Nielsen and the start of a new Swiss era
Nils Nielsen has been in charge of Switzerland since December 2018
He guided Denmark to the final of the UEFA Women’s EURO in 2017
That same year he was shortlisted for The Best FIFA Women’s Coach award
Looking back, it seems as if Nils Nielsen knew in September 2017 that he would be taking on a new challenge just over a year later. "I don’t know what’s next for me," he said in an interview with FIFA.com after resigning from his post as Denmark’s head coach. "When I find a project that can make me feel the same way as this did, then I’ll be all over it. I would definitely give it my all, just as I did with this team. It was time for me to move on, just as it was time for the girls to get a new coach that could give them some new inspiration."
Greenland-born Nielsen has been the one providing inspiration for more than a year now, having succeeded Martina Voss-Tecklenburg as Switzerland’s head coach in December 2018. "Things happen really fast in the football world sometimes, and that was also the case here," the Dane explained. "I’ve known Martina for many years. I knew she was leaving and going to Germany, but I didn’t think much about it. Somehow I ended up in contact with Switzerland and we had some discussions. Two weeks later I was hired."
Nielsen had some big shoes to fill. His predecessor Voss-Tecklenburg helped the Swiss to qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and the UEFA Women’s EURO for the first time in their history, and he was well aware that the transition period could prove tough.
"I think we took some steps and at first it was a bit difficult for the players because I am definitely not German," he said with a laugh. "In this case it’s actually a good thing. When you have the same perspective on things for seven years, you sometimes need a different view. The players are starting to understand that I want to see who they are. I don’t want to change them to be a certain way. I want them to find out how they can use their personality and skills to make the team as good as possible.
"In my opinion and experience, you can only be the best if you have an influence over what you do, and if you are allowed to use the skills you have – on and off the pitch. That’s what I’m trying to do with the team. I’m not sure if this is a Danish mentality, but it’s definitely mine."
Switzerland’s players have learned a lot from their coach over the past 13 months, including the fact that empathy is a key part of Nielsen’s leadership. To understand and help his players, he has to get to know them and work out why they react to things the way they do. Only by doing this can he get the best out of them.
But what has the 48-year-old learned during his time with the team so far?
"I would say that I’ve learned that the players have even more potential than I thought," he explained. "We have lots of talented youngsters and experienced players in the team. They have been used to Martina’s style. This is very, very good – if you’re Martina. I can’t copy that style because I am me.
"I would never tell them what they can and can’t do; they have to find that out by themselves. It takes a little time to get used to the fact that I work in a different way. After a couple of months, they understood it and we’re getting better and better every time we come together."
This is also reflected by Die Eidgenossinnen’s most recent results. They ended the 2019 football year with a 6-0 win over Romania in qualifying for UEFA Women’s EURO 2021 – their fourth win in four matches and enough to put them at the top of Group H with the same number of points as Belgium. They will be keen to continue this winning streak when they play the first of two decisive qualifiers against the Red Flames in April.
"My goal for 2020 is that, when it comes to the team’s development, we continue to follow the path we’ve chosen," Nielsen said. "We want to make the team so strong that even the small setbacks we will face will not shake us too much. But we also understand what is important and what our strengths are as a team, so that we can always tell each other: ‘Listen, if we do this, we have a good chance of winning no matter who we’re playing against’.
"We’re not quite there yet, but my hopes for 2020 are that we’ll get there, as that would also mean that we have a really good chance of beating Belgium."