Back in 2008, Denmark's hopes of reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ looked anything but certain when they found themselves drawn in the same group as Sweden and Portugal. However, the Danes defied the pre-qualifying predictions by topping their group and taking the automatic qualifying berth.
The Scandinavians will be competing at their fourth FIFA World Cup next Summer in South Africa, where they will be hoping to emulate their previous best performance at the event - a quarter-final appearance in 1998. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to coach Morten Olsen about the qualifying campaign just concluded, his future with the side and expectations for South Africa 2010.
FIFA.com: Congratulations on reaching the final phase of the FIFA World Cup™. Did you celebrate with your team after the all-important victory over Sweden?
Morten Olsen: Yes, of course! It was very important for us to qualify again. We didn't make it to the last World Cup. In a very tough qualifying group where Portugal were the clear favourites, we managed to win the group with a game to spare. This was a first for Danish football and an outstanding achievement.
In the final match in front of your own fans, you lost 1-0 to Hungary - your only defeat in the entire qualifying campaign. Was motivation a problem in that game?
The players approached that match with the right mentality. We simply didn't take our chances and that was the reason we lost. We played well in the first half but were poor in the second. I agree, however, that coming so soon after we qualified, it was mentally a difficult exercise for us.
Were you surprised at the strength of your team, and how you managed to top the group ahead of Portugal and Sweden?
We had our share of luck in some of the games, every team needs that. But we were also very unlucky with injuries. We used 37 or 38 players in total. We were forced to field different teams in every game and we still managed to get the job done. Considering this, it was a tremendous feat to qualify.
Who has surprised or disappointed you in the qualifying stages of the FIFA World Cup?
In our group Portugal were the clear favourites. They are definitely one of the best footballing teams in the world, but they didn't convert their chances and that's what counts. France have only made the play-offs. They too usually qualify directly. Apart from those, all the other major nations have qualified. The standards in world football, and especially in Europe, have levelled off, as the preliminary phase again showed. The performance on the day is very often the only thing that matters. That will also be very important at the World Cup next Summer.
The FIFA World Cup in South Africa will be a very special tournament since it is the first on African soil.
Every edition of the World Cup is special with its own magic and unique atmosphere. It's fantastic that the tournament is being held in Africa for the first time so that the people there can really experience it up-close. I remember very well the enthusiasm in Asia in 2002 and the incredible experience everybody had there. For the players and myself, taking part in the World Cup is the greatest honour of all.
What are your goals with the team in South Africa?
That's difficult to say. Qualification has taken almost 18 months, the tournament itself lasts only four weeks. We have to ensure we have our best players in South Africa and that we're in good shape when we get there. If we manage that, we'll have a strong team. Then, we'll see who we get in our group. Denmark will not be one of the favourites but if we have our best players available, which wasn't the case in the qualification phase, we can achieve a lot. The most important thing at a World Cup is to show that you can play good football. In 2002 we reached the second round and this time we hope to repeat that while playing good football.
What are the strengths of your team?
Our main strength is that every player knows exactly what he has to do. We have our concept, our philosophy. In addition, we have some key players such as Daniel Agger (Liverpool), Christian Poulsen (Juventus) or Daniel Jensen (Werder Bremen). These are experienced players, which is important, especially for the younger players taking part in their first World Cup. For us, the most important thing is the team.
When the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa gets underway, you'll have been Denmark's national coach for ten years. How do you see your future?
I don't know that yet. It was our goal to qualify for the World Cup in 2010. Maybe I'll return to club football after the tournament or I may stay with the national team. I'll make a decision on that over the coming months.