The treacherous road to Brazil

Despite finding themselves in a difficult group, Denmark only have themselves to blame for missing out on the sports event that brings the world to a grinding halt

There will be no sandy Copacabana to bask on for the Danes. No feijoadas on the menu. No day-trips for the ‘Roligans’ to see the Cristo Redentor or the favelas that cling to the hills of Rio. Italy made sure of that last night.

And as Denmark sits morosely on the side-lines and watches the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil from home, players and fans alike have been left with that empty feeling that springs from missing out on a World Cup.

No buzzing excitement spreading across the parks and streets of Copenhagen. No happy faces painted red and white in the pubs of Odense. No jukeboxes blasting the national football anthem ‘Re-Sepp-ten’ in Aarhus. Nothing.

No doubt, for the ‘Roligans’ at least, the summer of 2014 will be a tough one.

And the question lingers: What went wrong?

Parken cost dearly
Zero wins, three draws and three paltry points. That’s what the Danes could muster at home at Parken stadium during the campaign, not counting the Malta match on Tuesday. It’s the worst home record for Denmark in a qualification since back when the players had a beer and a smoke at halftime.

To be sure, Group B was probably the toughest group in UEFA qualification, but home draws against Italy, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, and the dismal 0-4 collapse against Armenia meant that too many points, nine in total, had been squandered at home.

The draw against Italy was unfortunate, but it was a point that the Danes would have gladly taken before the qualification process began.

Kings of the road
On the other hand, Olsen’s boys were the kings of the road, accumulating a group-best ten points in foreign stadiums. Particularly, the 3-0 beating of the Czechs in Prague stands out.

But there were also chances missed abroad in Sofia and Milan. Denmark played a combined 110 minutes against ten men in those two games, but failed to capitalise.

Bulgaria held on for a draw and Italy even managed to add to their lead despite being a man down.

More points lost.

Denmark's saviour? Nicklas Bendtner has scored 24 goals in 56 games for Denmark (Photo: Scanpix)Firepower lost
Nicklas Bendtner’s antics off the field and his subsequent six-month ban from the national team revealed that Denmark’s firepower is significantly reduced without the lanky Dane's presence in the opponents' half.

For all of his mischievous endeavours and club failures, there is no arguing with his national team credentials. Twenty-four goals in 56 games and three goals in three games during this qualification campaign speaks volumes about his importance to the team.

Besides Bendtner, the highest scoring player appearing for the national team in last night’s Italy match was defender Daniel Agger, with eight goals. The four other strikers in the squad – Nicklas Helenius, Viktor Fischer, Simon Makienok and Nicki Bille Nielsen – have scored a combined total of zero goals in 14 games.

Injured young gun Andreas Cornelius certainly looks poised to become a solid contributor, but Bendtner is a proven commodity and his absence from six of the qualifiers was a massive blow for the Danes.

What’s next?
The major question following Denmark’s failure to qualify for the World Cup is whether stalwart head coach Morten Olsen will be at the reins when the Euro 2016 qualifications kick off in September next year.

Olsen has been heavily criticised for his team’s performance during this campaign. Poor results, inflexible tactics and a preference to play older players lacking potential have been the main criticisms. Not to mention his use of a poor choice of words when describing defeats.

But, the problem that the national football association DBU faces is that there are not really any better candidates.

DBU prefers Danish coaches, and outside of Michael Laudrup, who has experienced success with Swansea City recently, there are no other viable options.

A proven quantityIs it time to leave? Coach Morten Olsen mulls a possible exit, stage right (Photo: Scanpix)
And it’s not that Olsen’s 13-year track record with the national team is riddled with failure. Since taking over as head coach in 2000, Olsen has guided Denmark to two World Cups and two European Championships.

Perhaps the Danes are getting spoiled, because that’s not a bad record for a country of just over five million.

But DBU hold Olsen in high regard and it suggested today that it would consider prolonging Olsen’s contract, which is due to expire this summer. Whether Olsen, now 64 and based in Belgium, would accept is another matter.

Future looks bright
Regardless of who will be guiding Denmark to Euro 2016, the future certainly looks bright.

Aside from Cornelius, there are a host of young players coming through the ranks, and the vast majority of the current team are below the age of 30.

The 34-year-old right back Lars Jakobsen, with 64 caps to his name, has suggested that the Malta game will be his last, but aside from him, the core of the team remains intact.

Fifteen out of the 21 players in the squad against Italy are 25 or under, and the Danish youth teams are brimming with talent.

Fischer, Nicolai Boilersen and Christian Eriksen are all under 22, while the under-21 team includes huge talents playing for clubs like Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Ajax.

The next challenge
But, for now, the Danes will have to lick their wounds and begin preparations for the next challenge: qualification to Euro 2016.

Some 53 UEFA member associations will be involved in the qualification draw in Nice, France on 23 February 2014, and Denmark will be hoping for a bit more luck than they experienced against the Azzurri last night.

And you never know, they may draw first-timers Gibraltar. Wouldn’t that be ‘dejligt’.