For a player who, in his own uncompromising words, was “by no means mad about football”, Nils Middelboe was perhaps the most prominent continental footballer of his time. In an era when the Home Nations were still the masters of the game, the “Great Dane”, as he would become known, marked himself out as an extremely talented defender, with a knack for reading the game and carrying the ball out of defence that was well ahead of his time.
He played football the way he lived his life: with a sense of freedom, a smattering of style and panache, and a disdain for the restrictions of the established norms. He shunned tactical limitations to impose his freestyle chic wherever he played, while standing against the tide of professionalism as a stoutly amateur player throughout his impressive career. Still revered as a hero in Denmark, Middelboe was an imposing but skilled giant of a half-back who would forge his reputation in the Olympic arena before subsequently making his mark on the English game.
Football had been introduced to Denmark by British sailors and its popularity had rapidly spread across a country that, in terms of the upper classes, to which Middelboe belonged, was strongly Anglophile. Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (KB), the foremost club of the time, was founded by English-educated Danes to become one of the earliest clubs on the continent. Middelboe made his senior debut for KB at the age of 16, in 1903, where he played alongside his two older brothers. Together they helped drive KB to five titles, a success which would also bring international recognition for Middelboe.
This was an age when British football sat some way ahead of its continental counterparts. However, if there was one nation that could pose something of a challenge to the established order of the time, it was Denmark. The 1908 Olympic Games in London would bring Middelboe’s skills to the attention of the English audience for the first time, as he inspired his Denmark team to a silver medal. His goal in the opening match against France was the first ever scored by an official national team in Olympic football, as well as his country’s first ever international goal.
Denmark were made to settle for the silver medal, losing 2-0 to an England team representing all of Great Britain, but they had made their mark. Noteworthy 9-0 and 17-1 thrashings on the way to the final emphasised just how impressively football had developed in Denmark, and in Middelboe they had a bona fide star.
His excellence wasn’t merely limited to the football field either. He was a national record holder at 800m, as well as a national champion in the triple jump and the sprint relay, in addition to being a dab hand with a tennis racket too. Before his career had run its course, he would add refereeing to his list of notable achievements too.
Back again at the Olympic Games, in Stockholm in 1912, this time as captain, he would have to settle for silver, behind Great Britain once more. Showing his versatility, he would alternate between defence and a more forward-thinking role in midfield, where his elegance on the ball helped Denmark past Norway and the Netherlands on the way to the final rematch with the British. In a career interrupted by the First World War, Middelboe would play 15 times for his country in all, scoring seven goals; a remarkable return considering his primarily defensive role.
His Olympic endeavours brought him far wider-reaching attention and a year after that second silver medal, Middelboe signed for Chelsea, becoming the first foreign player to represent the London club. Such was his reputation, even in an age when foreigners were assumed to be well below the standard of home-grown players, Middelboe was handed the Chelsea captaincy upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge in a significant show of faith from his teammates. He had initially signed for Newcastle but made the move south, to Chelsea, without ever donning the black and white shirt of the Magpies.
In spite of signing for a professional team, Middelboe was a decidedly amateur player. Football was never an all-consuming passion for him and indeed he would never earn a penny from his lengthy career. He was a gentleman amateur in a working man’s game. Despite the potential riches on offer, he earned his living as a banker during his stay in London, while also being a qualified lawyer.
He may have been the team captain but Middelboe’s off-field career took precedence to such an extent that the vast majority of his Chelsea appearances came at home. His job meant that he couldn’t travel with the rest of the team on Friday afternoons for their weekend away fixtures.
It was not only that he had to be at work; he also wanted it that way. The way he saw things, as a devout amateur, playing for money would have detracted from the feeling of freedom and satisfaction that football provided him. But for this stance, he would have undoubtedly played more times for Chelsea – than the 46 games spread over five seasons – either side of the First World War.
Fittingly, in his later days, he would have one final fling with the Denmark national team, in the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920, although by this time, Denmark’s prominent position in world football had waned. He would go on to play for the famous amateur club Corinthians before later becoming a director of Clapton Orient. He subsequently moved into coaching with his first club, KB, winning the title again in 1940, as well as working with the national team.
A lifelong devotee of the idea of freedom on the football field, he railed against overbearing coaches who stifled players’ creativity. While working as an interpreter for Edward Magner, the English coach of the Denmark team in 1939, Middelboe supposedly watered down Magner’s tactical instructions which would see the team stuck in the rigid WM formation of the time. “To systemise is to sterilise,” he wrote in his book Common Sense about Football.
This sense of freedom was ably demonstrated not only in the stylish and sophisticated way he played the game throughout his career, but also in the way he lived his life. A trailblazer who became a hero in his homeland and a pioneer in a foreign land, Nils Middelboe played in a manner far ahead of his time, while firmly sticking to the amateur ideals of a disappearing age. Football was, in effect, an unpaid side-line for Middelboe, making his achievements, and the lasting, loving esteem in which he is held in both Denmark and at Chelsea, all the more remarkable.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams