Any Danish footballer would jump at the chance to be possessed by the pioneering spirit of Nils Middelboe, and all the more so when Denmark get the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 underway against Iraq today. Because Middelboe, one of the most iconic Nordic players ever, began forging his legend precisely in an Olympic opener, with the sort of showing that is reserved for a select few.
On the afternoon of 19 October 1908 in London, two official national teams faced off for the first time in Olympic football action. It was Denmark up against France B in somewhat inclement conditions. In the words of the Official Report from those Games, "The turf in the centre of the Stadium was slippery, and the weather both misty and uncomfortable."
Whether because he had his brother Kristian alongside him in the middle of the park, or simply because this was an occasion that demanded to be seized by a dyed-in-the-wool amateur such as himself, Middelboe did not let the circumstances get the better of him. Just 12 minutes after the Englishman Thomas Kyle had blown his whistle to signal the start of play, the Dane made it 1-0 with what was not just the first strike in an official Olympic football fixture, but also his country's first ever goal.
The Great Dane, as he would later become known by English fans, also bagged the sixth goal of a 9-0 win in front of a 2,000-strong crowd that day at the Shepherd's Bush Stadium. Three days later, he was on the scoresheet once again in another game that would go down in the history books: the 17-1 thrashing of France A that remains the biggest ever victory at an Olympics.
Denmark would have to settle for a silver medal after succumbing 2-0 to Great Britain in the final, but the Olympic world was wowed by the talent and physique of this 6'2 (1.89m) 21-year-old, born in Sweden but brought up in an affluent neighbourhood of Copenhagen. A privileged background did not prevent him, Kristian and their other brother, Einar, another Olympian, from honing their skills and displaying sublime ball control on the streets of the Danish capital.
Middelboe would dazzle and scoop more silverware at Stockholm 1912, on this occasion alternating between midfield and defence. His versatility was not restricted to the grass, either. Between the two editions of the Games, as well as turning modest club KB into a footballing powerhouse and making Denmark a force to be reckoned with and respected in European friendlies, he became a champion and broke national records in athletics disciplines as varied as the triple jump and the 800m.
Amateurism as an expression of freedom
Indeed, football was never an all-consuming pursuit for Middelboe. He also worked in a bank and he was a fervent advocate of the amateur spirit. No sooner had he helped KB lift the Danish title for the first time in their history, he decided to try his luck in England, where he elected to keep making his living as a banker, only playing football as an unpaid sideline. Although he initially agreed to join Newcastle, Chelsea eventually won the race for his services and Middelboe became the club's first foreign player.
Middelboe never wanted to earn even a penny for kicking a ball, despite there being riches on offer that could have tripled his income. Evidence of his ethos is provided by the fact that of the 46 appearances he would make for the Blues over five seasons, only 12 came outside London – the reason being that he could not travel with the rest of the team on Friday afternoons because he had, and wanted, to work. The way he saw it, playing for money would have detracted from the feeling of freedom that football afforded him.
Fittingly, his final hurrah for the Danish national team also came on the Olympic stage, at Antwerp 1920. Afterwards, he retired from international football with 15 caps under his belt, a small number that can be explained by the almost complete hiatus between 1914 and 1919 owing to the First World War.
But this was not the end of his love affair with the game. He subsequently moved into coaching, leading KB to league glory in 1940, and worked for the Danish Football Association between 1942 and 1964. He died in 1976 aged 88, leaving behind him a legacy that included a short book, Common Sense about Football, which is virtually impossible to get hold of nowadays.
In this volume, Middelboe railed about intrusive coaches who hindered players' creativity, particularly in the case of youngsters. "To systematise is to sterilise," he wrote. Right up to the end, then, this trailblazer remained committed to the idea of freedom – the very same attribute that he played with and which allowed him to make history.