Football is the official national sport of Denmark and without doubt the most played sport in the country. In 2019, more than 360,000 footballers were registered. Football definitely takes up the equivalent space both in the news, in the small-talk and in the lives of many Danes. With this post, I’ll aim to explain the Danish football culture all the way through. Read this post if: you like football, you want to know more about football or you want to know more about the Danish sports culture!
All the information below is correct at the time of writing (March 2021), but of course things may change in the world of football quicker than I can update this post.
Football and Community
As it is true for many sports in Denmark, be it team sports or individual sports, football creates community. This is seen through all age groups: The small kids are signed up for the local teams with their class mates and if it’s anything like when I was in school – the boys are out playing football as often as possible in recess. Some will develop or discover a talent and play higher levels later on, but many teams are also created later on with the community-part playing an equal part to the sport: In the lower leagues in Denmark, a crate of beer is not uncommon on the sidelines for the team to enjoy before the game, in the halftime or after the game. Many workplaces or schools create teams made from employees or students and compete with other local teams: Something that of course inspires some rivalry but also unity and team spirit. Even the older age groups come together in teams where 50+, 55+ or 60+ might be the main criteria. The sport is a hobby or a part of life from very early on in many cases, and in Denmark you’re probably never far away from a local team at your level and age.
In 1876, the first “football club” was established in Denmark. KB (Kjøbenhavns Boldklub) played the game with some variations from the English teams, but was nonetheless more or less established by / inspired by Englishmen in Copenhagen. KB was the first football club on the continent(!) and grew steadily throughout the years, mainly in and around the capital city. In 1889, DBU (Dansk Boldspil-Union) was established. Back in the day, the union was covering both cricket and football since neither were big enough alone, but today it of course only covers football.
In the beginning, politics were greatly intertwined with the Danish football culture, as meany leaders of the clubs were mainly men with some political influence. However, football was an amateur sport for almost a century! No players were paid in Denmark up until 1978! This meant that many good players were happy to move abroad where they could live off their talent. Consequently, no professionals playing abroad were allowed on the Danish national team until 1971. Therefore, the Danish players who were probably the best were not able to play for Denmark for many years.
Football Achievements – The National Team
Seeing that the sport is so cultivated in Denmark, a foreigner might wonder – “how come Denmark aren’t more dominant on the international scene then?”. And yes, we must admit that we might never be a football nation like Spain, Germany, France, Brazil or yes – even England, but that does not mean that we haven’t excelled on the international scene. Here’s a (too) short list of the international achievements of the male Danish national team from 1900s-today!
- 1906: Olympic Gold in the In-Between-Olympic-Games
- 1908: Olympic Silver
- 1912: Olympic Silver
- 1948: Olympic Bronze
- 1960: Olympic Silver
- 1964: 4th place in the European Championship
- 1984: European Championship Bronze
- 1986: Competed in the World Cup for the first time: Was knocked out in 1/8 finals
- 1992: European Championship Winners: Gold
- 1995: Confederation Cups Winner
- 1998: Second time in the World Cup: Best result ever: Reached the quarter finals
1992 was clearly a golden year in Denmark. In fact, Denmark hadn’t even qualified for the tournament, but was invited 10 days prior due to Yugoslavia being unable to compete because of the war. We beat Germany in the final 2-0. There are tons of articles, documentaries and even a feature film that covers the amazing story if you wish to know more. Check out “Sommeren ’92” for an excellent movie on this!
Even though we haven’t won many tournaments, we probably have beaten all the great football nations at some point in time. If you want to read more about our achievements on the international scene, dr.dk made an excellent list of what they consider to be the 50 biggest games of the male Danish national team.
The Male National Team Today
The team was coached by Morten Olsen from 2000-2015. Olsen was mostly a defensive midfielder back in his time and he himself appeared for the Danish team in 102 matches. His coaching career began with Brøndby IF, then FC Cologne and then Ajax before becoming the Danish coach. He is the only person in the world of football to have reached more than 100 games both as a player and a coach!
Needless to say, following Morten Olsen was not the easiest task in the world, but the job was given to Åge Hareide. The Norwegian is a former footballer too, and he actually played for Manchester City for a short period. He also played 50 games for the Norwegian national team. He has previously coached teams in both Norway (Rosenborg BK e.g.), Sweden (Helsingborgs IF) and Denmark (Brøndby IF) – and he also coached the Norwegian national teams for 5 years, 2003-2008.
His first job was getting Denmark to the 2018 World Cup – which he did. Denmark finished second in Group C, right below France. We were beaten by Croatia in a nerve-wracking penalty shoot off in the 1/8’s finals.
In the summer of 2019, DBU and Hareide ended their contract and a new national coach was announced: Kasper Hjulmand. The Danish national is more famous for his coaching than his playing. He’s coached Lyngby BK, FC Nordsjælland and the German team, Mainz 05. He even coached Nordsjælland all the way to the top of the league in 2012, and the following year they had to “settle” for silver. Due to Covid-19, there of course haven’t been any major national tournaments for Hjulmand to prove his worth as a coach, but I for sure am looking forward to seeing him in action in the European Championships of (hopefully) ’21.
The players in today’s national team of course changes slightly from game to game, but I’d encourage you all to have a look at the most updated list here: https://www.dbu.dk/landshold/herrelandshold/a-landsholdet/ If you’re already a football fan, then I assume you’ve already heard of at least a few of these guys!
The photo above is from a Denmark-Ireland game in Parken.
As the list linked to above clearly indicates, many (by far most actually) of the players on the national team have made a name for themselves on the European scene and are now playing for a club outside of Denmark. I’ve chosen three players below (that you might know) to elaborate slightly on.
Simon Kjær (born in 1989) plays as a center back for A.C. Milan. Kjær only played very briefly in Denmark before he was sold to Palermo at the age of 18. He has thus played most of his professional career in Europe, in clubs such as Wolfsburg, Roma (on loan), Lille, Fenerbaçhe and Palermo and Sevilla. Kjær is also the captain on the Danish team.
Kasper Smeichel (born in 1986) is the goalkeeper at Leicester who helped them win the Premier League in 2015/2016. If the Schmeichel name sounds familiar, it’s because Kasper is the son of Peter Schmeichel who helped Manchester United win 5 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cup titles and won the price of the best keeper in the world twice (’92 and ’93) during his time at Man-U in 1991-1999.
Christian Eriksen (born in 1992) played many years as an offensive midfielder for Tottenham. He’s famous for his freekicks and his creative role on the team, and has more than 50 goals in the Premier League to his name. In his first season at Tottenham, he won Tottenham Player of the Season voted by the fan clubs. Eriksen transferred to Inter Milan in 2020, where he still plays.
I could’ve made a much longer list of interesting profiles, including people like Andreas Christensen who plays for Chelsea or Martin Braithwaite who plays for Barcelona but since there’s so much more to write about – let’s move on.
Scandals in Football
As any football fan would know, there are plenty of scandals of all sizes related to the sport. In a post like this, I could easily write a larger section about Nicklas Bendtner alone, but instead I’ve chosen to write about one of my earliest memories of a national game. I’m sure all Danes will remember this, whether they watched the game or not.
On June 2nd, 2007, Denmark played Sweden in the European qualifiers in Parken. It was an important game. 3 quick goals to the Swedes (7′, 23′ and 26′) meant the Danes had their work cut out for them. However, the impossible becomes possible by goals by Agger, Tomasson and Andreasen. Then, in the 88th minute, Christian Poulsen punches the Swedish Markus Rosenberg in the stomach in the penalty area. The German referee correctly sends off Poulsen with a red card, and points to the penalty spot. At this very moment, a drunk Danish fan decides to run onto the field and tries to attack referee Flandel. The game is paused, the referee team deliberates and the result of this mindless attack is that Denmark loses the game 0-3. It is just as crazy as it sounds – and you can see it unfold here.
The final result of the game on behalf of DBU meant that, a fine of 50 000 Swiss Franc was imposed, 2-4 games was to be played at least 140 km from Copenhagen, and Christian Poulsen received a three-day ban. The fan, who the media had given various names until his reveal, was Ronni Nørvig. He was sentenced to 20 days in prison as well as community service for violence and trespassing. DBU also sued him for lost profits and in the end a settlement meant that Nørvig had to pay 250 000 DKK to DBU.
As a final side note, the word “baneløber” (literal translation: field runner) was officially accepted in the Danish dictionary in 2007 following this event and all the media attention it led to.
Divisions: As the division structure will be changing with the end of the 2020/2021 season, I’ll briefly go over the division structure as it will be per next season.
The top tier in Danish football is Superligaen. Here, 12 teams play each other for the first 22 matches of the season. After the 22nd match, the table is divided into a top 6 and a bottom 6. For the following 10 matches, a team in the top 6 will only be playing the remaining 5 teams of the top 6, and vice versa for the bottom 6. Of course, the team with the most points in the end win the league and medals are also rewarded for second and third place. In the other end of the table, the top team of the bottom 6, will win the right to challenge the table’s 3rd place. The winning team of this match will earn the right to play qualifiers for the Europa League. The two bottom teams after the total of 32 matches will face relegation, to Nordicbet-ligaen (previously 1st division).
Nordicbet-ligaen is structured very similarly to Superligaen, and the two top performing teams will be promoted to Superligaen. The two worst performing teams will instead be relegated to division 1 (previously division 2). And so goes the division structure of Danish football.
Teams in Superligaen in the season of 2020/2021
Aarhus Gymnastikforening (AGF) Established in 1880 – played football since 1902
Aalborg Boldspilklub (AaB) Established in 1885 – played football since 1902
Odense Boldklub (OB) Established in 1887 – football since 1889
Vejle Boldklub (VBK) Established in 1891 – played football since 1902
Lyngby Boldklub (LBK) 1921
Brøndby Idrætsforening (BIF) 1964
Football Club København (FCK) 1992
Alliance Club Horsens (ACH) 1994
Football Club Midtjylland (FCM) 1999
Randers Football Club (RFC) 2003
Football Club Nordsjælland (FCN) 2003
SønderjyskE (or Sønderjyske Elitesport Fodbold) 2004
Now, if you’re a new in Denmark you might notice that we generally like to talk about sports and maybe especially football. Whether this is just a quick mention of Sunday’s game at work on Monday, or a more designated sports-time at a local sports bar to watch a big European game, football and sports definitely fall into the category of go-to small-talk for many Danes.
However, when we hear about football fans in the media we typically tend to hear about a much more aggressive profile. Sadly, some fan fractions use football and local rivalries as a way to act out, get in organized fights and do other types of crimes like graffiti. The only positive thing about this is that in many cases, fights for instance are so organized that it’s very rare that regular fans or other civilians will get caught in the middle of it. Nonetheless, this does of course put a large strain on the police – especially when rival clubs meet.
Generally speaking though – fans might be very enthusiastic and assertive about their club of choice, but fans in general and at stadiums will vary greatly and it’s almost impossible to describe an accurate fan profile (except, alright, he’s probably a man). There’s also a great variance in regards to the level of affiliation. Some fans consider their football club part of their socio-economic and political identity, some fans support the local team because it’s the local team and so on and so forth.
Now a section about football fan culture in Denmark would be inherently incomplete if there was no mention of Brøndby IF, FCK and their longstanding rivalry. When these clubs meet we refer to it as “New Firm”, which is inspired by the world famous Old Firm, which of course involves Celtic and Rangers in Scotland and is infamous for its fan culture and deep embeddedness in Scottish culture as a whole. New Firms are always played relatively early in the day, to make sure the dark doesn’t set, and furthermore, this is also the game in Denmark that requires the most police resources. Typically, the bus and players are escorted, stadiums are more guarded than normal, etc. etc. There’s been written books and countless articles and blogposts about this, so I will try to provide only the necessary amount of context to this rivalry: One factor in this rivalry is the proximity of the two clubs. Another is the big difference in management and club ideology, so to say. Brøndby IF is in some ways more old school, and they are very anti-corporate. This stems from their history as a club for the working class. FCK on the other hand, is not only often the club of choice for more elitists, but also very much so managed like a corporation. The last thing you need to know about this is that Brøndby-FCK discussions are forever on-going, and any somewhat serious fan of either is likely to feel some degree of (casual or serious) resentment towards the other.
I would however, strongly encourage you to try to watch a New Firm! It’s incredibly entertaining and definitely shows some beautiful sides to fan culture such as incredible singing, tifos and very high-intensity games.
The photo above is from a Brøndby-FCK game at Brøndby Stadion. Thank you to Brian at @brondbyfoto on Instagram for taking the picture and letting us use it!
Like many other countries, Denmark also has a cup tournament on club level. Officially it’s called DBU Pokalen, typically just referred to as Pokalturneringen. This tournament is so similar to other cup tournaments that I won’t spend too much time on it. The most important things to know is that it’s likely that very small clubs end up playing huge clubs, which typically leads to more local football and sometimes also some very surprising results!
I took the picture above right when Brøndby won the cup in 2018 against Silkeborg IF.
Football Achievements – Club Level
On club level, Denmark has also had a lot to offer throughout the years. Currently, the winner of the Danish league gets to play qualifier games for Champions League, while three more spots are offered to the Europa League qualifiers. There have been many great European games throughout the years. For most, seeing any Danish team do well in Europe is a triumph, whilst for others, seeing no Danish team compete for glory is better than seeing their rivals having a go at a European tournament.
Brøndby IF is the team that has gone furthest in a European tournament with their semi final spot in the Europa Cup in the season of 1990/1991. FCK and AaB share the best result in Champions League, both having reached the 1/8 finals, in respectively 2010/2011 and 2008/2009. For many fans, individual games stand out, such as when OB beat Real Madrid at Bernabeu in 1994’s UEFA Cup, or when Brøndby beat Liverpool at Anfield in 1995.
Like in many other sports and countries, women’s football do tend to be neglected in Denmark, especially in regards to equal pay. Many female footballers, although playing at a high European level, work jobs on the side, and way fewer fans go to see these matches. I must admit that I am just as guilty as the rest of the community, and I don’t know much about women’s football. I’ll give you a few notes here about the Women’s National Team and the Women’s League, and I hope you can find more information online if there’s anything else you wish to know!
The Women’s National Team: I think many Danes will remember how the women played themselves to the finals of the European Championships back in 2017 – an incredible accomplishment. The biggest profile that year was Nadia Nadim (attacker), who was honored in countless ways during and after the tournament – one newspaper even announced her “Årets Dansker 2017” (The Dane of the Year).
Here are the clubs in the top league – Elitedivisonen. HB Køge Pigefodbold, Brøndby IF, Fortuna Hjørring, KoldingQ, Farum, Thisted, AGF and AaB. One interesting fact is that since 2002, only two teams have won the league: Fortuna Hjørring (7 times) and Brøndby IF (12 times).
Big Danish Players
I want to finish off this long post with some names of big Danish footballers throughout the years. Hopefully (surely) you know some of them, and maybe you’ll want to look up those you don’t know. DR has made a list of 50 of the best players throughout history and upon reading you might want to pay an extra bit of attention to number 38 on the list… Axel Pilmark is in fact my dad’s uncle and we are of course very proud to have a family member on the list!
Quick disclaimer on the following names: there’s a major difference in how good some of these players are but all are relatively famous and important in one way or another – and I’ve tried to focus on the players that were/are also big outside of Denmark and/or on the national team.
- Michael Laudrup
- Brian Laudrup
- Kasper Schmeichel
- Peter Schmeichel
- Christian Eriksen
- Nicklas Bendtner
- Daniel Agger
- John “Faxe” Jensen (scored the first goal in the European Championships finale in 1992)
- Kim Vilfort (scored the second goal in the European Championships finale in 1992)
- Ebbe Sand
- Jon Dal Tomasson
- Morten Olsen
- Preben Elkjær
- Allan Simonsen
And now for the very final note (thank you for reading this far)… I (Laura) and the rest of Spousecare are proud Brøndby IF fans. Having lived the first 21 years of my life in Brøndby with two big football fans (my dad and brother) has certainly rubbed off, but I can definitely say that football brings me an incredible array of joy and other emotions – especially as a Brøndby fan you learn to deal with serious ups and downs. So – if you haven’t chosen a club yet, do indeed choose Brøndby IF! And of course, there’s no hate to anyone supporting any other clubs, we are just happy to see internationals in Denmark enjoying and taking part in our football and sports culture.
Written by Laura Pilmark