It is easy to understand why the Danish U-17 national team might not be considered among the favourites for this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico. After all, they have never qualified for either of the U-17 or U-20 versions of the tournament previously. What is more, the Danish Dynamite have been drawn in one of the toughest groups alongside Australia, Côte d'Ivoire and highly-fancied Brazil. An impossible task, you may think, but perhaps not judging by their form en route to Mexico 2011.
Not only did the Scandinavians come through qualifying for the UEFA U-17 European Championship 2011 undefeated (five wins, one draw), they were also the only team to reach the semi-finals in Serbia on the back of three group-stage victories. 2010 European champions England (2-0), 2004 winners France (1-0) and hosts Serbia (3-2) all succumbed to the Danes, who eventually met their match against Germany in a 2-0 reverse in the last four.
“I always knew we had a lot of potential and the ability to beat even the strongest teams,” coach Thomas Frank told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I was looking forward to testing the side out at the European Championships, but I must admit I was a little surprised at how well we performed against the top teams.
Fresh wind blowing
"We feel fantastic at the moment. It’s the first time a Danish junior team has qualified for a World Cup. It’s a historic feat for Danish football and we’re very proud of our achievement. Now we want to write even more history in Mexico.”
All the hard work behind the scenes finally appears to be paying off in the land of the 1992 UEFA European Championship winners. “Danish football has invested a lot of money into youth development over the past four to five years,” explained Frank. “There used to be inconsistencies between the football philosophies of the junior and senior national teams. Our success is a consequence of a breath of a fresh air which has swept through youth football in Denmark.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Frank has been involved with the Danish FA since 2008, first coaching the U-16s before taking over the U-17s and helping to restructure junior football in Denmark from within. “Key players at this tournament will be Frederik Holst and Riza Durmisi in defence, Patrick Olsen in midfield, as well as Victor Fischer and Kenneth Zohore up front.
"There are a few others who could also make it right to the top. Normally you have three to six strong players, but this year we have a lot more. It’s important for the players and their development to take part in a World Cup, especially in an environment which is different to Denmark. It’ll be interesting to see how they get on. I’m very confident and I can’t wait for it to finally get started.”
Praise for the hosts
Clearly the Scandinavians are heading into their first FIFA U-17 World Cup with the wind in their sails. Even a daunting group including more established nations has done little to knock Frank’s confidence regarding his side’s progression into the knockout stages. According to him, anything is possible beyond that: “If we can play to our potential, I think we could be dark horses.”
Needless to say, complacency will need to be avoided if the Danes are to indeed make it into the Round of 16. “Brazil are renowned the world over and their team speaks for itself. We’ve got an extraordinarily difficult opening match ahead of us against arguably the best team in the world, but we’re looking forward to it.
"Ivory Coast are another side respected around the world and one of the best teams in Africa, if not the best at the moment. They keep on producing technically and physically strong players. Australia is a team which is improving all the time. They’ve developed enormously in terms of youth over the last few years and they have a great footballing culture.”
Frank’s detailed analysis of his side's opponents reflects just how well he and his staff are prepared for the impending showdown in Mexico. Before the interview came to a close, the former Frederiksvaerk BK player took the opportunity to tell FIFA.com of his admiration for the hosts: “Absolutely top-class. Great organisation, perfectly structured, excellent hotels and stadiums and a high level of security. I’ve only heard positive things about Mexico as hosts so far. We really can’t wait to get over there.”