Hjulmand: Denmark happy to be World Cup dark horses
Denmark qualified for Qatar 2022 without dropping a point or conceding a goal
Coach Kasper Hjulmand has been praised by his players for his handling of traumatic events
Hjulmand speaks to FIFA.com about uniting a nation and aiming high on the world stage
With eight wins from eight, 27 goals scored and zero conceded, Denmark qualified for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ in stunning, swashbuckling style. But when Politiken, one of the country’s daily newspapers, dubbed 2021 an “almost perfect year”, the reason for qualifying the description was obvious.
The events of 12 June, and Christian Eriksen’s horrifying on-field cardiac arrest, are never far from Danish minds – or from conversations around their team. Rather than cast a shadow, however, the trauma of the Eriksen incident – and the response to it – has served to solidify bonds within Kasper Hjulmand’s team and unite the nation around them. Anyone who has witnessed recent scenes at the Parken will know that emotions at their home matches have been heightened by the experience, with the joy of subsequent successes all the more euphoric for having collectively endured such a distressing ordeal.
Hjulmand speaks of having “got through it together”, and no-one – according to his players at least – was more important in that than the Denmark coach himself. Captain Simon Kjaer has described Hjulmand’s handling of the situation as “incredible”, lauding the man himself as “a fantastic coach and leader”. Free-scoring full-back Joakim Maehle added that, while the players had always admired the 49-year-old for his work on the training ground and tactics board, “he is now a friend for us too”.
Ally that unity and sense of togetherness to the attractive, highly effective football they are producing, and it’s no wonder Denmark are being discussed as potential World Cup title contenders. Hjulmand is keen to embrace and enjoy that new-found status, too, as he explained in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Kasper, eight straight wins, 27 goals for, none against and qualification secured with a couple of games to spare. It’s not been a bad qualifying campaign, has it? Kasper Hjulmand: It’s been amazing. As well as the goals and the clean sheets, there’s an amazing stat about Kasper Schmeichel only needing to make four saves in those eight games. That shows how strong we have been. We could never have expected statistics like those and it’s very special. But although we’re very happy with how we’ve been playing, we want to be even better – and I think this team has the potential to reach another level. When I think back to that EURO semi-final against England at Wembley, for example, we know we can play a lot better than we did that day.
You mention that England game. If you were to face another team of that stature in a World Cup semi-final, what would you look to do differently? I actually saw a template for what I would want to see in our group-stage game against Belgium. We played extremely well that day, really dominated a top team, expressed ourselves, and unfortunately just lost out to two moments of real class from outstanding individuals in Kevin [De Bruyne] and Romelu [Lukaku]. But even in defeat, we set a standard – something to aim for – and showed the kind of football we can play against the best in the world. We were very competitive against England too. But we didn’t express ourselves in the same way in an attacking sense, and that’s something we can improve on.
What about psychologically? Is there a danger, coming from a small country, that your players get to the latter stages and set their sights a little lower than the likes of Italy, Brazil, Germany – teams who’re used to aiming for the trophy? (Shakes head firmly) No way. That’s not us. When I think back to that dressing room at Wembley, the players were so disappointed as we felt we could have won that game and gone on to win the final. Also, when you have a little taste of semi-finals and other big matches, it only makes you want more and gives you added hunger when the next tournament comes around. We know that those bigger countries you mention have a better chance objectively to win the big trophies. But we have our dreams.
Many pundits are tipping Denmark as dark horses for the World Cup. Are you happy with that status, or would you prefer to keep expectations more modest? No, I think it’s great because it means we’re obviously doing something right. For me, the only thing better would be if they say we are one of the favourites! We don’t think we’re better than others but we know that we’re a good team and that we can compete with anyone. And if there’s pressure that comes from being thought of as contenders, we’re ok with that.
One of the reasons Denmark matches have become so enjoyable to watch, besides the football you’ve been producing, is the atmosphere at your matches in Copenhagen and the obvious bond between fans and players. Is that closeness something you take a lot of satisfaction from? It is, and I must say that it’s the beauty of international football. I’ve always said that nothing beats the emotions from national team matches. You can argue the best football these days is played in the Champions League, where the top teams can buy players to perfectly fit their desires and styles of play. But the biggest emotions definitely come from national-team matches. Whenever I hear that club football is taking over, and international football is becoming less important, I totally disagree. Here in Denmark right now you’re seeing a clear picture of how much a national team can bring people together. Everyone wants to be part of this journey, and when you look around the stadium you can see it’s women and men, young and old – it’s so diverse. It’s wonderful to see because we have two goals with this team: one is to win something, and the other is to inspire and unite our country. Right now we can really feel that we’re doing that second part and it’s something we’re very proud of. The next step, of course, is to win.
Your assistant, Morten Wieghorst, told us about the love Denmark still has for that great 1986 World Cup team and how it eclipses even the esteem in which the ’92 EURO winners are held. Do you feel that the country is falling in love with your team in a similar way? For sure. It’s hard to compare the two periods, but you’re right about that 1980s team. People can say that they didn’t win anything, but they won hearts; football fans across the world were talking about them. It was a team that made a real impact with the football they played, and I think that’s a big thing. Not everyone can win the big prizes – although you can count on us trying – but you can win in other ways too. Right now, we can feel that our team are doing that.
The fans have obviously grown closer to you because of all the great results you’ve had and the football you’ve played. But is it fair to say that the trauma of the Christian Eriksen situation, and the way it was handled, has brought everyone – fans and players, players and coaching staff – much closer together? You’re right. We were on a good path in that respect even before what happened to Christian. But when you experience something as traumatic as what happened that day, it tests your identity and the values of your team. You can say that you have a great team spirit but it’s at moments like those – when something really bad happens – that you see how great, or not, that spirit really is. I must say that I’m extremely proud of my staff, my players and also of my country because, when I look back, I can see that we got through it together. And I think the people feel that too; that they helped us come back, and that the team did the same for them with our performances. We healed together. It’s another example of how much football can do. I don’t think you could find a moment in the history of Denmark when people were so silent than in the hour after what happened to Christian. And I also don’t think you could find a moment of such pure joy and happiness – among everyone – than after Andreas Christensen hammered in that goal against Russia (in the 4-1 win that took Denmark through to the knockout stage). Football has that fantastic power.
Have you been proud too of how your players have stepped up on the field to take responsibility to fill the void left, with Christian having been such a talisman for you over the years? For sure. I’ve heard it said that we’re even playing better without Christian, and that’s not true. We would have been even better if he had been on the pitch. But football is collective and systemic, and while Christian hasn’t been there it’s not been like one other player has stepped in and played his role. The team itself has changed and we’ve found a new system, a new rhythm and another way of doing things without Christian. The players have adapted to that extremely well and I’m very proud of that.