Jumat, 17 Juni 2011

UEFA U21 - Great Danes spread a little happiness

The 2-1 comeback win for Denmark against Belarus in Aarhus underlined the importance of the host nation progressing in a tournament.

While it might be too big a leap of faith to credit Danish Football Association chief Allan Hansen's claim that the UEFA U21 tournament "has caught the imagination of the Danish public," - too many of them were enjoying the Pentecost weekend holiday to watch their Under-21s lose to Switzerland - the Denmark v Belarus clash was an 18,000 sell-out, double the crowd of any other game so far.

Outsiders might look on the U21s as a provincial tournament, and the sleepy setting of Herning appears to confirm that impresssion, yet fully one fifth of Denmark's popu
lation watched the Belarus game on TV, the equivalent of a 12 million viewership in the UK.

The England v Spain crowd was
about a thousand short of capacity in Herning (9,000), which made official claims of being able to sell the stadium out again worth investigating.

Either way, the decision not to use Copenhagen as a host city still
seems odd. FC Kobenhavn's Parken stadium holds 38,000. And travelling fans and journalists are spending as much time as possible in the capital, whose myriad attractions heavily outweigh the monotone fields and bucolic hamlets of Jutland, where the tournament is taking place.

Denmark has always been a minor football nation in Europe, which ma
kes this somewhat of a highlight in its football history. Its best club side, F.C. Kobenhavn, have only once made it to the knock-out staes of the UEFA Champions League (in 2010-11 when they lost to Chelsea), whilst its national team fell victim to Japan at the 2010 World Cup in the most symbolic testament yet to the Asian football ascendancy.

After years of mediocrity, 1984 saw the birth of 'Danish Dynamite' as the national team beat England to reach the European Championship in F
rance, going as far as the semi-final where they lost on penalties to Spain.

The Danish team which made it to Mexico '86 briefly dazzled the world in a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay, before, to everyone's surprise, being duly turned over 5-1 by the Spanish in the second round. Success on the World stage has eluded them since, although they did reach the 1998 quarter-final where they lost 3-2 to Brazil.

The Danes' crowning glory of course came in 1992 when they came from literally nowhere to win the European Championship. Denmark had failed to qualify and were bussed in as a last-minute replacement for war-torn Yugosalvia. From relaxing on the beach when they received the unexpected phone calls, the players ended u
p beating France, the Netherlands and World Champions Germany to hoist the trophy aloft in Gothenburg.

Hope lies in youth, as it does with many nations, and the Danes seem to have unearthed a gem in Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen, a name on many scouts' radar at the U21s. Another talent they are proud of is Villareal striker Nicki Bille Nielsen, who netted 13 in 20 for the Danish U21s before the tournament.

Five of the 23-man Danish squad play overseas - Eriksen and Nicolai Boilesen at Aja
x, Mikkel Andersen at Reading, Nicolai Jorgensen at Bayer Leverkusen and Bille Nielsen at Villareal.

It is too early to say if a new Preben Elkjaer is upon us, or stars as bright a
s Brian or Michael Laudrup or Peter Schmeichel were, but unearthing the "superstars of tomorrow" are what UEFA reminds us this competition is all about.

For the people of Denmark at least, a country too
small to host a European Championship or World Cup alone, this is a big footballing occasion, and they are not willing for it to end as soon as on Saturday evening in Aalborg.

Group A points after two games:
Switzerland 6, Denmark 3, Iceland 3, Belarus 0.

Sat 18th June 20:45

Denmark v Iceland (Aalborg)
Switzerland v Belarus (Aarhus)

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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