FC Copenhagen: From pipe dream to European success

Today FC Copenhagen is without doubt the most successful club in Denmark, arguably the most prestigious club in Scandinavia, has a dedicated and plentiful fan base, and is a budding force in European football.

Given the club’s recent success, winning three championships on the trot – the latest one 26 points ahead of second placed OB and 30 ahead of rivals Brøndby – and qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages, many people in Denmark and elsewhere see their success as rather straightforward and inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A promising beginning
FC Copenhagen started out by winning the championship in its inaugural season, 1992. This, however, turned out to be something of a false start, based as it was on the footballing talent of B1903, one of the two clubs that merged to become FC Copenhagen in 1992, and the reputation of the other club, 15 times Danish champions and the oldest football club on the continent, but languishing outside the highest Danish league by the early nineties, KB.

The club might thus have seen initial success – they also nearly won the championship the following season – but was, it soon became obvious, a club that lacked continuity, a club without a financial base and a club without a ‘spiritual,’ fan base.

FC Copenhagen basically lacked the stature of a budding class team that was to achieve national and European success that its chairman, former Serie A player and Denmark international, Harald Nielsen, was bragging about. A rhetoric that was, Nielsen was later to admit, meant to attract sponsors and was only to become true ten years on.

Danish football grows up
To understand the context in which FC Copenhagen was born, we need to briefly look at the state of Danish football in the seventies, eighties and early nineties.

Whereas the national side was popular during the eighties and nineties, not least because of its exploits in Euro 1984, the 1986 World Cup, and from winning Euro 1992, interest was mainly confined to the national team. These Danish fans were dubbed ‘Roligans’ – ‘rolig’ literally meaning ‘calm’ – as opposed to British Hooligans, and were renowned for their rather heavy drinking and good-natured behaviour.

Until the Danish TV channel TV2 started showing Danish league football live on television in the early nineties the club game had been in something of a shambles. Until then Danish television had mainly shown English league football, but also more recently, Italian and German league football, all leagues that were booming because of the ever-expanding TV revenues and football mainstreaming that occured in the nineties.

The lack of interest in the club game was also due to the derelict state of many of the football stadiums around the country, most of which were hopelessly out of date until well into the nineties. Attendances dropped as a consequence of this.

New kid on the block, Brøndby IF, might have become highly successful since its formation in 1964, going from the lower leagues to winning multiple championships and achieving European success in less than three decades, but other more traditional sides had not managed to handle the transformation from (enforced) amateurism to professionalism in Danish football in 1978. Most remarkable, perhaps, was the lack of success of the city-based Copenhagen sides post-1978.

To take Danish football into the twenty-first century apparently took the imagination and lack of obsolete ‘traditional’ mindsets that Brøndby could muster – the team had after all won the Danish championship five times between 1985 and 1991.

1991 was, co-incidentally or not, the year when the idea of a new, successful and city-based team in Copenhagen was conceived. Suburban Brøndby were becoming too dominant and needed a credible challenger to boost interest in the Danish game.

Indeed, a match between the two sides in April 1994 was to bring the highest attendance in Danish league football in 21 years. 24.000 were in attendance, although this record was broken many times in years to come.

The downward spiral
Initially, FC Copenhagen thus seemed to be the challenger to Brøndby’s dominance that Danish club fans were looking for. The club won the championship in its first year, 1993, also because Brøndby was left virtually insolvent for years after the bankruptcy of a bank that the club had recently purchased.

But as was soon to become obvious, FC Copenhagen lacked the basis for long-term success. Lack of fan culture and commitment was one part of this.

Spectators applauding AC Milan in the clubs 6-0 victory against FC Copenhagen in the Parken Stadium in 1993, for instance, proved that FC Copenhagen fans were not yet truly rooted in the club. The club also failed to suitably replace the aging B1903 team that had won the 1993 championship with quality experienced players.

This in turn led to player complacency that crept in after winning the 1993 championship. “Beating Bayern Münich (in 1991 as B1903) and winning the championship had felt easy, so we indulged in junk-food, pub outings and golf. We were spoilt brats and probably knew in the back of our minds that we were in for a beating eventually. And beaten we were,” admitted fullback Iørn Ulbjerg years later.

The complacency was also due to many of the players being displeased with being told that the club had no cash to pay them a suitable wage upon negotiating contract extensions in 1993, after they had won and finished second in the league.

The club also suffered from the same amateurism that had marred other clubs, due to the two founding clubs, B1903 and KB, still having a major say in the running of the club. This only ended in the late nineties.

FC Copenhagen was nearly bankrupted on several occasions in the mid-nineties, and became known as the ‘madhouse’ of Copenhagen due to several bizarre occurrences during the mid-to-late nineties.

These incidents include selling star-player and club captain, Allan Nielsen, to Brøndby in an attempt to avoid bankruptcy; loosing 5-0 to bottom-of-the league Czech side Hradec Kralove in the Cup Winners Cup in 1995; director Karsten Aabrink taking on managerial responsibilities whilst the manager, Kim Brink, was left to warm up the goalkeepers; fielding assistant manager, 37-year-old Michael Manniche, as striker on several occasions; sacking manager Christian Andersen after his first league game.

In addition to this, FC Copenhagen fans had a reputation for making scapegoats out of several of the teams players. Goalkeepers Karim Zaza and Magnus Kihlstedt and strikers Pascal Simpson and, until recently, Dame N’Doye have all been singled out and jeered at due to their allegedly sub-standard performances.

The all-important Derby
Throughout FC Copenhagen’s desolate nineties, one event remained of paramount importance, however. The derby matches against Brøndby. These derbies have become an important part of newer Danish football folklore and an important event in ‘selling’ Danish football.

The reason for the importance of the derby matches against Brøndby are the general lack of such derbies in Danish football due to the small populations of its cities and towns; because it is a rivalry of the two most successful clubs in Denmark in recent years, because of the ever-increasing TV exposure of Danish club football, because of the identities of ‘posh’ and individualistic city-folk versus the ‘poor’ but popular-minded suburbanites, and because of the almost mythological nature of many of these derbies.

Examples of this is the title-decider in 1993 where FC Copenhagen won 3-2 at Brøndby Stadium after scoring the final goal in overtime; FC Copenhagen regularly beating Brøndby in the mid-and-late nineties although the former were hopelessly behind in the league throughout this period, often languishing in mid-table or near the bottom of the league; South African striker Zuma scoring from an amazing overhead kick against Brøndby in 2001 to clinch the title; Mads Jørgensen scoring in 2002 at the Parken Stadium three minutes from time to virtually win the championship for Brøndby; Hjalte Nørregaard scoring in overtime away against Brøndby in 2003 to clinch the title; and Brøndby winning 5-0 against FC Copenhagen in 2005 to practically win the championship.

In the eighties and early nineties, Brøndby were the darlings of Danish football, a club that was liked throughout Denmark because of their success in European tournaments. Brøndby’s success culminated in them nearly defeating mighty AS Roma in the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1997. FC Copenhagen were, on the other hand, to brand themselves as a ‘true’ Copenhagen side as far as their fans were regarded – in opposition to the suburban and ‘universally popular’ rival Brøndby, although the recent success of the former has ironically seen fan interest flourish throughout Denmark.

The new beginning
Two things were vital for the (re-) building of FC Copenhagen as a successful club both on and off the pitch: Managing Director from 1997 and later Chairman, Flemming Østergaard and manager from 2000 to 2001, Roy Hodgson.

Flemming Østergaard managed to not only rescue FC Copenhagen from near-bankruptcy, but also had a large hand in the clubs most successful financial dealings, including the buying of the Parken Stadium, using it as the main hub of the budding entertainment empire that was to become a major source of income for FC Copenhagen, and in streamlining the decision-making processes of the club.

Roy Hodgson, on the other hand, was able to give the side a professionalism that it had lacked, in no small part due to the authority that he had from having managed Inter, Blackburn and the Swiss national team. He was also to simplify things on the pitch, doing away with an excessive and ineffective style of play that had become almost synonymous with FC Copenhagen.

The second league title was finally won in 2001 in front of a capacity crowd of over 40.000 in the Parken Stadium against Brøndby. FC Copenhagen dominated a game that will always be remembered for a sublime over-head kick by South African striker Sibusiso Zuma that took tha game beyond Brøndby’ reach.

The club had additionally managed 18 games without defeat in winning the title, a new record, winning six of the last seven games.

Success at last!
Having secured the foundation of FC Copenhagen, both on the field and of it, the club hasn’t looked back. The club has succeeded in creating a successful youth scheme, complete with a footballing school of excellence, that has seem several home-grown players such as William Kvist and Hjalte Nørregaard play important parts in the success of the last ten years.

But it has also succeeded in being able to continuously replace departed players who are always willing to exchange a career in the lesser-known and lesser well-paid Danish league for a more well-paid career in one of the bigger European leagues. The fact that FC Copenhagen has been able to sign star players such as Jesper Grønkjær, Brian Laudrup, Markus Allbäck and Tobias Linderoth proves this.

A succession of managers have continued the success of Roy Hodgson (who left shortly after winning the championship in 2001), culminating with former FC Copenhagen player Ståle Solbakken. Solbakken won five League titles in six seasons and qualified FC Copenhagen for the Champions League groups stage in 2006 and 2010, beating Manchester United in the former and qualifying for the knockout stages and holding Barcelona to a draw in the latter.

With its successful financial exploits complementing its success on the field, FC Copenhagen can thus be said to epitomise the unofficial slogan of today’s footballing world, ‘survival of the fattest’ – i.e. only those who are financially successful prevail.

And while many football fans around are probably and justifiably sad to have seen a more ‘pure’ and less commercial game give way to today’s thoroughly commercialised brand of football, it is hard to imagine the Danish game survive without a certain amount of commercialism.

At least this holds true in today’s heavily commercialised football world – unless Danish football fans wish themselves back to the ‘good old days’ of derelict stadiums and a couple of thousand more or less indifferent fans.

The role of the fans
Today’s Danish football fans are by no means indifferent. They have managed to create an environment and sense of identity that is way beyond anything Danish football has seen previously – a fact that can be seen in the attendances that have risen from an average of 4.500 in 1992 to nearly 9.000 in 2009.

Borrowing from English, Spanish, Italian and Turkish fans, the Danish fans nevertheless managed to create a fan culture and atmosphere that is entirely their own. FC Copenhagen’s fans are at the forefront of this improved state of Danish fan culture and they have also been an important part of the success of FC Copenhagen and Danish football in general.

In part because of their contribution to the rising attendances and atmosphere at matches, and the money they help generate by buying tickets and merchandise. These rising attendances and improved atmosphere at games also indirectly generates money by making the Danish league worthy of ever-improving TV deals and sponsorships.

But more importantly because football would be irrelevant without the fans. FC Copenhagen and the other Danish clubs seemed to have understood that the importance, meaning and sense of identity that clubs such as FC Copenhagen hold are due not to the players, directors or presidents, who all come and go, but to what the club means to its fans.

The role of football: an epilogue
Sociologists (at least those remotely interested in football and its fans) might well debate amongst themselves whether or not football, and its role of identity, is a substitute for a sense of relatedness with others that we ought to have, but lack, by other more serious means. George Orwell has claimed that football is “the continuation of war by other means.” Some claim that football is one of the only places where a small, impoverished African nation or a downtrodden cultural nation, such as the Catalans under Franco, can prevail against the powerful and the oppressors of the world. And others that football is a sort of lingua franca, a “language of the world” that most can understand and appreciate together.

Certainly, it is true that Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup struck a blow for all developing nations, FC Barcelona were a unifying factor as well as an emotional outlet for oppressed Catalans, and a working knowledge of a couple of star players in the Zambian national side opens many a door, and starts many a conversation, in even the remotest village in Zambia. And yes, we might do well to complement our footballing allegiances with a more general and un-biased communality.

But football, as with all mainly emotionally driven experiences, is more than can be readily analysed and rationalised. As my father, who grew up in South Africa and was subsequently more interested in cricket and rugby than football, said when I took him to an FC Copenhagen game some years back to let him experience the atmosphere of live football, “now I understand why you like watching your team live!”

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“If you are able to tame the game’s competitive character, football can be a wonderful exercise in community building. If you focus on football’s role as the game of the masses, it can serve as a vehicle to challenge the powerful. If you embrace the beauty and the joy of the game, you reject it as an industry,” – Gabriel Kuhn, Author of ‘Soccer vs. the state.’

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