The Olsen Gang’s rapid rise
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Danish sport had multiple reasons for cheer as 2009 began. Mikkel Kessler was fresh from knocking out Danilo Haussler with a stunning five-punch combination to retain his WBA super middleweight boxing title and up his professional record to a magnificent 41-1; Soren Kjeldsen had won the lucrative last edition of the Volvo Masters, the concluding event of the PGA European Tour, to claim a top-ten position on the 2008 Order of Merit; and recent conquests had rendered the southernmost Nordic nation the reigning European Handball Championship and Speedway World Cup kings, while Nicki Pedersen was about to begin the quest for an unprecedented third successive Speedway Grand Prix crown.

But while boxing, golf, handball and speedway have prominent followings in Denmark, football is unequivocally its most popular sport. And in footballing terms, Danes had nothing to smile about in March 2009.

Their national team had missed out on a place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. They had finished fourth in their UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying group – acceptably, perhaps, behind Spain; unacceptably, outright, behind fierce enemies Sweden and minnows Northern Ireland. Their last two results were a 1-1 draw with Greece and a 1-0 loss at home to minnows Wales. They had, accordingly, slumped to 38th - their lowest-ever position - on the FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Denmark’s existing model was a decaying shadow of their Michael Laudrup-inspired wow machine of the 1980s, the resolute regiment Richard Moller Nielsen guided to glory at EURO 1992, or the outfit that occupied a personal best of third place on the global ladder in May, July and August of 1997.

The current cast, by contrast, had the critics rallying. How long could they persevere with Morten Olsen, who assumed the reins in 2000? Could 30-somethings Thomas Sorensen and Dennis Rommedahl still cut it on the international stage? Did the output of youngsters Simon Kjaer and Nicklas Bendtner really vindicate their hype? Did Denmark genuinely have a chance of holding off Portugal, Sweden and Hungary for Group 1’s automatic ticket to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™?

Those questions have been answered in the most pleasant of red and white fonts. Denmark did, of course, qualify for 19th edition of the global finals, and, thanks to Olsen’s tactical acumen, an admirable defensive record indebted to Sorensen and Kjaer, and the attacking contributions of Rommedahl, Bendtner and teenage sensation Christian Eriksen, they entered the final week of Group H qualifying for EURO 2012 in with a chance, albeit a slim one according to the odds, of seizing top spot and a place at the continental finals.

His results are indisputable, and the way the team plays bears witness to the fact that we are on the right path.
Jim Stjerne Hansen, the Danish FA's general secretary, on Morten Olsen

De Rod-Hvide (The Red and Whites) won 4-1 in Cyprus on 7 October to leave themselves knowing that victory over visiting Portugal in their final qualifier four days later would accomplish the feat, and anything less would hand the coveted berth to Paulo Bento’s charges. Raul Meireles, Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co arrived in Copenhagen in confident mood, given that they had won eight and drawn one of their last ten matches – including a 3-1 win over the Danes and a 4-0 thrashing of world champions Spain – and were chasing a sixth straight victory. However, with Eriksen stylishly conducting proceedings, the hosts dominated from the outset and, with an early Michael Krohn-Dehli effort and a second-half tap-in from Bendtner preceding an 11th-hour consolation from Ronaldo, the Scandinavians emerged 2-1 winners to clinch a EURO 2012 berth.

Yesterday, those six paramount points received a padding prize: a seven-place rise to joint-tenth, alongside Argentina, on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Denmark had leapt above, among others, Croatia, Russia, France, Chile and Japan to return to the top ten for the first time since May 2003.

Eriksen reflected: "We are growing game by game and everybody enjoys playing for this team – that's why we are getting results.” Right-back Lars Jacobsen added: "Portugal have a great side and some great players, but we played as a team, showed courage and won deservedly. We did everything we had talked about before the game – our tactics were spot on.”

Those tactics were the brainwork of Olsen. And though the 62-year-old’s contract is due to expire after EURO 2012, the Danish Football Association (DBU) is already striving to tie the man who represented his country 102 times, in various positions, between 1970 and ’89 to an extension.

The organisation’s general secretary Jim Stjerne Hansen said: “I think Morten Olsen is the coach with Danish blood in his veins who is best for this job. His results are indisputable, and the way the team plays bears witness to the fact that we are on the right path.”

That path has already slungshot Denmark from their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking nadir to the heights of the top ten in the space of just 31 months. And while the overwhelming consensus is that they have zero chance of going on to surpass their all-time high of third or conquer the continent next year, they will not lack aspiration of belief. After all, Olsen-Banden (The Olsen Gang), are nicknamed after a group of fictional movie criminals renowned for their outrageously ambitious plots, while every Dane has heard the factual ’92 tale that could easily be mistaken for a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.