Denmark's untouchable flea

Jesper Olsen of Denmark in action during the 1986 World Cup match against Scotland
© Getty Images

For the YouTube generation of football fanatics, Jesper Olsen is likely a player watched many times, but possibly one that falls just outside their periphery.

Videos of the famous Johan Cruyff passed penalty against Helmond Sport in 1982 have accumulated more than 2.5 million views, but so often arguably the key figure in the move – the sprightly left-winger Olsen – does not get the credit he deserves. “That he asked me to do it was great in one way,” the former Denmark international explained to, “but what I had to was the hard bit!

“People always ask whose idea was it, and I reply 'what do you think?' I was 21-years-old, Johan was 35 when he came back from America, so it was obviously his. We probably talked about it in the September of that year and we practised it a few times. There were a funny few seconds when people thought 'is this allowed?'”

For a young player, encapsulated by the success of the talismanic Dutchman's all-conquering Ajax sides of the 1970's, to be playing alongside him in red and white was an utter dream. “The things he did in training, even at that age, were still incredible,” Olsen recalled. “You can tell people about it but it never comes across the same as being there.”

“The confidence he had in just doing his thing is comparable to what Tiger Woods had for a long time or like LeBron [James] has. They just have this awe about them, it's amazing to see.”

Olsen joined the Dutch giants in 1981 and the nippy wideman – with his penchant for jinking, unpredictable runs – was thrust into a first-team set-up with a strong Danish flavour. “There was a real connection between Danish and Dutch football, particularly Ajax,” Olsen said, joining countrymen Soren Lerby and Sten Ziegler, with Jan Molby soon to arrive.

It was very, very tough in those days in the English League, for many players, but my God it was a fantastic league to play in.

“I always admired Ajax, I was well aware of all the names at the club at that time and the fantastic way they played.” Trophies would follow, winning the Eredivisie title in 1982, then the double a year later. With the likes of up-and-comers Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten amongst the team, “it was an honour” for Olsen to be there.

His speed, technique and slight build, earning him nicknames like 'the Untouchable' and 'the Flea', caught the attentions of Manchester United in England, the boyhood fan puts it simply: “There was no question about it when they said they were interested.”

Joining a somewhat unfashionable Red Devils in 1984, managed by Ron Atkinson during a time of Liverpool-based dominance, the contrast to the Netherlands was stark. “In those days for a big club they were very small facilities compared to places like Ajax and around Europe. In terms of playing style and being prepared for the English game, it was completely different to Holland. It was very, very tough in those days in the English League, for many players, but my God it was a fantastic league to play in.”

While in Manchester, Olsen was also part of one the clubs highlights of the 1980's, lifting the FA Cup in 1985 during “not a great” 1-0 win over Everton – but a memory fondly recalled, having grown up watching the televised showpiece back home. “In those days it was amazing, you went away a week before the game, you stayed in a hotel, enjoyed yourself because it was the last game of the season, family coming to see the game, the reception after. The tradition was just incredible.”

Memories in Mexico
Probably the biggest stage he would step out on though was the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, where – despite reaching the semi-finals of UEFA European Championships in 1984 – Denmark were considered underdogs in a group alongside Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany. “We'd done really well and lost on penalties to Spain,” Olsen retold. “That was our first time in a tournament like that, away together for a long stretch of time, but Mexico was completely different.”

A trip to Colombia to acclimatise to weather and altitude set them in good stead for when they arrived in Nezahualcoyotl to face Alex Ferguson – who he would meet again soon – and Scotland. “It was fantastic, being there for the first time having watched it so many times before, and we had a really good team. We had a way of thinking that we could compete with any team on the day.”

The 1-0 win was a solid, but unspectacular start, though as Olsen attests, “it certainly got a bit different from there, that's for sure!” This is one hell of an understatement when you consider the Scandinavians walked off the pitch against Uruguay with a stunning 6-1 victory.

Preben Elkjaer had already put them ahead when Miguel Bossio was shown a second yellow on 19 minutes. “These games can turn on little things,” remarked Olsen, alluding to later in the tournament. But that afternoon everything went perfectly, with Olsen subbed on to round off the scoring. “What happened was more than you expected. Every little chance became a goal. [Laughs] Not every player gets the chance to score in a World Cup, but quite a few did in that game!”

At the time I didn't know how to deal with it, but afterwards it has been an amazing experience personally to be honest.

Now almost guaranteed progression, Denmark were playing with a sparkling freedom which continued into the game with West Germany, winning 2-0. “After that game there was a big question of whether it was the right thing to beat Germany,” with the game teeing up a rematch with Spain. “But you just do what was right and tried to win the game”

Olsen scored a penalty against both the Germans and the Spanish, but fortunes took a harsh turn from there, in what many fans of an older generation link his name to. After receiving the ball on the right from goalkeeper Lars Hogh, Olsen miscues his attempted return pass into the path of Emilio Butragueno – a chance the vulture does not pass up. From 1-0 up the Danes collapsed to a 5-1 defeat, with Butragueno getting four of them.

Reflecting frankly, after being asked many times before about the incident, Olsen says with a wry smile: “I've always blamed the goalkeeper. I would do the same thing again purely because I had already seen and decided what to do – it was just one of those things.”

Denmark spurned plenty of chances to get back into the game, but ultimately they had lost their way. “Everybody was brilliant, team and managers, because deep down you think what could we have done,” Olsen said of the aftermath. “One of the big things I took away from it is that it is a team sport.

“After a number of years I started to look at it differently, joked about it with people and put a positive spin on it – you could have crept into a hole in the ground but it makes you stronger in so many different ways. At the time I didn't know how to deal with it, but afterwards it has been an amazing experience personally to be honest. In one way it was a disaster in terms of what happened, but as a learning experience it has been fantastic.”

Coaching careers
On returning to United he was joined by Ferguson, taking his first steps on a 27-year journey managing the club. Did he expect the Scotsman to become so great at the time? “Only looking back. He was one of those guys that worked unbelievably hard, and they say 'the harder you work, the luckier you get'. He was the first one in in the morning, spoke to everybody, knew everybody's names. He was a leader for sure.

That championship was really what everyone wanted. When Ferguson came that was obviously the turning point. I'm not sure these days he would have got the time, but when you look back thank God he did!”

Olsen has since taken on a coaching career of his own, and has found an area he seems to have truly connected with in the youth sector, as coaching director at the Football Star Academy in Melbourne. “We are all here to teach the next generation and no matter what player it is or what level they are at, you always want to teach them [what you feel are] the right things,” he says, brimming with pride. “I love it, it's what I really enjoy. I'd not have it any other way, I've been very lucky.”

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