FIFA – Schmeichel: Denmark’s journey has been beautiful and moving

Kasper Schmeichel has been speaking to FIFA ahead of Qatar 2022

Everyone loves a story with a happy ending and, to most in the football world, Denmark’s national team provide a perfect recent example.

The much-publicised drama around Christian Eriksen’s shocking brush with death and stunning recovery inevitably grabbed global attention, creating a positive, uplifting narrative. Yet amid the search for such fairy tales, crucial details can be overlooked – and Denmark’s story is no exception.

Sadly, Eriksen’s wasn’t the team’s only life-or-death struggle being played out last year. And in December, the same month the Danes’ star midfielder returned to training, Lars Hogh – a much-loved member of the coaching staff, and legendary former player – lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

While Hogh was mourned across the nation, his passing proved particularly painful for Kasper Schmeichel.

“Lars was my goalkeeping coach, my mentor, my coach in life, my inspiration and not least my friend,” the Denmark No1 wrote in a moving Instagram tribute. “I have never met anyone like him. The thought of him not getting to stand next to me in the national team jersey is almost unbearable.”

The Denmark keeper reflects on how the loss of a mentor helped shape his outlook

Yet even as he came to terms with this crushing loss, Schmeichel was able to draw inspiration from the example Hogh himself had set. Highlighting his mentor’s “ability to be positive and turn difficult situations around”, the keeper added: “The joy of life and gratitude he radiated every single day is something we could all learn from.”

It is a lesson he has carried with him ever since, and as Denmark clinched a Qatar 2022 place in style and enjoyed home-and-away wins over world champions France in the UEFA Nations League, Schmeichel sought to savour every second.

“We need to enjoy those moments because we never know when we’ll get them again,” he told FIFA. “We’ve had both the situation with Christian and the one with Lars, where we all knew that it was bad, even if we did not know exactly how bad.

“But Lars, even before he got sick, always said, ‘There is a number on everything’. That was even the name of his book (Hogh’s autobiography, ‘Der er antal på alt’, is a direct translation of this message).

“We never know when we’ll get such an opportunity again, so let’s enjoy it and let’s grab the chance every time we get it because it could be our last. That’s something this team has lived because it had been very close to us.

“We had people on the team going through some tough situations, so we wanted to enjoy football for what it is: something amazing, and not a matter of life and death. There are more important things in life. We could live by that because we had those experiences so close within the team.”

Schmeichel speaks of a team that learned to “release the handbrake”, and whether it has been in the EURO, Nations League or in World Cup qualifying, that has been reflected on the field. The joy in Denmark’s performances has also spread the stands.

“Here right now, you’re seeing a clear picture of how much a national team can bring people together,” coach Kasper Hjulmand told us last year. “Everyone wants to be part of this journey.”

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg went further still when discussing the relationship between the national team and its fans, saying: “When we’re playing it feels like we are one. Emotionally, we are very connected and this is something special and very powerful.”

Schmeichel agrees, and his pride is augmented by memories of a very different situation that existed in the not-so-distant past.

“Nothing makes me prouder and happier because I know where we were,” he said. “As a team, we were in a closed position, always on the defence. We were not loved by our country and we could not fill our stadium. There was not a huge interest for national team football.

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“The dream was to turn it around, but only we could do that. We could only look at ourselves. And what we have today is what we dreamed about and what I always wanted.

“Today our matches are sold out within a few minutes. When we hold open training sessions, the stands are filled. That would have been hard to imagine just four or five years ago. The journey we have been on has been exciting and unique, and we have experienced things together as players and as a national team and as a country which have also been pretty unique. It has been beautiful, powerful, moving… just fantastic.

“We have been able to come together as a nation and as a team and create what we all have been dreaming of for so many years: a national side that we as a country are proud of. It is incredibly important that we never take that for granted, because the tides may turn. As a national team, and as players, it is our responsibility to make sure they don’t.”

Credit for Denmark’s rise, and responsibility for maintaining that upwards trajectory, does not solely rest with the players though. The tone is set from the top and, in Hjulmand, they have a leader who commands both admiration and affection.

“Kasper is a huge part of it,” acknowledged Schmeichel. “One of the first things he talked about when he became the national coach was to unite and inspire the nation through football. And he has succeeded in that.

“The fact that he has a likeable personality, that he lives in Denmark, is a part of the people every day and is visible to the public and approachable, I think is very important. The way he has been able to communicate his message and his desire about how the national team should look and express itself has been exceptional.

“Beyond that, he is just an incredible football coach. If you take away everything else, his ability as a coach – his man-management, tactical knowledge and ability to communicate what he expects from his team on the field – are all excellent.”

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