FC Copenhagen win the Superliga and strengthen the brand

THE strongest sporting brand in the Nordic region – that’s how FC København describe themselves, and after winning their 14th league triumph in the 30 years of the club’s existence, it’s hard to disagree. On the day that FCK clinched the Superliga title, the wonderful city of Copenhagen was awash with supporters heading to Parken for the final game of the campaign against Aalborg, a 3-0 success that made it impossible for Midtjylland to catch the team from the heart of the capital.

Although FCK’s rivals in the west of Copenhagen, Brøndby might disagree, there’s something about the club that’s rather compelling. Maybe it is the brilliant white and royal blue colours, perhaps it is the stadium, but it could also be the identity of the club, which carries the name of one of the most popular cities in Europe at the moment.

The world loves anything Nordic: the laid-back attitude of its people, the simplicity of innovative design from Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the healthy and down-to-earth lifestyles and the rather acquired taste of new Nordic cuisine. If a Danish club is ever going to look the Germans, French and English in the eye in the 21st century, it could be FC København from the well-heeled area of Østerbro.

FCK finished just three points ahead of Midtjylland, a club owned by Matthew Benham, who is better known as the owner of Brentford. Benham’s analytical approach to team-building and transfers was tried out in Denmark before he applied his methods to Brentford, the club he had supported for many years. Midtjylland were formed out of a merger between Ikast and Herning Fremad and have won three Superliga titles, the most recent in 2020. They looked good for another championship for much of 2021-22, but FCK overtook them late on and then dominated the decisive Championship round. Nevertheless, they are considered to be one of Europe’s smartest clubs.

There was compensation for Midtjylland in the form of the Danish Cup (Sydbank Pokalen), which they won on penalties against OB. Rather uniquely, they played in all three of UEFA’s competitions, starting in the Champions League before dropping into the Europa and then Conference. Midtjylland’s relatively small squad includes half a dozen Brazilians, one of whom, Evander, netted 17 goals and was among the SuperLiga’s top scorers and finished third in the player of the year voting.

Evander was beaten to the award by Spain’s Pep Biel, FCK’s leading scorer with 18 goals across all competitions. Biel, who comes from Majorca, was the most expensive signing in Superliga history when he moved to Denmark from Zaragoza for a € 5 million fee. He took time to settle, his relatively small frame strolling to adjust to the physical Danish league, but he not only scored goals but created a few for his team-mates. “At first it was difficult for me,” he said. “I’m not the tallest or strongest, but is also played with movement and skill with the ball.”

Biel secured 25% of the votes from fellow professionals and in second place was the league’s top striker, Nicklas Helenius of Silkeborg, who scored 17 SuperLiga goals. The 31 year-old, who nudges almost two metres in height, had an unhappy spell with Aston Villa between 2013 and 2015.

One very positive aspect of the 2021-22 season were the crowds. FCK, for example, recorded the best ever average gates in the Superliga, a very impressive 24,300 and also drew 35,000 for their title-winning game against Aalborg. That game was also marred by a pitch invasion. Interest in the club appears to be gathering momentum and already they have sold 16,000 season tickets for next season.

Less successful were AGF from Aarhus, who took the bold step of hiring former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere. He managed 14 appearances, although very few 90 minute performances, and was never on the winning side. AGF were in danger of relegation but stayed up by a single point, which was fortunate given they are about to benefit from a redevelopment of their stadium. Vejle and SønderjyskE went down to the first division, to be replaced by Horsens and Lyngby. Horsens will open the season against the champions at Parken on July 17.

Denmark won many friends for their performances in Euro 2020 and also for the way they reacted to the trauma suffered by midfielder Christian Eriksen. They have qualified for the World Cup in Qatar and will come up against France in the group stage and they will also face them in the UEFA Nations League on June 3, 2022. Although the Danes are rarely named amongst lists of possible winners, to underestimate them would be a mistake!

Experiencing the “new firm”

FCK_BIF_2COPENHAGEN belongs to FC København, so I was told. The battle, which started in 1992, has been won by the team from what is a well-heeled part of the Danish capital. Although I would get some abuse from my Danish family members for admitting it, if I lived in Copenhagen, I would probably watch FCK. I like their branding, the crisp white shirts, the blue lion and the smart stadium. I also like the area around Parken, just 10 minutes walk from the very distinctive Østerport station.

FCK, when they were formed in 1992, out of a merger of two old amateur institutions, KB and B1903, had to contend with Denmark’s team of the 1980s, Brøndby. But as FCK was born, Brøndby were going through a financial crisis. From the west side of town, and formed only in the 1960s, Brøndby challenged the accepted order of things in Danish football – heaps of sparsely supported clubs in the city and its environs, but none capable of being Denmark’s flag-bearer.

Brøndby have had mixed fortunes in recent years, however, and FCK have risen to become Denmark’s top club, winning the Superliga 10 times, the Danish Cup six times, including 2014-15.

And it looks like FCK will win the Superliga again this season. With 10 games to go in 2015-16, FCK are nine points clear of second-placed AaB (Aalborg) and they’re unbeaten at home. They’ve only conceded 17 goals in 23 games.

FCK’s fans – their average crowd at the Parken is 13,500 – proudly boast that the club is the only one in Denmark that bears the name of the city. A fair point, but I recall that back in the day when we didn’t understand – or especially care – about the nomenclature of European football, we would add the name of the city to any club that happened to come from that “Wonderful” place: B1903 Copenhagen, KB Copenhagen, Frem Copenhagen and so on.

When I last saw FCK play, it was in the 1995 Danish Cup Final when they thrashed another Copenhagen side, AB (Akademisk) 5-0 in the Parken. A couple of years earlier, I had seen FCK take on, and beat, Brøndby, when I was mistaken for a scout from England and told by a Brøndby official that defender Marc Rieper and midfielder Jesper Kristensen were not for sale. Kristensen’s career was cut short by injury and Rieper later went to West Ham. After that game, I was lucky to speak with FCK’s first manager, Benny Johansen, who gave me the FCK story. FCK won the 1993 Superliga in the first season after being formed. In the years that followed, they had their ups and downs, almost running into financial problems and at one time, even wondering if the merger had been the right thing to do. The number of titles, and the European presence they have achieved, suggests that FCK have become the premier club in Denmark, one that can establish some sort of international brand. Inside the Parken, the club’s European exploits are celebrated with huge posters, underlining that FCK have made some impact.

I returned to the Parken to see FCK play Brøndby in the first leg of the Danish Cup semi-final. Dodging the bicycles and urinating football fans on the walk from Østerport, it was amusing to hear the FCK supporters try to ape English fans, with Danish chanting and the odd English phrase finding its way in the text – mostly expletives. The police were taking this very seriously, blocking off the road on the side of the ground that would house the Brøndby fans. Danish “ultras” (thankfully) just don’t have the same menace as those from Italy, eastern Europe or even Germany. Nevertheless, it is clear that FCK and Brøndby don’t like each other too much, and there was a fair degree of posturing going on.

Having family connections with Brøndby meant I was able to get a ticket for the game along with my cousin’s husband (Jurgen Henriksen, a former Hvidovre and Denmark goalkeeper and trainer to Brøndby and the national team’s keepers, including the likes of Peter Schmeichel). Jurgen is often recognised at games and a couple of former Brøndby players stop him for handshakes and exchange of views. Michael Manniche, former FCK and Benfica striker, is also hovering around. Another former Brøndby and Denmark player, Henrik Jensen (no relation), meets us at the stadium and takes us into the VIP seating. Henrik’s son-in-law, Thomas Delaney, is FCK’s skipper and the star in midfield.

FCK_BIF_1Once inside the stadium, the noise is incredible for a 20,000 crowd. When the two teams meet in the Superliga, attendances can rise to a near full house, but there are some Brøndby fans who decided to boycott the game over ticket allocations, and there has also been some unrest at the club in recent weeks.

It all began with the social media activity of the club’s chairman, Jan Bech Andersen. He was unmasked as an anonymous commentator on a social media site, criticising the club’s coach, Thomas Frank. When he was found out, he resigned as chairman, although he continues to have a financial stake in the club. Andersen is a friend of Chelsea’s John Terry and this was the source of the stories that JT was set to join the club as player-manager. Frank left Brøndby and Lithuanian Auri Skarbalius took over as coach.

The supporters were in fine voice at both ends of the ground, FCK with their flags in white, blue and black and Brøndby all things yellow and blue. The performance of the fans was a major distraction as the game kicked off.

Delaney, who is of Irish-American descent, scooped an early effort over the bar and Bashkim Kadrii blasted wide when he cut inside and beat the Brøndby defence. But it was the visitors that opened the scoring after 27 minutes and it was a cracker. Winger David Boysen dashed down the flank and sent over a crisp cross that was bravely met by the head of Teemu Pukki, Brøndby’s Finnish striker. The ball rocketed into the net at the near post.

After the interval, both sets of fans put on a show again. From Brøndby came billowing yellow smoke, coating the stadium in a mustard haze. FCK responded with what looked like sparklers. It was all dramatic stuff.

Equally engaging was the animated FCK manager, Stale Solbakken, the Norwegian who had a brief stint with Wolves. He’s a highly animated character.

FCK played better in the second period, but it was not until the 83rd minute that they equalised, a high ball in the area deflecting off a Brøndby defender and Delaney shot home from close range. Delaney and his team-mates appeared to jump into the crowd behind the goal during the prolonged celebrations.

Brøndby almost snatched a winner late on when Christian Nørgaard forced his way into the area and screwed his shot just inches wide. He felt he should have scored and so did is team-mate Lebogang Phiri.

And so the game ended 1-1, with the second leg to come and another Superliga clash between the two clubs following. The battle for Copenhagen goes on.

You can’t help but be impressed with the Parken, or the passion of the two sets of fans. We seem to have lost something in English football. Wherever you go in Europe, you see this type of support but you rarely experience such a captivating atmosphere in Britain.