Denmark were, for generations, characterised by adventure. They netted 26 goals in three outings en route to silver at the 1908 Olympics, built a free-scoring side around the astoundingly prolific Poul 'Tist' Nielsen, and wowed spectators with their attack-conscious side of the mid-1980s, which featured the likes of Allan Simonsen, Michael Laudrup, Jesper Olsen and Preben Elkjaer Larsen and became renowned for a 6-1 victory over Uruguay at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™.
Then came Peter Schmeichel. The hulking, cantankerous goalkeeper was, virtually, a permanent presence between the Danish sticks for 13 years from 1987. He helped his country abandon their outscore-the-opposition philosophy and evolve into a hard-to-beat side. He helped them enjoy their meridian: a UEFA EURO 1992 conquest.
Denmark’s qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was also indebted to their mean defensive record. However, in June 2009, despite topping Group 1 in the European Zone, they were not expected to progress from an extremely tough pool comprising Sweden, Portugal and a much-improved Hungary.
Morten Olsen’s team had a trip to their Scandinavian rivals, and the visit of a team invigorated by the return to fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo and the adoption of Brazil-born striker Liedson, forthcoming. Moreover, the Danes had been depleted by injuries, prompting their coach to hand little-known Palermo centre-back Simon Kjaer his international debut.
To suggest the 20-year-old was thrown in at the deep end is an understatement. He was, like a child without armbands, catapulted into the depths of the Baltic Sea, pitted against a ruthless predator by the name of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sweden were expected to win. Ibra was expected to have a field day.
Kjaer had other ideas. He marked his illustrious adversary out of the game to help Denmark emerge 1-0 victors. "It was definitely a dream debut,” enthused Kjaer. “I couldn’t have wished for more than an away win over Sweden. They needed the victory, so they were pressing forward a lot, but we managed to keep a clean sheet. I was pleased with my performance. Zlatan is a great striker with so much skill, but I managed to keep him in check.”
Kjaer then turned in a man-of-the-match performance in a 1-1 draw with Portugal that left Denmark firmly on course to reach South Africa 2010, a feat they accomplished with one game to spare following a 1-1 draw in Albania and 1-0 success at home to Sweden. Olsen subsequently hailed the blond defender as a "very important player".
The rise to the prize
Kjaer made his professional bow with Midtjylland in 2007, and swiftly infatuated a selection of prestigious suitors, including Real Madrid. However, it was not in the extolled white of Los Merengues that he found himself performing from the start of 2008, but in the obscure pink of Palermo, who paid €4m to secure his services.
Dominant in the air and very difficult to get past, Kjaer immediately made a first-team place his own and helped I Rosanero finish eighth in the 2008/09 Serie A. He began the current campaign in impeccable form, too, and was duly crowned Danish Footballer of the Year for 2009.
“I have always dreamed about winning this award, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, at just 20, I would be on a list of winners that includes Peter Schmeichel and the Laudrup brothers. It’s the ultimate prize in Denmark. I’m incredibly proud and happy. It has given me confidence and belief that I can achieve much more in football.”
At club level, a giant of the sport is likely to hand Kjaer the chance to fulfil that goal, with AC Milan, Chelsea, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Real Madrid among those who have shown an interest in prising him from Sicily. On the international front, his objective is to help Denmark advance from a competitive Group E, which also includes the Netherlands, Japan and Cameroon, at South Africa 2010.
"The World Cup will be an incredible experience for me,” said Kjaer. “I’ve dreamed of playing in the competition since I was a boy. We have a tough group but we’re confident we can reach the knockout phase.”
As of February 2010, Kjaer has made seven appearances for Denmark (three wins, three draws and one loss), during which time they conceded five goals.
Kjaer grew up as a fan of Liverpool, but has stated that it would not prevent him from playing for one of the English giants’ rivals.
Kjaer’s idol is Daniel Agger, whom he partners at centre-back for Denmark. "Representing my country was one dream and playing alongside Agger was another," said the Palermo defender.
Kjaer is one of only a few players to have won the Danish Footballer of the Year award before his 21st birthday. Michael Laudrup seized the prize at the age of just 18 in 1984, while his brother Brian was 20 when he was crowned for the first time in 1989.