Exclusive interview with Denmark's Thomas Delaney
** He shares his memories of France 1998
** Denmark meet France, Australia and Peru in Russia
On 12 June 1998, Denmark's golden generation - including Peter Schmeichel and the Laudrup brothers Michael and Brian - faced Saudi Arabia in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup™ in France. The Scandinavians won the match 1-0 in front of a crowd of 38,100 spectators at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens.
Among those in the stadium that day was seven-year-old Thomas Delaney, who watched his idols up close for the first time alongside his father and grandparents. Fast-forward 20 years and Delaney is now following in the footsteps of his heroes, and is eager to make an impact at Russia 2018 in a few months.
"Back then I obviously never thought that I'd play in a World Cup one day," the 26-year-old told FIFA.com with a smile. "I collected the World Cup stickers and also got an official match ball. It was amazing. It's one of my best memories – the atmosphere around the stadium and the city. It's not only the games that make a World Cup so special; it's mainly the atmosphere in the whole country. As a player you don't pick up on most of that though."
Delaney fact file
Four-time Danish champion, three-time Danish Cup winner
21 international caps
Scored all four international goals to date in September 2017: a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Armenia and one in a 4-0 victory over Poland
Denmark have been drawn against France, Australia and Peru in Group C at the upcoming finals. They are aiming to reach the last 16 at the very least, but ideally the Danes want to get to the quarter-finals. That would equal their best finish of their four tournament appearances to date, achieved at France 1998.
"We're very optimistic about the group stage," Delaney said. "If you're not in pot 1 then you're inevitably going to face a world-class team. Second place in the group has to be our aim. But obviously we've also got a chance against France. I don't just want to play three games and then have to pack my bags and go home. We're going there with our feet firmly on the ground because we're a small country, but expectations are obviously high."
The midfielder had spent his entire football career in the Danish capital before leaving Copenhagen to join Bundesliga side Werder Bremen in January 2017. It was a move that meant he swapped competing for championships and titles for battling for every point and avoiding relegation.
"It was the right decision but it has been harder than I expected," Delaney said. "I've improved and developed. In Copenhagen we wanted to win every game. I had to change my mentality because in Bremen you have to be satisfied with a point sometimes, or cope with losing a number of games in a row now and then.
"I'd just established myself in the national team shortly before I signed for Werder," Delaney continued. "We've got a lot of good midfielders in the national team and they all play in the best leagues in Europe. I wanted to establish myself abroad because that's something the national team coaches are mindful of."
He admits that this summer's World Cup is a constant presence in the back of his mind, "but you need to put that to one side because anything can still happen". For now, he is focusing on avoiding relegation with Bremen before turning his attention to Russia 2018.
Delaney's girlfriend, mother and several friends will travel with him to the tournament – and perhaps there will also be another young boy whose eyes will light up as he recalls his first World Cup experience in 20 years' time.
Delaney on… *His international debut *"I made my debut as a left-back. It was my first time playing in that position. At the time things weren't going so well for us at Copenhagen. It wasn't an easy period but it was still a great feeling."
*Superstar Christian Eriksen
"He's a great footballer, not your typical No10. He runs a great deal and covers a lot of ground both in attack and defence. He can also play as a striker. A lot of people don't see that. He's got an outstanding right foot and gives a lot of assists."
The 5-1 win in the World Cup play-off return leg against Republic of Ireland in Dublin "It was a rollercoaster ride. We went 1-0 down but then came back the way we did. It was a strange feeling after around the 60th minute because we knew that nothing could really go wrong anymore. We looked at each other and knew that the World Cup ticket was ours."