Few men have dedicated more to their national team than Morten Olsen. The Denmark coach’s length of service is remarkable enough, with 19 years as a player having been followed a stint in the dugout that stands at 13 years and counting. Olsen was the first Dane to reach 100 caps and, as one of the longest-serving coaches in international football, has comfortably surpassed his playing tally since taking charge of the national reins in 2000.
Of all those matches, spread over several decades, none have stung him like the 4-0 home defeat to Armenia his team suffered during the current 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ preliminary campaign. It was a result he described at the time as “incomprehensible”, and one which seemed to have put paid to any chance of Denmark reaching the third World Cup of his tenure.
However, Olsen’s side have since bounced back to register two successive away wins – exacting revenge over Armenia in the second – and go into their final two qualifiers just a point behind second-place Bulgaria. Decisive home matches against Italy and Malta now await and, while uncomfortable at relying on results elsewhere, the Denmark coach told FIFA.com that a topsy-turvy campaign could yet end in positive style.
FIFA.com: This has been a strange preliminary competition for Denmark, with real highs – a 3-0 win in Czech Republic, for example – and crushing lows like the 4-0 defeat to Armenia. What do you put that down to?
Morten Olsen: We were deservedly beaten [3-1] in Italy, and that can always happen against such a strong team. But in the other games, we’ve always managed to create a lot of chances. Our problems have come through not taking those chances. That has been our big failing. I do think we have played some good football, but we have also made some bad mistakes defensively and not made enough of our opportunities and good approach play. That’s something which definitely needs to change.
You at least come into these final two matches on the back of two hard-fought wins away to Armenia and Malta.
We feel a lot better about things than we did before those games, that’s for sure. What we’ve done is given ourselves a chance after such a disastrous result at home against Armenia, although that’s all it is: a chance. But I’m encouraged by the squad we have for these matches coming up. We’ve had to deal with a lot of injuries in certain positions throughout these qualifiers and now, for the first time, it seems that everyone is ready to play. That gives me confidence and a good feeling because, when we have all our players fit, I do believe we have a strong squad.
It is between you and Bulgaria, who currently hold a one-point advantage, for second place. Do you see Denmark as the underdogs?
Well, we are in a position we don’t like because it’s not only about what we do. We must win our games, that’s for sure, but we also need to rely on other teams helping us by taking points against Bulgaria. You’re always more comfortable as a coach when you have things in your own hands. But that’s the situation we’ve put ourselves in and we need to try to get out of it.
Your first challenge comes on Friday against Italy. Do you feel you might benefit from a possible drop in their motivation given that they have already qualified?
I don’t think so, not at all. The one thing you know when you face a world-class team with world-class players is that they will show complete professionalism. They will be going out to show why they have qualified. And whoever they pick in the team, even if there are couple of young players in there, will be going out to show that they deserve to be selected for the World Cup.
You won over 100 caps as a player and have overseen well over 100 as a coach. Do you feel that such experience counts for a lot when it comes down to this crucial stage in qualifying campaigns?
I know what to expect, that’s for sure. But I think the decisive thing is to have players with experience of these kind of situations, and we are fortunate that most of our squad have already tasted World Cups, European Championships and tough qualifying campaigns. They’ve gone through a lot of important games together and that gives me a good feeling that they will cope well with the mental stress. They’ve done it before, so there’s no reason why they can’t do it again.
Christian Eriksen, who has long been seen as vital to the future of your team, made the first major move of his career recently by going to Tottenham Hotspur. Are you hopeful that will be a positive step for his development?
Of course. Christian was with us at the last World Cup in 2010 and he’s been a big player for us ever since really. I think he already has more than 30 games for the national team and, for a guy of just 21, that’s a lot of experience. He’s a player the public like to see because he’s exciting to watch, and I’m sure he’ll be a big player for Denmark for many years to come.
Eriksen is the kind of stylish player we have almost become accustomed to seeing Denmark produce, certainly since the days of the team you played in. What do you put that down to?
That’s the kind of football philosophy we have here. We might be a little country but we put a lot of importance in producing technically good, elegant players. Christian is an obvious example and when I look at our youth teams, I always see players with good technical skills and that kind of profile.
With the stakes so high, and qualifying for the World Cup so important to the mood and self-esteem of the entire country, do you feel under a lot of personal responsibility? Do you think the players feel the same?
For sure. It’s an honour to represent your country but there is responsibility that comes with that. The most important thing is that it is a positive thing for the players. We don’t want them weighed down by it because enjoying your football, enjoying what you are doing, is so important to playing well.
Finally, what would it mean to you to be part of a World Cup in Brazil?
I said from the first qualifying game that although every World Cup is special and a big highlight in a footballer's career, some World Cups are more special than others. If you’re talking about a World Cup in Brazil, I don’t know if it can get much better. Certainly for my generation, when you think of football at its best and the World Cup, you think of Brazil. I know it will be a great World Cup and we want desperately to be there.