The genius of Morten Olsen, the man who played like Beckenbauer but rarely knew it

The genius of Morten Olsen, the man who played like Beckenbauer but rarely knew it

The date is 13 June 1986, and 11 red-nosed men wearing jam-and-cream biscuit shirts are playing a dead rubber game as though they were trying to reanimate it. Pass and move, pass and move. It is pure joy to watch. Denmark, famed for Hans Christian Andersen, are writing their own footballing fairy tale.

Their game is electric, all speedy interchanges and crackling energy. This is a team of hustlers and hard-noses, crafters and conjurers. Søren Lerby, Frank Arnesen, Jesper Olsen, Preben Elkjær, and, of course, a young Michael Laudrup. The names trip from the tongue, even when the pronunciation fails.

For them, this game is no write-off. This is West Germany. These are rivals. There is no respite for rivalry, even when both sides have already qualified for the second round of this summer’s World Cup. Above all, their captain, an ageless libero who is two months away from turning 37, wouldn’t allow it. Morten Olsen exudes a ‘discipline is freedom’ mantra and a straight-edged, clean-cut style.

The game was uncomfortably tight in the first half. This was not West Germany’s first rodeo by any means. They were playing with a precision and decisiveness imprinted into the DNA of each and every individual. Thirteen minutes in, the Danes almost slipped. Rudi Völler, with perm divine, had managed to touch a lethargic, bouncing pass around Olsen. Somehow, Olsen recovered, sliding the ball away in mid-air as Völler went to meet the half-volley. It defied belief that Olsen was the oldest outfield player at the tournament. His responsiveness was untrammelled by age – and that darned acceleration. He was so quick on the ball, a 0-60 Rolls Royce type of player. A playmaker from the back.

Still, on 42 minutes it was 0-0. Olsen, for the umpteenth time, was slowly meandering upfield with possession, head up as ever, looking once, looking twice for an opening. Arnesen had dropped off from the right-hand side. Olsen gave it to him on the halfway line and Arnesen waited, waited and waited as the captain slowly crept towards the centre circle. Arnesen stuck his arm out and laid off the ball, as if to say, “After you.”

Slow, slow, slow … fast, like stuttering internet connection. The gap suddenly opened. Olsen went full 1990s dial-up to modern day broadband on West Germany. Völler had gamely trudged across to face Olsen, but soon he was simply a voyeur of Olsen’s backside, like Peter Reid would so famously become later on in the tournament as Diego Maradona went through the England team and scored the goal of the century. Everything had opened up, and Olsen went right through the German spine with his blunt surgical instruments.

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Up ahead, the great Preben Elkjær flicked away a cigarette butt and tore away to the right. It was a streetwise, street-smart run, right onto the blindside of Matthias Herget. Karlheinz Förster of all people, West Germany’s man-marker supreme, got caught in two minds. Elkjær had been his man, but Olsen was coming towards him and the former was pulling away. He thought about following Elkjær, then thought about handing him off to centre-back partner Herget. He did neither, and suddenly Olsen was through. Völler, still chasing him, offered a half-hearted tug and the captain went down. Penalty. 

Schumacher and Förster were left looking at each other like, ‘Where did that come from?’ Two years earlier, Olsen had been thinking about retiring. Here, he wasn’t even tiring. Suddenly, that Google search engine of a footballer had up and gone straight through the West Germans, those paragons of an impenetrable firewall. It was orgiastic, storm-in-a-teacup football. Olsen’s pulsating, stichomythic touches of the ball were brilliantly described by the Guardian’s Rob Smyth as “Sensible Soccer touches”. It was a comical twist on the Terri Guillemets line, “Age attacks when we least expect it.”

Ball now on the penalty spot, Jesper, the other Olsen, casually Sunday-afternooned it into Schumacher’s bottom right-hand corner. Olsen twins 1, West Germany 0.

Smyth’s allusion to Sensible Soccer is doubly apt. It was like Olsen was playing the game with a bird’s eye view. Olsen, Arnesen, Elkjær et al. were operating on a 3D chessboard, the West Germans their black-and-white pawns. More than anything, again, as Smyth surmised so astutely, it was the change of pace of Olsen, of Arnesen, of Elkjær that was so utterly devastating. One moment they were laid back, happy-go-lucky everymen, sharing a beer or three with their neighbours, and then they’d turn, like sweet-talking mafiosos who suddenly pull out a piece and shoot you in the back. Dynamite indeed.

Olsen’s defence-to-attack was a throwback to the Don of true libero-style play, who happened to be sitting in the opposite dugout that day in 1986. It was the kind of move Franz Beckenbauer would have played – and been proud of. But it was the German on the Danish bench who was almost eking out a smile. 

Sepp Piontek was a like-minded purveyor of the disciplinary, almost militaristic school of football that Olsen manifested. In his captain he saw a strategist of the same ilk. When Piontek had first taken the Danish job at the end of the 1970s, Olsen, along with centre-back partner Søren Busk, had gone to the new manager and urged a high-pressing, cavalry-charge-like defensive initiative. Piontek had accepted with good grace and even better prescience. 

It would come to define the Danish Dynamite team: defence really was the best form of attack. The counter-charge could catch teams at their most disorganised, with Olsen lighting a fast-burning wick when taking the ball out from the back. The Dynamite were made for the counter. Any one of Elkjær, Lerby, Arnesen, Laudrup and the two Olsens could carry the ball at speed – real speed – and with control, subtlety and precision. Hence the 43rd minute in 1986. 

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Olsen himself was soon professed by World Soccer as the Beckenbauer of the 80s. In truth, he was more of a Beckenbauer post-high-caffeine energy drink. He was the sweeper who would just get up and go, all quick stabs in front of the body like an overenthusiastic boxer.

Olsen hadn’t always been a defender, which is probably unsurprising considering the almost addict-like frenzy with which he plunged into attack. As a young buck he had played as a gangly, blonde-haired winger, that close control and zippy acceleration put to good use for local club Bor Voerdingborg. To Olsen’s own surprise, he was selected to play for the national team after just 10 senior games. First impressions are lasting; Olsen would go on to play 104 more times for his country over a full two decades. 

By 1972, Olsen had circled his way to Cercle Bruges in Belgium. It was to be his home for 14 years. It was here that Olsen’s remarkable versatility was consistently exploited. Molenbeek, his next club, experimented with Olsen as a sweeper in the ‘play it safe mode’ – much to the player’s chagrin, ironically. In spite of his natural affinity to the position, he resented being stuck in the muddied trenches of defence. He so much as threatened to walk from the team if he was asked to play there any longer. 

Looking back, Olsen’s resentment of defence seems more than a peculiar quirk. It is like hearing that Mozart was lukewarm about composing, or that Alex Salmond didn’t really want independence. And yet Olsen’s cantankerous, disagreeable disposition – at times – was, in part, what made him so amenable to his newfound position. He was the professor who wrote the book on how to read the game, and any striker who dared defy him had ought to take ‘no’ for an answer. 

In 1980 Olsen did walk, perhaps literally, a few minutes down the road to Anderlecht, a club re-ascending, led by master-strategist Tomislav Ivić, who won their first Belgian championship in seven years in Olsen’s maiden season. At this point, the Dane was holding the midfield, plugging proverbial gaps with unerring prescience and serenity. But by now he had entered his 30s, so often the steady-on, wind-down watermark for many a footballer whose speed and responsiveness are his bread and cinnamon swirl. But Olsen’s 30s defied this. A shin injury sidelined him for much of 1982 and Ivić made the libero position Olsen’s more-or-less full-time job when the latter returned.

It was a masterstroke. Olsen became the touchstone of experience and leadership on-field, as Anderlecht got better and better. Ivić had given him the licence of a true libero, in the free-roaming, free-thinking mode. It proved to be the vital. He was the well from which hope sprang eternal, from which the waves of attack were pulled. 

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Anderlecht won the UEFA Cup upon Olsen’s return, with his performances in the two-legged final in effect showcasing perfect defensive cohesion and positional play. His astounding play was soon recognised as he was named Danish Footballer of the Year at the end of the season.

Anderlecht made the UEFA Cup final again in 1984 – admittedly, with some dodgy subterfuge against Nottingham Forest – with Olsen wearing the idiosyncratic number 10. It wasn’t just assignatory happenstance. Olsen was in some sense the playmaker-in-chief from the back, a playmaking libero a là Beckenbauer. He would turn the order of regained possession into the chaos of the counterattack. None other than Brian Clough was praising the sheer audacity of the man’s frequent forward forays in the commentary box, which was rather like the queen calling you posh. But Spurs, even sans Glenn Hoddle, won it on penalties after two legs.

Meanwhile, an astoundingly talented Denmark national side were blowing both minds and other national sides away in their Euro 84 qualifying campaign. By now Olsen was captain on two fronts, domestic and international. He was the leader of a once in a lifetime group of players that routinely stuck it to the man, be it Italy in 1981, or France and England in ’83. 

It was “street football”, as Olsen would later say. But it was real ‘knalitet’ street football, without inhibition or expectation. This was football that enthralled, a direct continuation of the Dutch-led, Cruyffian heresy against the oft-stilted, unimaginative, defensive malaise of the mid-1970s. And it was brilliant. These Olsen-led upstarts were blowing the traditional big fish of the proverbial international pond out of the water. They really were Dynamite.

And they came close, oh so close, to beating Spain in 1984. Denmark scored early through the indomitable Søren Lerby. To their regret, Denmark couldn’t hold; La Roja’s own libero, Antonio Maceda, thumped home the equaliser on 67 minutes, and the game went to penalties. Elkjær, of all people, missed the deciding spot-kick before trudging away into the night, his now-famously ripped shorts revealing a forlorn, tragicomic moon. 

Spain became something of a curse for an otherwise unflappable Danish side. It was they who somewhat obliterated the hopes of the captain and company in the second round in 1986, precipitated by a catastrophic Jesper Olsen back-pass, winning 5-1. It was a travesty in truth, a triumph of substance over style. Yet the Dynamite were immortalised, almost definitively by their tragic self-destruction. They became the footballing version of the everyday nearly-men, with superhero red-and-white Hummel capes beneath their nondescript overalls. 

Morten Olsen, of course, cared little for the personal adulation. Upon receiving the Danish Footballer of the Year accolade in 1983 he quipped: “When your team is doing well, then you will get noticed.” It was this confluence of selflessness and mindfulness that made him such a superlative leader. Added to a never-say-die stubbornness and stability, and a play-how-you-see-it subtlety and skill, he was a superlative libero. For a few years in the mid 1980s, Morten Olsen was perhaps the best libero in the world, and it is somehow all the more charming that he, and so many others, never knew it.

By Hector Crawford @Hector_CC5

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