This feature is part of A Tale of One City
Are you sitting comfortable? Then I’ll begin.
Today I’m going to tell you tale of darkness and wonder, inspiration and heartache. We shall delve into a more innocent time, a more naive time perhaps, and trace the path of one of the best-known stories the world has seen right up to the present day, but from a different place. Modern life presents us with many obstacles that make us question the choices that were made in the past, but for now sit back, relax, and jump into a world that will be both familiar and distant.
In the second half of the 20th century, when radio was still a major source of entertainment in the UK, one of the most popular programmes began with the now famous line above. Listen with Mother was a regular 15 minutes of the most enduring fairy tales and songs read by the dulcet tones of Julia Lang, who coined the iconic sentence, amongst others. Amongst their most popular recitals were the wondrous tales of Hans Christian Andersen; beautifully descriptive tales such as The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen and The Ugly Duckling that were as accessible to adults for their reaffirming core values as they were to children for the vivid pictures they painted in their young minds.
Andersen had a rough upbringing in the Danish town of Odense, where he was sent away to a local school after his father died when the younger Hans was only 11. There he was mistreated by those in whose care he was placed, and he had to support himself with an apprenticeship as a tailor, but his heart was not in it. At 14 he moved to Copenhagen to pursue his dream of becoming an actor at the Royal Danish Theatre where his creative capacity included performance, singing and writing. The lack of innocent childhood that he’d received fuelled his imagination, and instilled in him a strong sense of fostering the education of youngsters.
One crucial part of education in his native Denmark, around the time of his death in 1875, was sport. The year after he passed away to liver cancer, an historic institution was established: Kjøbenhavns Boldklub. They remain the earliest football club still active in continental Europe, more than two decades before Barcelona were founded. In fact, football was only added to the program of sports on offer at KB after many players from the nearby ‘Football Club’, set up by British immigrants, became friendly with their members, who played cricket and tennis amongst other pursuits.
The early popularity of football was thanks in no small part to the policy of recommending its practise in primary schools at the end of the 19th century, with school teachers offered formal training in the rules of the game to ensure a successful adoption of the sport that had blossomed in Victorian England. Andersen would have approved. He had been an admirer of England and its schooling, and during his first visit in 1847 he met Charles Dickens, a man he considered to be “England’s now (sic) living writer, whom I love the most”. Dickens’ trademark earthy description of the gritty realities of hardships in the era, in particular the innocence of youth, struck a chord with Andersen.
A pioneering outlook had long been a part of Denmark’s history. As early as the 8th century, Viking forces had invaded parts of England, and soon after struck out to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and even as far as the north-eastern tip North America, half a millennia before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Mercenaries, emissaries and merchants reached as far as Ancient Byzantium in the east and North Africa in the south as the ancestors of modern Scandinavians had a hugely ambitious and forward-looking vision for their future.
Using football as a conduit for developing young bodies and minds was therefore simply part of the ability to take elements of culture from other parts of the world and adopt them in the most beneficial manner. The sport began on a regional basis like in many countries, with both the first Copenhagen Championship and the Dansk Boldspil-Union – the Danish Football Association – being founded in 1889. It took almost a quarter of century for the first national championship to be arranged in 1912 though. As Danish football expert Toke Møller Theilade explains, for all the country’s original vision in encouraging the introduction of the sport, the DBU were not quite as enlightened to change.
“The DBU was one of the most conservative FAs in the world, and professional football wasn’t allowed in Denmark until the late 1970s,” he explains. “In fact they refused to call up any player who was or had been professional in their career to the national team, which explains why the Danish team quickly fell behind its European rivals as more and more countries accepted professionalism. It wasn’t until the legendary striker Harald Nielsen and politician Helge Sander threatened the DBU with creating a professional league as an alternative to their official one that the DBU allowed professionalism.”
KB won the first two editions of the tournament, which heavily favoured clubs from the capital, as the winner of the Copenhagen football championship was automatically placed in the final to face the victor in a series of playoff matches between the winners of the remaining regional tournaments. The format and number of entrants varied right up until the end of the 20th century, but the early success of KB set the standard for other clubs to live up to. They remain the most successful club in Danish football history with 15 national titles, but their legacy now is very different.
Today, the original sports society remains, but the football division has changed beyond all recognition. A merger with Boldklubben 1903, who had thrashed Bayern Munich 6-3 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup second round the previous season, formed FC Copenhagen, who took advantage of the former club’s license to begin life in the Superliga. If a combined 22 national titles between KB and B 1903 wasn’t enough, they also took up residence in the newly reconstructed Parken stadium – home of the national team – which had been built with private funds. Six years later the club purchased the stadium off the original investors Baltica Finans A/S for 138 million DKK.
KB had attempted to turn professional twice in the previous decade in the wake of the DBU’s recent abandonment of amateur principles, but had been unable to muster the finance to support such a move. They had only won three titles in the previous three decades and were in need of support. They found it in the shape of top flight regulars B 1903 – who were funded by local entrepreneur Alex Friedmann – and a behemoth was born.
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FC Copenhagen supporters
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In their first season they won the championship by a point from OB Odense and would have repeated the feat the following year if they hadn’t capitulated in the last game of the season as the previous season’s runners-up gained revenge. This early success didn’t sit too well with their rivals. Brøndby had won five of the previous eight national championships, and had supplied four of the 1992 European Championship winning side, but in one fell swoop found themselves competing with a club that had everything.
Theilade describes the differing philosophies between the clubs that added to the tension. “Both clubs are results of mergers by two clubs, but the background for these mergers are very different. When Brøndbyøster IF (Brøndby East) and Brøndbyvester IF (Brøndby West) merged in 1964 the ambition wasn’t to create a great football team, but simply to create a club where all the children in the area could play football.
“Copenhagen on the other hand was a business decision, where the men behind the merger aimed at building Denmark’s strongest football club, which is why Brøndby fans often accuse FCK of killing two historic clubs to create a business.”
The official FC Copenhagen website reveals the original ambitions set forth by the founders, and amongst the standard aims of domestic and European success are two revealing mission statements. ‘To have a responsible economy’ and ‘To establish a wide corporate backing’ support the business aims Theilade alludes to, and have led to the club being by far the most financially powerful in Scandinavia. They are currently ranked 78th in UEFA’s coefficient rankings, 21 places above their nearest regional rivals, Sweden’s Malmo.
Before Copenhagen’s arrival, Brøndby’s chief rivals had been the more traditional clubs such as Aalborg (AaB), Odense Boldklub (OB) and Aarhus Gymnastik Forening (AGF), who formed the first hooligan groups in Denmark alongside Brøndby. “After the group South Side United was established in Brøndby, AGF quickly followed with the group White Pride,” Theilade says. “White Pride got their name from AGF’s white jerseys, but they are also the only fan group in Denmark with a clear political opinion, as they are to be found on the extreme right wing.”
A 1996 meeting between the sides saw them battle for the title, and going into injury time AGF were leading 3-2. Mogens Krogh, who had replaced Peter Schmeichel in goal after the latter had joined Manchester United, scored a great header to claim a vital draw as Brøndby claimed the title by a single point. Copenhagen floundered in seventh, 19 points behind the champions, while their rivals from the capital’s suburbs would go on to complete a run of 11 consecutive seasons finishing as championship winners or runners-up.
While Copenhagen set out to be an example of financial strength from their foundation, Brøndby nearly collapsed after a disastrous attempt to takeover the Danish bank Interbank in 1992 threatened to bankrupt the club. Having floated on the Danish Stock Exchange in 1987, becoming only the second club in the world to go public after Tottenham Hotspur a year earlier, the stock value plateaued in 1991 after Dynamo Kyiv knocked them out in the European Cup second round. When guarantors Hafnia Insurance went bust, the club was forced to buy out the bank. Four years of long-term planning meant they were able to struggle on, but it was a close call.
They had been one of the pioneers of modernising the game, becoming the first Danish club to go fully professional the year before becoming a public company, but it was the first professional contract they offered that really gave them the boost they needed to compete at the highest level.
At their inception in 1964, like all clubs in Denmark, they were a staunchly amateur organisation. One of the first captains was Per Bjerregaard, who retired at the age of 27 to take over as chairman of the club in 1973 when Drengene Fra Vestegnen were residing in the fourth tier Danmarksserien. His first move was to have a huge impact on the development of the club as he sacked the manager John Sinding, who had been his superior weeks earlier, and persuaded Danish international Finn Laudrup to drop three divisions to spearhead the campaign to drive them to promotion.
Laudrup had returned to his homeland three years earlier after a stint playing professionally in Austria, a move that excluded him from representing his country, and his experience as player-manager guided Brøndby to the third division in his second year. He had brought his young sons Brian and Michael with him to join the youth setup, but after he had achieved his target, he left to, of all clubs, KB. Michael joined him a year later but would come back six years down the line once his father had returned and helped Brøndby to the top flight, before leaving for Italy as a 19-year-old.
By now, the DBU had relented to the pressure of Nielsen and Sanders’ threat to form a rogue league outside their control if they didn’t fall in line with the rest of continent. It was a magical, golden age for Danish football as the Laudrup brothers, Frank Arnesen, Preben Elkjaer, Allan Simonsen and Jan Mølby entertained the world in Europe’s top league’s without the cloud of being excluded from the national side for doing so.
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Bjerregaard’s ability to maintain the club’s momentum in this period makes him a legend amongst Brøndby fans. Theilade describes the effect of the man: “Per Bjerregaard is Brøndby. With the exception of the infamous investment in Interbank that almost bankrupted the club, his work was flawless. From when he started a club magazine which he wrote himself in the early 1960s he has made all the major decisions at the club. One of his biggest strengths is his ability to get people to believe in him, and it was thanks to him that Brøndby went from being a small club in as small town to being only minutes away from the UEFA Cup final in 1991. He built an incredible bond between everyone at the club: he is a visionary.”
Brøndby’s glorious period around the turn of the new millennium forged the on-pitch relationship between Bjerregaard’s club and FC Copenhagen, as the two battled out many title races, frequently alternating between the top two spots. Off the pitch, however, the tale turned sour only two years after the latter’s foundation. On 23 September 1994, ‘Black Friday’ resulted in the most shocking episode in Danish football.
The evening kick-off meant fans were well watered in the hours leading up to the match itself, as Brøndby fans destroyed cars, looted shops and threw bottles. Fights broke out between them and police, and when Allan Nielsen scored the winner, around 200 seats were torn up, burnt and thrown onto the pitch. Violence continued after the match well into the night. “This was the first time hooliganism showed its ugly face at this scale in Denmark,” Theilade recalls. “The head of Brøndby Support Jais Tindborg has since called it ‘the day where fan culture lost its innocence’.”
That such intense anger and ferocity emerged after such a short period in the derby shows the philosophical differences between the clubs. The frustration about the running of the new, wealthy kid on the block was evident, and still grinds with Brøndby fans to this day. Volunteers have been a large part of the fabric of the club since its inception; a nostalgic throwback to an amateur era perhaps, but admirable nonetheless, and mirrored in the ownership model of the club today.
Following the Stock Market flotation, shares were distributed sensibly. According to an article by Michael Aae in the Danish tabloid BT, they were issued as A and B shares, with the former worth ten votes and the latter worth one, with only B shares available to the public. The A shares were initially spread between the amateur volunteers, the club’s main sponsors, and the holding company Euro Sports, which was owned by the club itself. This way, Brøndby was protected from a hostile takeover. After the collapse of the planned takeover of Interbank, Brøndbyernes IF Fodbold Fond purchased the shares for a symbolic 1 DKK, and now hold over 40 percent of the ownership votes in the shape of 85 percent of the A shares.
Nine championships – and only one finish outside the top two – have marked the turn of the millenium as FC Copenhagen’s undisputed era. The final match of the 2001 season provided an iconic derby with the fate of the title on the balance. After Copenhagen had taken the lead at their Parken stadium, there came a moment of such beauty it has since been immortalised in a bronze statue outside the Parken.
South African striker Sibusiso Zuma had drifted into the inside left channel to receive an awkward floating cross with his back to goal. His first touch on his chest to control it was straight forward, but his second was extraordinary. Before the ball could drop, he flung himself in the air and scissor kicked an overhead bullet across the box into the far top right corner. His manager, Roy Hodgson, could scarcely believe what he had seen.
Brøndby gained their revenge four seasons later when they demolished their foes 5-0 in what remains a record win in the fixture. Michael Laudrup had returned once again, this time as manager, to conduct his orchestra in an epic attacking style he would have loved as a player as he guided the club to a domestic double, claiming the Danish Cup as well as the league title. A year later though, and another annus horribilis befell them. Laudrup couldn’t agree terms on a contract extension and was replaced by René Meulensteen; more significantly Per Bjerregaard handed his son Anders a role as sporting director.
Meulensteen was totally out of his depth, and with directionless backing he could only guide the team to a mid-table position before resigning six months later, claiming the club was “a very sick patient requiring immediate attention”. The unflinching wave of goodwill that Bjerregaard Sr. had garnered over 40 years began to evaporate as results lurched from poor to inexcusable – within eight years the club had gone from winning the double under a club legend to finishing two places off relegation twice in a row. His blatant act of nepotism in appointing his son in a role that was clearly well beyond his ability and knowledge soured the relationship between him and the fans.
Boardroom issues led to endless power struggles that only weakened the club’s health, but the worst virus was finally dispatched in 2009. Although the official line was that Anders Bjerregaard had retired from his position voluntarily, it was clear that his father had gently encouraged him to publically offer the reason to save face. The same year Per was diagnosed with leukemia, but he battled on for another three years before finally retiring just short of half a century’s service to Brøndby. Sympathy was in short supply however, as Theilade recalls.
“In these years the fans became more and more unhappy with Bjerregaard, who was accused of being megolamaniac, while he answered back that the fans didn’t represent the true ‘Brøndby values’. When he finally retired in 2012 there was no applause for him, and while he attended his health and tried to recover from his leukemia, the fans were happy to get rid of him. While many of his old comrades still worked at the club … for many years he didn’t show his face at the stadium.”
All the while, Copenhagen were busy filling their burgeoning trophy cabinet. Since their inception, they have competed in Europe every season except one, although they have only made it out of the group stage once, five seasons ago. The balance of power has swung wildly in their favour domestically though – the days when Allan Nielsen’s transfer to their bitter rivals virtually saved them from financial ruin in their early days are long gone.
Nowadays Copenhagen can afford to splash the cash on new signings, in sharp contrast to Brøndby. Their expenditure of just over €5 million accounted for over half the entire league’s outlay, whereas their struggling rivals were forced to sell off the latest talent to emerge from their youth academy; 18-year-old winger Nikolai Laursen was snapped up by PSV for around £1 million, despite having played less than half a match in total. There is no doubt where the dominance lies in the relationship, and with the nature of finance in football, it is unlikely to change any time soon.
So how will this fairy tale end? The simplest of plots has an endless variety of possible denouements. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale of the Ugly Duckling, there is a sense of hidden beauty waiting to be revealed from within Brøndby’s unsightly lack of achievements. Whether the graceful swan of Laudrup’s reign will reappear or not is debateable, but perhaps their fans should bear in mind Andersen’s timeless words:
“It doesn’t matter about being born in a dockyard, as long as you are hatched from a swan’s egg.”
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint
With thanks to Toke Møller Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade