* *When Nils Nielsen reflects on the year 2016 he can be thoroughly pleased with his side's performance. Denmark's women's national team reached a UEFA European Championship for a tenth successive time and will face Norway, Belgium and tournament hosts the Netherlands in the group stage in summer 2017. They booked their ticket to the continental showdown by virtue of finishing as one of the six best second-placed teams during qualifying.
"I think we played well," said the 45-year-old in an interview with FIFA.com. "In the second half of the qualifying campaign we looked very strong, and the things we'd been working on started to show. We only let in one goal and scored 22, with 17 of those coming in the last four matches. I think that's very satisfactory. We were in a strong group but we managed to qualify automatically and that's a good achievement for the team."
Yet while the Danes are regular participants at the Women's EURO, they were absent from the two most recent FIFA Women's World Cups™. Nielsen has a theory as to why that is: "The competition is getting increasingly stronger, so a small country like ours can’t expect to qualify for the World Cup every time. But with the team we have now and the quality of our young players we'll be challengers when it's time to qualify for the next World Cup."
Such a clear statement of intent is not without substance, as there have been numerous positive developments in recent years. "We've done a lot of great things off the pitch," Nielsen explained. "We have a lot more licensed female coaches and leaders in clubs and the federation. There are new projects to improve the standard of clubs and also to help our players have easier day-to-day lives.
"That's also what it'll take for us to get to the very top again with our national team. We have many players who are skilful and dedicated but who need an easier daily life in order to focus on the sport. We're not quite where we want to be but we're moving in the right direction."
As true as that may be, there is still a long way to go. Denmark achieved their highest-ever position of sixth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in March 2007, as well as in March and June 2009. Many years have passed since then, and Denmark currently find themselves in 20th place.
A trio of role models
"The countries with many players playing in fully professional leagues have a huge advantage," said Nielsen, who took the reins of the national team in 2013. "It will take time to do this in smaller countries, but I strongly believe there is a product to sell to sponsors and the media. A product that speaks to many people who aren't involved in the men's game because they can't identify with the players. Once we get these people to follow the girls and help them, then we can make life easier for the players and they will evolve the game for us."
The Greenland native had a difficult start to life at the helm of the national team, as several older players decided to hang up their boots. Yet his charges have performed so consistently over the last 18 months that Nielsen believes they will be a force to be reckoned with at the EURO. In his role as coach Nielsen analyses other countries as a matter of course, but he does so not only to scout future opponents. He is also interested in the methods they employ to develop women's football, believing Denmark can pick up or thing or two from them.
"At club level we can learn a lot," he explained. "For example, how they make matches an event for the city and how to organise the clubs in a more professional way." Three countries in particular have caught his eye. "I love the way Germany, Spain and Switzerland, in very different ways, managed to turn things around by taking initiative with their talent development. It's no coincidence that these three countries are doing so well."