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!

This year’s culture club – AGF of Aarhus

THEY’RE flying little blue flags from the front of buses in Aarhus this year. They’ve also chiselled the motto, “Aarhus 2017” into the paving slabs around Denmark’s second biggest city. They’re expecting lots of visitors, though heaven knows how Aarhus’ very provincial airport will handle them. For this charming city, full of well-mannered and mellow people, is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2017.

The restaurants are undoubtedly hoping to benefit from the growing interest in new Nordic Cuisine, although some people feel the trend is something of a “King’s new clothes” tale as people salivate over locally-grown herbs and freeze-dried berries that were previously ignored. Still, there’s always traditional Danish food, which is hearty, meaty and great with a glass of beer or two.

Now we are talking football here, so it is unlikely that modern – and extremely expensive – Nordic food with all its artistry and foraged beach and forest ingredients is not going to be the fare of choice for regulars at Ceres Park, the home of Aarhus Gymnastikforening or to use their correct acronym, AGF.

This is a club with history. Formed in 1902, although the club’s sporting roots go back to 1880, Aarhus played in the inaugural European Cup in 1955-56, losing to eventual finalists Stade de Reims in the first round. The 1950s was a golden period for AGF, during which they won a hat-trick of Danish titles. In total, they have been Danish champions five times, the last coming in 1986. They’ve won the Danish Cup more times than any other club – nine – the last occasion in 1996 when they beat Brøndby 2-0, a game that Game of the People was present at.

In recent years, AGF have experienced the drama of relegation, immediately bouncing back and reaching the Danish Cup Final, losing to FC København last season. In 2016-17, the winter break had just ended, with FC København (predictably) way-out in front.

Danish clubs like AGF have to live with having a growing monster in their backyard. FCK are the only Danish club currently able to look Europe in the eye. That said, although the capital city club have won the title seven times in 11 years, more recently, new challengers like Midtjylland and Nordsjaelland have lifted the top prize in Danish football.

But AGF remain the third best supported club in Denmark with an average home gate at Ceres Park of almost 8,000 – not bad when you consider that Danish attendances are down 22% in 2016-17.

AGF performance past five years

  League Danish Cup Europe Attendances Danish Champions
2015-16 Superliga 10/12 Final 7,626 FC København
2014-15 1.Division 2/12 -Promoted Last 32 4,919 FC Midtjylland
2013-14 Superliga 1/12 – Relegated QF 8,131 Aab
2012-13 Superliga 7/12 Last 16 2QR – Europa League 8,043 FC København
2011-12 Superliga 5/12 Last 16 11,010 FC Nordsjaelland

Also impressive is the fact that gates are up at AGF in a campaign that had been disappointing for the De Hviie (the whites). AGF went to their winter wardrobe in 11th place in the Superliga, six points from the bottom. The 2016-17 season is a new format for Denmark with each team playing each other twice and then the top six splitting off into a title play-off round and the bottom eight battling to stay up. There’s also the Europa play-off to look forward to. It is a system copied from Belgium, although it remains to be seen how it works out with the Danes.

As it stands AGF and their opponents on February 19, AaB of Aalborg, were both destined to be in the relegation play-offs. It’s a fixture that, in keeping with the modern trend to create your own local “clasico”, has been tagged, “Den Jyske Klassiker” (The Jutland Classic) and given the two clubs are just 118 kilometres apart (1 hour 22 minutes by car, 90 minutes by train), it is a local derby full of rivalry.

Not that Aalborg have enjoyed their season, either. They sacked their coach, Lars Søndergaard at the end of the year and appointed former Danish under-21 coach Morten Wieghorst in his place. It was only three years ago that AaB were Danish champions and cup winners, but since then, they’ve finished fifth both times.

So, a big local derby to kick-start the second half of the Danish season. In Aarhus, a number of AaB fans had arrived early and were stocking up on beer and sausage at the many bars around town. There was no menace in the air, in fact, most Danish games I’ve been to have a very low-key atmosphere, unless you are watching FCK-Brøndby. The journey from the town centre to Ceres Park is around 30 minutes on foot, but 13 minutes on the very reliable Aarhus buses is more attractive. You can approach the ground via a tree-lined avenue, Stadion Alle, which provides a slightly bucolic backdrop for the ground.

It was 3pm and the stadium was not yet open for business. The locals began queuing in a casual manner and then they started to let the people in. The ground holds around 19,000 people, so there’s plenty of room.

The stadium has played host to the Danish national team, but it has also been a music venue down the years and none other than Elton John and the Eagles have appeared there. Aarhus actually has something of a rock reputation, so why one of the club’s theme songs seems to be a Danish version of “Living next door to Alice”, written by glam-rock’s Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman (and sung by New World and Smokie as well as Randers-born artist Flemming Jørgensen) is a mystery. The pre-match experience also includes – as with a lot of Scandinavian clubs – emotional songs singing about, in this case, Aarhus – a combination of Take That meets Paul McCartney, but hey, they love their town!

The stadium has a running track around it, which makes contact with the action a bit remote, but the club has added an improvised stand that sits right behind the pitch, allowing the young and enthusiastic the opportunity of connecting with their heroes. There are three sections and for the game with AaB, the fans choreographed a display of white, blue and white poncho-type jackets to create a bit of colour. Once they came alive, the fans created some atmosphere. As for the Aalborg “drenge”, they were perched in the top corner of the opposite end, needing binoculars to really appreciate what was going on around them.

There wasn’t much to see in the first half. The opening opportunity fell to the visitors’ Jakob Blaberg, whose header from a free kick struck the woodwork. AaB almost scored an own goal when a defender mis-timed a clearance and goalkeeper Nicolai Larsen had to palm the ball away from danger. AGF applied some pressure in the closing stages of the half, with Martin Spelmann volleying just over the bar and Morten Rasmussen attempting a clever backheel.

After surviving a couple of scares and goalmouth scrambles, AaB started to get on top in the second half and Jakub Sylvester had two chances but proved to be too ponderous. In the 57th minute, Sylvestr made amends when he put AaB ahead, slotting home after good work by Joakim Maehle.

AGF should have equalised through Australian Chris Ikonomides who saw his goal-bound effort saved on the line by Markus Holgersson, but in the 78th minute, Dino Mikanovic and Danny Olsen combined to create a simple chance for the AGF substitute to score. And that looked to be it until two minutes into added time when AaB snatched victory, Jannik Pohl, who had replaced goalscorer Silvestr, volleyed into the net at the far post following a corner. Final score AGF 1 AaB 2.

And then into the night. It may have only been 6pm, but Danish streets seem much darker than those in Britain. It could be something to do with the country’s renowned eco-conscience or just that street lamps hang above the centre of the road – stylish they may be, but they make for a dimly-lit walkway. Perhaps in Britain we crave everything to be over-illuminated, or is it just Nordic noir at its very best?

Victory for AaB meant they had completed a 2-1 double over their local rivals. It may not have been a “klassiker” but it was rarely dull. AGF and AaB will surely meet again this season, and then the stakes could be much higher.