On 6 August 2017, Nils Nielsen was leading his Denmark side out on what was undoubtedly a historic occasion for football in the country. The then head coach of the Denmark women’s team had against all odds led his team to the final of Euro 2017 where the outsiders would face the hosts – and general outsiders themselves – the Netherlands.
Exactly one year on and Nielsen will be on the touchline in Saint-Malo in France as the China under-20 side he has been assistant manager of in recent months will play their first match of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup.
Many believed Nielsen was destined for greater things after taking Denmark to last year’s box office final but he now finds himself as assistant to friend Peter Bonde as the pair of them look to prepare China’s next big hopefuls for first-team football. While onlookers initially found the move a step down, the 46-year-old is enjoying it. “It’s going well,” he says. “The players want to learn and they’ve been really good, but that was expected. There are a lot of cultural things which make it difficult in China. We are working on it.”
The Under-20 World Cup kicks off this weekend and the fanfare couldn’t be further away from that which greeted Nielsen and Denmark in Enschede when 28,000 fans flocked to watch Nielsen’s side finally fall to the hosts and champions, the Netherlands.
Despite coming so close to success a year ago, there’s no motivation to right any personal wrongs this summer, with Nielsen explaining that there is a bigger picture in play when it comes to his motivations with China. “The challenge for us here is to make a style,” he says. “Every country has their own style of play and we are trying to find a style of play which fits the Chinese players. You always get better if you play the way you enjoy.
“We have the World Cup and that is the main thing for this team but what we want to do is make a base they can work from, something solid they can stand on and say, ‘Hey, we know how we’re playing and what to do to reach the top.’ It’s possible but difficult, you’d think a country with this many people would have a lot of talent. It takes a lot of time for the federation to structure things because the country is so big. In Denmark, it was easy.”
Most outside of women’s football will likely have never heard of Nielsen. Despite his heroics last summer, he was still relatively new to the women’s game but when you dig into his upbringing, it’s remarkable he has achieved what he has in such a short space of time.
Despite being Danish, Nielsen didn’t actually grow up in mainland Denmark; he grew up in Greenland. His parents were school teachers in a small village but divorced when Nielsen was a child and the future football manager moved to the mainland with his mum. “I think they were the only teachers so they were teaching everything,” he laughs. “I’ve been back to visit my dad so I know a little bit about what it’s like to live there despite the fact I left early. I moved to a very small island south of Denmark and lived in another small community so moving to Copenhagen was very different, I was used to knowing everybody.”
It also wasn’t conducive to someone who wanted to pursue a career in football. He laughs when explaining that he got into coaching like many others, because he got injured while playing as a youngster. Nielsen’s injury ensured he made a swift move into coaching and his talents were such that he had his UEFA A Licence by the time he was 20, despite the limit being 25, but an exception was made for him.
“Greenland is a place where there is darkness most of the time and the kind of football you play is indoors,” he explains. “I was from the north of Greenland. I loved playing the game because it was fun. It was difficult. You can go hunting, you can go fishing, but not much else. When I was 12 I had to stay in Greenland for six months and found it really difficult. I loved playing with my team in Denmark, and in Greenland I could only play by myself, there really isn’t that much to do. Where I lived, there weren’t even trees. Nothing was green, I don’t know why they called it Greenland.
“I coached youth football in some of the best clubs in Denmark for 10 years. I really enjoyed it and I found out it was a good thing I didn’t pursue a playing career because I would have never made it that far.”
Throughout university, Nielsen was coaching youth teams in Copenhagen before taking a job coaching the men’s under-15 and 16 teams for the Danish football federation, before moving on to Brøndby. “I enjoyed the club life and had some very good years there,” Nielsen recalls. “It’s a completely different club to FC København. I had the chance to implement some ideas because I was in charge of the coaching from the youth teams up to the first team. I was there for four years, it’s always been a four-year cycle for me wherever I go. From there I went back to the DBU and coached the under-18s, I had six months there before taking over the men’s under-21s.”
Then, in 2013, came Nielsen’s big break: the chance to manage Denmark women’s first team. A side with fledgeling potential who had once been Euro semi-finalists and World Cup quarter-finalists, and despite not qualifying for the World Cup in 2011, they had been in the semi-finals of the most recent Euros in 2013.
It was Nielsen’s first move into the women’s game and it took time to implement his style on the team as they failed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, ending up third in their qualifying group, 10 points behind Switzerland. “I knew a little bit about women’s football because Brøndby were the leading club at the time and I tried to make the girls and boys integrate with each other, to train with each other. I knew a lot but didn’t know everything and I didn’t know much about other clubs.
“I found out very quickly that the women’s daily life is completely different to even the under-19 players I coached at Brøndby. These girls came straight from work or college and the DBU had to buy them time off so they could train with us. It was a completely different world.”
Nielsen knew bold changes were needed in order to get Denmark to Euro 2017 and follow the seven-year plan put in place by the DBU to make the side a force. He admits he had to let some of the squad’s older players “move on” in order to build the side around the next generation. That included bringing through young players such as Maja Kildemoes, Stine Larsen, Nicoline Sørensen and Mie Jans, while also working to get the best out of his front duo of Nadia Nadim and the extremely talented Pernille Harder, something Nielsen admits wasn’t easy at first.
“They are different players but with unquestionable talents and an X-Factor to win matches,” he says. “If you don’t have someone who can score you’re not going to win everything. They are big personalities in different ways. Pernille is a huge talent who works really hard in every little way while Nadia is a great character, a wonderful person and getting these two to work together took a little time.
“Once they did, they could see they both started scoring more. They always scored a lot with their clubs but not the national team. Once Nadia and Pernille found out they could benefit each other. it made it so much easier for us, but it took a little time and a lot of conversations.”
While Nadim and Harder would go on to become crucial players in Denmark’s extraordinary run to the final, Nielsen had to get the team to the tournament first. Denmark qualified comfortably, coming home two points behind Sweden but with more than enough to progress as one of the best runners-up and avoid a playoff.
After being placed in a group with hosts Netherlands, an Ada Hegerberg-led Norway side and an improving Belgium team, not many felt Denmark would even get out of their group. “We had some good results leading up to the Euro’s so we knew we had it in us,” he recalls. “We just had to find consistency and I think that came in the last qualification for the Euros, where they got some confidence. Even if we fell behind we’d push and believe we could win the match. It was a mental thing that made it possible.
“Three of our key players got ACL injuries within a month, it was horrible. We had to reconstruct the team but it was easier than I thought because the players were used to things going wrong. It was just move on, move on, move on. We got three more really nasty injuries during the tournament. We had to send players home after the first and second matches but confidence was so strong because they were used to these setbacks.”
And setbacks they were. Denmark lost to both England and Austria in the weeks leading up to the tournament but a 1-0 win and 1-0 defeat in their opening two group games left them with a chance of qualifying from their group in the last match against Norway.
The Norwegians had struggled and hadn’t scored or taken a point from each of their first two games. Bar Belgium pulling off a shock against the flying Netherlands, Nielsen’s side would progress to a quarter-final against Germany with a win. And win they did; 1-0 again thanks to an early Katrine Veje goal. Germany awaited.
“The idea was not to be so specific about formations,” admits Nielsen. “We didn’t really care about that, we just wanted everybody to make sure they had a chance to put their strengths into play. We spent a lot of time working on things so we could beat the best.”
Germany had won an incredible six European Championships in a row, dating all the way back to 1995, so it was a mammoth task for a nation not at Germany’s level and losing players game-by-game to injury. But the circumstances surrounding the match were unique. Heavy downpours saw the quarter-final abandoned and played the next morning, though Nielsen admits his plan to knock Steffi Jones’ side out had been prepared for and executed months in advance.
“We knew a long time before if we went through the groups behind the Netherlands, we would likely face Germany,” Nielsen says. “We prepared months in advance and we knew there were things we could take advantage of. They have always been very effective and good at exploiting mistakes but this team had a different style. They controlled games more than usual but it also meant they gave up more space and we could exploit that. We wanted to bring Theresa [Nielsen] up the field, we needed her to attack because they had some players on that side who weren’t really used to defending.”
Ironically, it was one of those players, Isabel Kerchowski, who fired Germany into an early lead after an error from goalkeeper Stine Lykke. But goals from Nadim and then a late winner from Theresa Nielsen saw Denmark progress in what was one of the biggest shocks in the history of the Euros. “It was little things,” says the former head coach. “Our players were looking forward to it but even after going behind after two minutes, I could still see the smiles in my player’s faces. Germany got more and more afraid of the failure, they were afraid of losing and we were not. We were expected to lose so maybe next time they will not make the same mistake.”
There was no time to dwell for Nielsen and his side as they now prepared for their second European semi-final in a row, facing fellow overachievers Austria. Dominik Thalhammer’s side had disposed of dark horses Spain via penalties in the quarters and Nielsen had plenty of reason to worry about his side’s credentials to beat Austria, despite their momentous victory against the Germans.
“We played Austria before the Euros and they killed us,” he laughs. “They were so good on counter-attacks and we lost 4-2. It was the last preparation match so I was slightly concerned after that match. We knew what they could do, they had a simple way of attacking so we were sure we wouldn’t let them score too many goals again.”
In what was a tight and tense affair, the Austrians did to Denmark what they’d done to Spain and held out over 120 minutes for their second 0-0 in a row. Penalties would follow, and despite Austria scoring five from five in the previous round, Nielsen feels that gave his side an advantage. “We had seen where all the Austrian players were shooting against Spain and our goalkeeper studied it, she knew where they most likely would put the ball. It’s difficult to win two shootouts in a row, I would have preferred to win in normal time because it’s not nice but they put their first one over the bar and that gave us even more confidence.”
Incredibly, Austria would miss all three of their penalties, allowing Denmark to progress 3-0 in the shootout to their first-ever major tournament final and another encounter with previous group rivals, the Netherlands. Sarina Weigman’s side had won every single match in the tournament and disposed of England 3-0 in the semi-finals, the nation riding the crest of the wave as they looked to build on and capitalise the enthusiasm of the home fans who were turning out in their thousands.
“We played on the first day and we played on the last day, that was nice,” recalls Nielsen. “I spoke to the players about how we’d approach it. We could try to defend the whole match or have a go. We were hoping to get ahead because they hadn’t been behind in the tournament so when we went 1-0 up we had a chance but straight away they equalised.”
Indeed, Nadim’s early penalty had threatened to spoil the home party but goals from Vivianne Miedema and the inspired Lieke Martens gave the hosts a deserved lead – but Denmark weren’t there to be deterred. “Pernille scored a really nice goal and at half-time we were tied 2-2. We made a good match out of it after that but they were better and they were the right champions.
“We started our days as normal as we could, but then again there was nothing normal about it. They’d fought really hard to get there and we tried to talk about how to enjoy a moment like that but still perform. That’s what we did. We didn’t talk tactics, we just talked about to make the best possible moment out of it for themselves.
“It would have been better if we’d have won, it would have been unforgettable, but our players will remember it. It took 10 or 15 minutes just to get to the dressing room because it was so busy. It was loud, so much was going on, it’s incredible they could stay focused. It was a joy to be part of it, they did everything they could to make it a great final.”
One year after the event, Nielsen admits he will never forget that day. “When we went to get our silver medal, I tried to talk to my players. Most were crying because maybe they don’t know if they’ll ever get to another final. I told them they’d played a great tournament, but look up. You can cry as much as you want but you have to show everyone you are proud of what you’d done. Then we had a beer.”
The tournament should have been the springboard for Nielsen to lead the side into the upcoming World Cup in France, but instead he’ll be in the country a year early coaching the next generation of Chinese stars.
In the weeks after the tournament, Nielsen confirmed he had resigned from his post after four years in charge. Nadia Nadim would write in her autobiography that players wanted Nielsen out despite a successful tournament, with the striker being the only squad member to initially stand by the departing manager.
But Nielsen states he left his job due to other factors and was looking forward to a new challenge elsewhere. “It was a combination of many things,” he says. “We had objectives we wanted to achieve and one was to put women’s football in the nation’s mind so everyone knew the players. That was the case after the Euros, they were known all of a sudden. But the DBU changed their leadership and I had a lot of things in my personal life that had changed. I needed a change, that’s the reason I chose something completely different.
“I know people thought I would take something else. and I had chances to. but this worked very well for the situation I was in. This job is not something I need to stay in forever. A very good friend of mine got offered this job out here and asked if I wanted to help him. I wanted to bring my family here so they could explore China, but there were some logistical issues and now they’re in Denmark and I’m out here,” he chuckles dryly.
Nielsen also admits the Denmark job took a lot of energy out of him and the attention that came with the success ensured he needed a break from the limelight. “The attention is what we were all looking for. I was hoping everybody would see how the great the game is and not always make silly comparisons, just enjoy the game. I was really proud of the girls for how they handled that attention. I was part of that, it was part of the job description, but it takes energy and in that respect I just needed a short break. It was not because I didn’t like it or it wasn’t fun but after the amount of hours we put in, it was nice to have a break.
“I had a meeting with the DBU and talked about what we should do now. It wasn’t a long meeting, things had changed over those four years in my life and the leadership at the DBU. They wanted different things and the most important thing was the team, so to take it in the direction they wanted, I would have to do some things differently. We agreed it was better for me to stop. We had a great run together and there were no hard feelings.”
With his family still in Denmark, Nielsen admits he’s open for new things all the time and could just as easily consider a return to club football in his next job. “I think everyone who has tried to be a club coach first will always miss the daily contact with a squad. If you really want to influence players you have to train them every day. In China we have good conditions but it’s not the same.”
The lure of club football didn’t stop Nielsen speaking to the English FA when they were seeking a replacement at the end of 2017 for former head coach Mark Sampson, though. While the job eventually went to Phil Neville, Nielsen admits he did hold brief talks with the FA about the role. “There was some interest from England. I talked to them but they made a different decision and it looks a good decision because I saw them at the SheBelieves Cup and I really think England are playing well.”
For now, Nielsen is enjoying a new challenge and will be hoping to replicate the success of last summer when China kick-off their campaign in France on Monday. Even after some time in one of the biggest countries in the world, Nielsen is still coming across surprises in life. “I drove for the first time in my life to have our training postponed because of the pollution in the air. Two or three years ago they said it was every day but now it happens once or twice a year.
“Beijing is a culture shock for someone who grew up in Greenland,” he laughs. “I have to remember sometimes I’m the foreigner, they have a certain way of doing things and just because I haven’t seen it before, doesn’t make it wrong. Now it’s me who has to adapt.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty