nielsen begins in the small town of Ejstrup on Funen in 1937. Growing up in a small farming community, Nielsen quickly learned the values of hard work. In fact, football didn’t play a part in his life during his early years, as it wasn’t before the 1948 Olympics in London that the then 11-year-old Nielsen fell in love with the beautiful game. Unfortunately for the young Nielsen, there were neither football fields nor sports clubs where he lived, meaning it wasn’t until the following year that he finally joined a club, when he pulled blue and white stripes of Odense Boldklub (OB), the biggest club on Funen, over his head.
Nielsen eventually made OB’s first team, where he played his entire career between 1955 and 1962. He was also capped twice on the national team. Although he was a solid defender, being a football player in Denmark at that time didn’t equate to the luxurious life we see from today’s players. Denmark was one of the last bastions against professionalism in the world, which mean that all the players were amateurs.
When Nielsen, in 2005, returned to the small town of Ubberud in the outskirts of Odense to talk about his life in the city as a child, he said: “There were a lot of spectators, but we never received any money. If we played away, for example a national team game, or a game in Idrætsparken in Copenhagen [The Danish national stadium] we had to bring a packed lunch ourselves.” The conservatism that characterized Dansk Boldspils Union, the Danish FA, would later cause even more problems for Nielsen.
At the age of 25 Nielsen had to put his boots on the shelf due to an injury, and to fill the void he moved straight into coaching. His big break through as coach came when, in 1975, he was hired as Head Coach at his boyhood club OB. During his decade in charge of the club, De Stribede won two national championships as well as the Danish Cup. Alongside coaching OB, Nielsen was also in charge of the Danish Under-21 national team between 1978 and 1989.
When Nielsen won the league with OB in 1977, he was often accused of playing too defensively. Rather than putting his all his eggs in the basket of one gifted player, he wanted the team to perform as a unit, which meant that Allan Hansen, arguably the biggest star on the team, was often placed on the bench.
In 1985 he was appointed assistant coach of arguably the best Danish national team in the country’s history. Working as the assistant to German Sepp Piontek, Nielsen had a front row seat to the Danish Dynamite team featuring the likes of Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjær, Allan Simonsen, Frank Arnesen, Jan Mølby and John Sivebæk.
He saw how the team completely overran Uruguay in the group stage of the 1986 World Cup, winning 6-1 in a truly historic match. However, he also experienced the complete collapse as Denmark lost 5-1 to Spain in the Round of 16 just ten days later.
Worst of all he saw how the Danish press, the players and the public were satisfied with the underwhelming World Cup performance just because the team had played some entertaining and offensive football.
Following Piontek’s departure in 1990, Nielsen hoped to fill his empty chair. As described in Flemming Toft’s book Europamestrene about the Danish Euro winners, DBU had no plans of hiring Nielsen. At his job interview, he was told that they wanted a foreign coach like Piontek and that he didn’t have enough international experience for the job. After the interview was over, a clearly disappointed Nielsen told the press waiting outside the DBU headquarter: “They wanted a foreigner.” The statement was said with a thick accent, and was soon immortalized.
The foreigner the bosses wanted was the German Horst Wohlers from Bayer Uerdingen. The DBU announced that everything was settled with Wohlers, who was ready to become the new Danish national team coach. At the same time, chairman of the DBU Hans Bjerg-Pedersen launched a broadside against Nielsen; he famously stated: “My grandmother could have achieved the same results as Richard Møller.”
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Richard Møller Nielsen
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In March 1990, the DBU had an official press meeting where Wohlers was presented as the new man in charge. However, he only lasted 26 hours before he was called back to Germany as the DBU had forgotten to reach an agreement with his German employers.
Therefore, DBU once again had to go through the process of finding a new coach. According to Europamestrene, they had eight names on their shortlist, Nielsen being on the bottom of it. The first seven candidates turned down the offer after the chaos surrounding Wohlers, which gave Nielsen the chance he had dreamed about for so long.
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It was an uphill battle from the beginning for Nielsen. According to Jakob Kvist’s book Ambassadøren about Michael Laudrup, several of the older players on the team, among these Preben Elkjær, had advised DBU not to hire the former assistant, and the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Laudrup wanted a capacity rather than the internationally inexperienced Nielsen.
Speaking to Kvist, former Liverpool midfielder Jan Mølby revealed that the players didn’t respect Nielsen because he was only the assistant, and furthermore that none of them really knew him because he wasn’t the kind of guy the players came to for personal talks.
“There were some disciplinary free moments when Richard was in charge of the training,” Elkjær elaborated to Kvist. “He often had to gather the balls from far away, when the happy millionaires had fun with kicking them away. It wasn’t personal, it was a part of the role, and especially during the tournaments it was a valve for the pressure that was constantly on the players.”
There were, however, also those who supported the new head coach. Flemming Povlsen, at the time a striker for Borussia Dortmund, said that the appointment of Nielsen gave hope to some of the younger guys who had worked with him on the youth teams.
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Despite being a likeable character, Nielsen was often detached from his players
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With Nielsen in charge of the national team, Denmark soon found themselves in a new world. Unlike in the era of Danish Dynamite in the 1980s where Denmark became known as ‘the best losers in the world’, the focus was now on getting the most out of the collective and achieving some positive results. This was an unusual approach in Denmark, a country where the inhabitants praise themselves on their humility, and where the unspoken Law of Jante advised the people not to think highly of themselves.
As assistant for Piontek, Nielsen had seen some of the greatest players in the world play magnificent football without ever coming close to winning anything. In the immortal words of Johan Cryuff, “Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” Though Nielsen definitely agreed with the first half of the statement, he didn’t share Cryuff’s opinion on the second, and he set up the most defensive-minded Danish team for years.
Nielsen’s first game in charge of the Danish team was a friendly away against England at Wembley. From the beginning Denmark went with a defensive approach, and as Kvist points out in Ambassadøren it signaled clearly that the goal of the national team had changed. In the second half Michael Laudrup was replaced by defender Morten Bruun, and the era of Danish Dynamite was officially over as the Scandinavians lost 1-0 with Nielsen being the only Dane satisfied with the game and the result.
That Nielsen generally preferred the more anonymous players who sacrificed themselves for the team was once again revealed after an exhibition match against Norway, where Denmark won 2-1 after a brilliant performance from Michael Laudrup. However, instead of celebrating Laudrup’s contribution, Nielsen highlighted “watch dogs” John Sivebæk and Johnny Hansen for their defensive contribution.
“Everything turned ultra-defensive,” Mølby told Kvist, and where Piontek had allowed the creative forced freedom on the pitch, Nielsen tied them down with defensive tasks. “We had loved to come home and play on the national team. We were having fun, no matter if we played ping-pong or practiced hard, but it was like the air went out the balloon from one day to another. It is difficult to explain, but it became a completely different camp,” Mølby said.
Even though the main focus was now on the results, Denmark failed to qualify for the 1992 Euros, finishing second in Group 4, one point behind Yugoslavia.
Losing just once in qualification, the low point of the campaign came in a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland in Belfast in Denmark’s second game. The build-up for the game was characterised by internal problems within the squad as several players had criticised Nielsen’s tactics, among these the Laudrup brothers.
Both of the brothers were substituted during the game, and they were heavily chastised for their performances afterwards. Both felt the criticism was unfair, as Nielsen’s tactics weren’t allowing them to perform at their best.
In November 1990, Denmark faced Yugoslavia at Idrætsparken in Copenhagen in a crucial game following the missed victory in Belfast. However, despite needing to win, Nielsen once again select a defensive approach as the Danes lose 2-0. During the game, the fans chanted “Piontek! Piontek!”, but the magic from the 1980s was gone. “We were a joke,” Michael Laudrup said after the game, while Brian Laudrup wondered why Denmark had only used one striker for the must-win fixture. The game later turned out to be Jan Mølby’s last on the national team, despite him only being 27 at the time and on top of his game at Liverpool.
“I play football for the sake of joy and ambition,” Michael Laudrup told newspaper Politiken after the game against Yugoslavia “But in the past years I haven’t felt happiness by playing on the national team, and now when the athletic ambitions have also disappeared, I have decided to stop. There are times where it is impossible to play well, and I fell that way on the national team at the moment. I can’t contribute with anything good or inspiring, and so I might as well stop.”
Later that day, his younger brother Brian also announced his retirement from the team in less diplomatic tones, stating that: “I don’t respect Richard Møller Nielsen as coach, and therefore I might as well stop now. I can’t display myself under him, and he doesn’t like me as a player.”
Just three game into the qualification, Denmark had lost its three biggest stars and they were far away from the upcoming European Championship.
Brian Laudrup has later revealed that several players in the squad had agreed with he and Michael when they had spoken with them in private, and that he was therefore disappointed that no one supported them when they spoke out against Nielsen in an attempt to get rid of him.
Ironically, the actions of the brothers had the opposite effect as it made the DBU decide to support Nielsen to show that they had the power and not the players.
Denmark went on to win their last five games, including a 2-1 victory in Belgrade against Yugoslavia, and they only narrowly missed out on the Euros. “Here you saw that it isn’t always the best players who make the best teams,” Nielsen said after the victory in Belgrade. “Those who played here fought nicely and they ran for each other the entire time. Everyone deserves praise.”
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Denmark’s Euro 92 champions
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Just a week after the Danish visit in Yugoslavia, the civil war broke out. The country managed to finish the qualification and win the group, but could the nation participate at the Euros given the fact that it had turned into five smaller states, and if not, who should get their spot?
While UEFA considered these questions, Denmark and Nielsen began the preparations for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. At the same time, Brian Laudrup considered returning to the national team, and on April 8 1992 a Laudrup was once again on the field for the Danish national team when they lost 2-1 in Ankara against Turkey.
Denmark’s next friendly was at home against Norway, and the night before the match, which was played in Århus, someone broke into the ground and painted ‘Fuck Ricardo [Nielsen’s nickname]’ on the pitch; despite hard work from the stadium staff, the provocation was still visible when the match started.
While the Danes prepare for the World Cup qualification, where they had been drawn together with Spain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Albania, the situation in Yugoslavia turned even worse. On May 28 1992, 13 days before the start of the Euros, Denmark were invited to take Yugoslavia’s spot at the tournament.
After the invitation, Nielsen was in a rush to assemble a squad, and on May 30, the squad met in Denmark for their training camp. Most of the players came straight from vacation, and Peter Schmeichel labelled them as a “bunch of fat vacation lads”.
Denmark was in group with the hosts Sweden, England and France, and Brian Laudrup stated that everything but three defeats and a quick exit would be a surprise because of the team’s lack of preparation and poor physical shape.
Denmark did, however, have one thing to their advantage. With the exception of one player, the entire squad had played for Nielsen at youth level, and the players knew each other well enough to gel instantly. Furthermore, Denmark were actually more prepared than most people knew. According to Toft’s Europamestrene, Nielsen had prepared for the Euros in his basement during the entire spring, hoping to receive a ticket to Sweden, and when it finally came, he wasn’t going to waste it.
And he didn’t. As most people know, Denmark went to win the tournament after a 2-0 victory against Germany in the final, in what turned out as one of the biggest surprises in the history of football.
The victory was quickly announced as Denmark’s biggest ever sporting achievement, but despite being celebrated by thousands of Danes in Copenhagen’s main square after bringing home the trophy, Nielsen was yet to be accepted into the hearts of the population and his peers.
When the Danish coaches at the end of 1992 voted for the Coach of the Year Award, it was given to Ebbe Skovdahl from Brøndby and not Nielsen. Instead of becoming Coach of the Year in Denmark, Nielsen won the World Soccer Manager Award for his achievements.
Denmark failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, but won the 1995 Confederations Cup, then known as the King Fahd Cup. Nielsen later coached both the Finnish and Israeli national teams, and received a lot of respect for his achievements around the world. Furthermore, he managed to break the Danish sense of inferiority and allowed the country to once again dream.
However, despite his incredible contribution to Danish football, most Danish fans in the 1990s and 2000s still spoke about the Danish Dynamite team rather than the 1992 victory. Instead of his achievements on the pitch, Nielsen became known for his many odd sayings and funny comments on press meetings, like when directly translated a Danish saying into English ahead of the Euros: “We must screw down the expectations. We have to change our tactic and play with long balls.”
In 2006, the DBU opened the Danish Football Hall of Fame, with Michael Laudrup and the 1992 Euro Team being the first ones to be included. It wasn’t until 2014, two weeks after his death, that Nielsen was finally included, three years after Sepp Piontek and five years after the 1980s Danish Dynamite team.
The summer of 2015 saw a movie named The Summer of ‘92 hit the Danish cinemas, and almost 320,000 people went to see it. With the movie, Nielsen’s reputation sharply increased, and the Danes finally seemed ready to understand and acknowledge his achievements.
When his son Tommy Møller Nielsen received a statuette on his behalf as a symbol of his enrolment in the Hall of Fame, the ceremony was well attended. Among the guests was the president of UEFA, Michel Platini, who coached the French national team that Nielsen beat in 1992. Platini said: “I told Tommy that Richard probably changed my life. I coached France at the 1992 Euro, and had we not lost to Denmark, I might not have end up as president at UEFA. Perhaps I would have trained Nancy or some other small French team.”
At the same event, Peter Schmeichel, who was the goalkeeper on the 1992 team and included in the Hall of Fame in 2009, said: “He is one of our big heroes and he is historic. Our school children will learn about the time when he led Denmark to gold at the European Championship.”
The former Manchester United giant was absolutely right, and to this day Nielsen stands as the embodiment of the belief that anything can happen in football, and that even small nations like Denmark can reach the top of the world through hard work, unity and team spirit; that is something not even Bjerg-Pedersen’s grandmother could have done.
By Toke Møller Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade