In a football world where multi-million dollar contracts are signed every day and every half-decent player seem to either be the poster boy for underwear or design their own jewellery, there is a player who stands out amongst the crowd.
We are not talking about Steven Gerrard or Francesco Totti. Of course, they could’ve earned more money and won more trophies elsewhere, but when their careers are over they will still have earned more money and won more trophies than most of their colleagues. We are talking about a player who sacrificed something in order to help his beloved club: Daniel Agger.
In 2014, at the age of 29, Daniel Agger gave up the pursuit of major trophies and international glory when he moved back to Denmark and his childhood club Brøndby IF, a club that was almost relegated and bankrupt just two years earlier, and that hadn’t won a trophy since 2008. In fact, Brøndby had slipped further and further away from the top of Danish football since Agger left the club in the winter of 2006. Despite the ambitious signings of former icons and teammates of Agger in the 2004-05 the double winning team, Johan Elmander and Thomas Kahlenberg, there was little chance that Agger would get to celebrate any trophies during his two-year contract with the Yellow-Blues.
Growing up in Hvidovre on the western outskirts of Copenhagen, Daniel Agger had to be tough. The area, where Brøndby’s stadium is also located, is infamous for its ethnic diversity, high crime rate and high unemployment, but unlike the few others from the area who succeeded – like Helle Thorning-Schmidt the former Danish Prime Minister – Agger didn’t abandon the area as soon as he got the chance.
Agger started playing football at local side Rosenhøj BK, a small club famous for the many players it has delivered to the first team of Brøndby, chief among those, Michael Krohn-Dehli. At Rosenhøj, Agger followed in the footsteps of his father Knud and his brother John who were also playing at the club; indeed, his younger cousin Nicolaj started his career there before joining Brøndby.
In 1996, at the age of 11, Agger became too big for Rosenhøj and he took the logical step of moving to Brøndby. This happened just a year after Brøndby had eliminated Agger’s future employees of Liverpool in the UEFA Cup, and the Yellow-Blues were on top of Danish football. Five years earlier Brøndby had gone all the way to the semi-final of the same tournament before eventually losing to AS Roma after a goal by Rudi Völler two minutes from time. This still stands as the greatest European performance ever by a Danish club side.
After overcoming a failed investment that nearly bankrupted the club in 1992, Brøndby dominated Danish football in the late 1990s, winning the league in 1996, ‘97, ‘98 as well as the Danish Cup in 1998 and qualifying for the Champions League in 1999. The year 1998 was also when future Schalke player Ebbe Sand scored 28 goals in the Danish Superliga, which to this day still stands as the highest by any player.
A big part of Brøndby’s success was their outstanding talent development. Ever since Michael Laudrup became the first player from the club to play on the Danish national team after his debut in 1982, Brøndby have been known for their academy. At the 1992 Euros, which Denmark famously won, four players played for Brøndby, while another four had a past at the club, amongst these Brian Laudrup and Peter Schmeichel. It was, therefore, in a successful and competitive environment that Daniel Agger received his football education.
Despite the many stars coming through the ranks, Brøndby never lost the sense of community one would normally relate to smaller clubs. Hundreds of people worked for the club on a volunteer basis, helping with everything from security at the stadium to allowing foreign players live in their spare rooms or coaching in the youth department. It is no wonder that legend Per Bjerregaard, the man who practically built the club, once stated that the club would have gotten nowhere without the volunteers.
With a foundation built on volunteers and Denmark’s most devoted fans, there is no room for big egos at Brøndby. The club slogan is Supra Sociatatem Nemo, literally meaning ‘No one above the community’ but more often referred to as ‘No one above the club’, a saying that is repeated everywhere, from the locker room to the stands and the administration offices.
Agger was far from the most obvious talent on the pitch, and he was all right with that. In an interview with Danish paper Tipsbladet, he once said: “There were those who wanted it more than me, because I played [football] because I had fun. Every other year I played on the second team, and I was alright with that.”
At the same time, the young Agger often caught unwanted attention from his coaches for receiving too many yellow and red cards. Once, after receiving another red card, Agger’s coach, Tom Køhlert, an almost mythical youth coach at Brøndby, told him that he would be kicked out of the club if he couldn’t behave.
As a teenager it was clear that Agger wasn’t like the rest of the boys dreaming of one day playing at Brøndby Stadion and being sold to a big European league. As a boy, his mother had to drag him to the stadium to watch the first team play, and even today Agger is still reluctant to watch other people play football. Apart from the odd Champions League final or Danish national team game, the now 31-year-old Agger doesn’t watch televised football.
“I loved playing football,” Agger once told Euroman, “but it was far from the most important thing in my life, and I felt that way until I was 19-years-old.”
For Agger football is simply a fun activity, but not a way he ever expected, or wanted, to make his living. Instead, he dreamed of joining the military after a friend of his father had showed him pictures and told war stories from his time as a soldier in Kosovo.
Despite dreaming of joining the military, Agger decided to get his act together after Køhlert’s warning and in 2003 he was called up to the Danish under-20 national team after a number of solid performances for Brøndby’s second string. Later that year Brøndby extended Agger’s contract, and in 2004 he became a full-time professional. By then, he had also won over the trust from Køhlert, something that would be crucial for Agger’s later career.
In the summer of 2004, halfway through Michael Laudrup’s four years as head coach for Brøndby, the club sold Swedish international Andreas Jakobsson to Southampton. Jakobsson was an integral part of the Brøndby team that had just finished second in the league behind arch-rivals FC København, and Laudrup pushed for the board to sign him an experienced replacement. However, not long after Laudrup changed his mind after Køhlert famously told him: “When Daniel Agger has played ten games, nobody will be speaking about Andreas Jakobsson.”
It turned out that ten games was more than enough for Agger to convince everybody about his talent, and he was quickly integrated into the team, playing together with captain Per Nielsen in central defence. Coming into the team with his bleached hair, tattoos and hip-hop clothing, Agger immediately became a fan-favourite; he was clearly from the same area as the fans on the stands.
The 2004-05 season remains historic in Danish football as Brøndby played some of the best football ever seen in the country. On their road to the double, the team beat København 5-0 at home, Agger scoring the opening goal with a memorable header.
After failing to reach the Champions League group stage the following season, Brøndby had to settle with the UEFA Cup group stage, but by then Agger had already outgrown Denmark. In January 2006 he left the club to sign a four-and-a-half year contract with Liverpool, becoming the most expensive player ever sold by a Danish club. It was now certain that his future lay outside of the Danish military.
Agger’s departure also marked the end of an era for Brøndby. After the season ended, Laudrup, top scorer Morten Skoubo, Johan Elmander and Thomas Kahlenberg all left the club for bigger challenges, and former Manchester United coach René Meulensteen failed to rebuild the team after the drain of talent. Brøndby managed three third place finishes and a cup trophy while Agger was gone, but it was clear that the magic was no longer present. The talismanic Chief Executive Officer Per Bjerregaard was sick, and his decision-making was weakened. The club made several failed investments in players and the bank account was slowly emptied.
Despite moving to Liverpool and eventually starting in the 2007 Champions League final, Agger never lost the connection to his home in Denmark. While his teammates invested in exorbitant and exclusive properties around the world, Agger and his uncle bought the pub ‘Center Pubben’ in his native Hvidovre. The pub is far from the luxurious place you would usually associate with Premier League football players. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of that, but it’s worn appearance and cheap beers fits perfectly with the crowd and Agger’s background.
“It is a place that means a lot to me,” Agger said after he had bought the place. “My family comes there, and I was practically raised at the place. When I lived in Denmark, I was there every day, drinking a coke and playing billiard.”
Standing in front of the pub, Agger didn’t look much different from any of the other young men shopping with their girlfriends at the nearby mall or the old workers starting the morning with a couple of quick pints.
After purchasing and later selling two restaurants in Liverpool, Agger entered another adventure in 2013. Once again his choice of business was unusual – to put it mildly – for a footballer. Together with his brother and an old friend, he opened the sewer company KloAgger, a wordplay on the Danish word for sewer ‘kloak’ and his own last name.
“A lot of people are busy flocking out of Denmark with their investments,” Agger’s partner Rune Rasmussen said after the company was founded. “Now we have someone who earns a lot of money, but chooses to invest his money in Denmark to create work places. Daniel could have chosen to keep his money abroad where the taxes are lower, but he didn’t. I think that is a good sign.”
While Agger’s intentions might not have been as noble as Rasmussen makes them sound, there is no doubt that Agger wanted to help his community, especially as sewage work isn’t the kind of business you enter if you want to earn some quick money.
After returning to Brøndby, KloAgger even became a part of the sponsor group at the stadium, and the name is now displayed at every home game.
Even though it at some point looked like Agger would finish his career in Liverpool’s red jersey, he continued to care about Brøndby. When the club was close to bankruptcy in 2013, he offered to buy shares in the club to raise money; at the same time he refused to receive a large amount of money Brøndby owed him.
“Brøndby means a lot, not just for football players, but for many people,” Agger said. “It is a huge organization and a huge network. You can see that there are still a lot of people turning up. It means something in the whole country and especially at Vestegnen (nickname for the area where Brøndby and Hvidovre are located).”
That summer, while Brøndby were fighting for their lives, Agger once again proved his loyalty, this time to Liverpool. After winning yet another Spanish championship, the mighty FC Barcelona chose Agger as the replacement for Carles Puyol who was about to enter the last season of his career. However, after a talk with Brendan Rodgers, Agger joined an exclusive club of players who have turned down Barcelona, as he opted to stay in Liverpool where he would become the vice-captain. During his eight years in Liverpool, Agger was often approached by bigger clubs, but every time he would prove just how much he meant the ‘YNWA’ he had tattooed on his knuckles.
Despite Agger’s loyalty to Liverpool, Rodgers failed to live up to his promises to the great Dane and, after repeatedly being left out of the starting line-up with no reasonable explanation, Agger decided to leave Liverpool in the summer of 2014. Once again, Barcelona was reported to be interested in Agger, just like Arsenal, Napoli and several other major European clubs, but for Agger there was only one option.
“I have some special feelings for this club, and for me that means more than money and material things,” he explained after he had officially joined Brøndby. “I could probably have gotten a contract with a bigger club and earned more money, but that is not important for me. I want to be happy with what I am doing, and at the same time feel that I am making a difference where I am.
“Since I left Brøndby in 2005 [sic] I have always dreamt of one day returning and playing in the yellow jersey again. It is fantastic that it is now coming true.”
Earlier that summer, Brøndby had signed Johan Elmander after he had left Norwich, and the year before Thomas Kahlenberg returned to Denmark after four disappointing years at Wolfsburg and a loan at Evian TG. With the trio together again, the fans could once more dream of success.
Unlike Kahlenberg and Elmander, however, Agger didn’t return because he was out of options, but because Brøndby was the only option he cared about.
When Agger revealed that he would be leaving Liverpool, the club hoped to receive a big compensation when he was sold. However, as Liverpool learned that Agger would only leave the club for Brøndby, they had to either settle for the £3 million Brøndby could pay or keep Agger and his expensive salary on the books for another year. In the end, Agger left Liverpool in one of the biggest bargains that summer.
When he joined Brøndby, Agger became both the best and the most famous player to join a Danish side since Bobby Moore famously made nine appearances for Herning Fremad in 1978. Last season, Agger helped Brøndby win their first medals since 2011 as they finished third in the league. His contract expires after this season and so far no decision has been made regarding his future.
Even though Daniel Agger is by far the biggest star playing in Danish, as well as wider Scandinavian football at the moment, he remains the embodiment Brøndby, and there is no doubt he’ll think hard about what’s best for Brøndby before deciding his future. After all, no one is above the club. Not even Daniel Agger.
By Toke Møller Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade