Richard Moeller Nielsen, who died last week, inspired a thousand clichés when he led Denmark to the European Championship in 1992. The Danes shouldn’t have even been at the finals in Sweden, having been eliminated by Yugoslavia in the qualifying groups. But the Balkan conflict and accompanying politics meant that Denmark were last minute replacements. They were the proverbial “no hopers” who created a fairy tale on par with anything written by Denmark’s favourite son, Hans Christian Andersen.
Moeller Nielsen took over as coach of Denmark from Sepp Piontek, who had a supremely talented team that threatened to do great things in the 1986 World Cup. The Danish team of 1992 didn’t have the gifted Michael Laudrup – he didn’t like the tactics – but it did have his younger brother Brian. Otherwise, it was a workmanlike squad that was efficient and committed but short on flair. To quote H.C. Andersen, they were a bit of an “ugly duckling”.
But Denmark pulled off one of the great football shocks of the 20th century in beating Germany 2-0 in the final, and four years later, when the Danes were preparing to travel to England for Euro 96, Moeller Nielsen explained to me that they didn’t expect to have to actually qualify to defend their title in the newly-expanded 16-team finals. “We thought we should have had an exemption of some sort, but it just made us more determined to come through a very tough group. We knew Spain – Denmark’s bogey side – and Belgium would be difficult and Macedonia would cause us some problems, but we stuck to the task and I was delighted with our players’ attitude.”
Moeller Nielsen came across as a very frank and approachable fellow, far-removed from many involved in football at the highest level. His predecessor won many plaudits for the way Denmark played – who will forget the 6-1 victory against Uruguay in Mexico 86 – but the critics failed to warm to the 1992 side. “In Sepp’s day we had some memorable, exciting games, but we won nothing,” Moeller Nielsen simply responded.
A native of Odense, ironically the birthplace of H.C. Andersen, Moeller Nielsen was also a mellow character. In Denmark they would say he was a typical Fynbo, a native of the sleepy island of Funen. Such people have a very laid-back approach to life. His view of Denmark encapsulates this ethos: “Denmark is a nation of five million people,” he shrugged. “ In the bigger countries, like Italy, Spain and Germany, good players come along all the time. For us, it’s like the waves on the sea. Sometimes the bigger ones come in, sometimes they don’t. We have to accept that and be realistic with our ambitions.”
In Euro 96, Moeller Nielsen wanted to win all three group games against Portugal, Croatia and Turkey. He won just one, against Turkey, as his Danish side, which had also won the Confederations Cup in 1994, under-performed in Sheffield. It was Moeller Nielsen’s swansong, for he had already decided to leave the job after the European Championship and become manager of Finland. He concluded: “I’m not running away from the job, and I certainly haven’t run out of ideas. It’s just that I don’t like to stay too long at a party. I like to leave while I’m still feeling happy and positive.”
There are some people who feel that, at 76, “Ricardo”, the man who guided Denmark to their finest footballing hour, left one party just a little too early…