- World Cup veteran Morten Wieghorst is now Denmark’s assistant coach
- The Danes have made a flawless, free-scoring start to Qatar 2022 qualifying
- Wieghorst discusses their new-look team and reflects on his career highlights
Morten Wieghorst was 15 when Danish Dynamite exploded on the global stage. He watched, starry-eyed, as the stylish, fluid football of Laudrup, Lerby, Elkjaer and the Olsens illuminated the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, winning the hearts of neutrals everywhere.
A dream formed as he saw that team plant Denmark’s flag on the football map, and was realised 12 years later when Wieghorst lined up alongside Laudrup, his evergreen idol, at the country’s second World Cup. The Danes’ Class of ’98 were a fine team in their own right, had enjoyed major-tournament successes, and ultimately outperformed their beloved predecessors by reaching the quarter-finals.
But Wieghorst knows now, as he did then, that results alone do not determine a team’s standing and legacy. That’s why the former midfielder has no hesitation in declaring those heroes of ’86 superior to his generation and the country’s 1992 EURO winners, and is reflected in the ethos he has brought to his current job.
That job is No2 to Kasper Hjulmand, the coach who has led Denmark to three wins from three in Qatar 2022 qualifying – each more impressive than the last. An aggregate score of 14-0 in those matches reflects that style has been now allied to solidity and, as Wieghorst told FIFA.com, this dynamic Danish team heads to the EURO aiming not just to compete, but entertain.
FIFA.com: Morten, three wins from three in World Cup qualifying, 14 goals scored and none conceded. Surely that has exceeded even your expectations?
It has. We’d decided on rotating, changing the team almost completely from game to game, before the group met up – just because of the time of the season, the number of games and the unique circumstances of the past year. But although we felt it was the right thing to do, you know there’s a risk in changing ten players from one game to another. If we’d slipped up against Moldova, that would have been the first thing thrown at us. In the end though, it couldn’t really have gone any better because we got a fantastic performance, eight goals, and came away from that game with even more competition for places. The players who’d played against Israel saw, ‘Ok, we really need to keep on our toes’ because the others in the squad had come in and done an exceptionally good job. It created a great feeling too because everyone went away proud of having played their part in that fantastic start we’ve had. And it wasn’t just the 14 goals scored and zero conceded – Kasper [Schmeichel] only had two saves to make across all three games. That definitely exceeded our expectations.
The third match in particular, winning 4-0 in Austria against a team expected to be one of your closest challengers, raised a lot of eyebrows.
It was impressive to us too because we thought that game in Vienna might well be our toughest in the entire campaign. And the first half was tight. But we thought at that stage that, even without playing our best, we had been comfortable defensively. That’s always a good base to build from, and that structure and solidity we’ve taken over from Age Hareide and his staff, who did a great job in making Denmark very difficult to break down. But we had a good half-time chat and almost from the start of the second half we were much better on the ball. We looked like we could score every time we went forward.
How have you and Kasper Hjulmand approached the job given that there wasn’t a lot wrong under Hareide, who had enjoyed a good record and qualified Denmark for Russia 2018 and the upcoming EURO?
You’re absolutely right to say that, and we were very fortunate that Age and Jon Dahl Tomasson had put in place a really great foundation for us to work on. The team was well organised, hard to beat and had been on a long unbeaten run. All the same, whenever there’s a change of staff, you can’t just keep everything as it was. It hasn’t been a revolution – far from it – but there were three or four points that we wanted to change in the playing style. Nothing massive; just tweaking details about the defensive side of the game and about the positions we held in possession and how we wanted to build up the game. The squad have embraced those changes very well.
Is it too simplistic to say that those changes add up to Denmark playing more on the front foot, in a more attractive, attacking style?
We try to press a little bit higher than was previously the case but we can’t do that for 90 minutes and it’s about finding the balance and deciding when you do it, and for how long. It’s been good to see, even against the best teams – we played Belgium in the Nations League, for example – that we can press high like that and feel comfortable doing it. That makes us look like we’re on the front foot, and it’s a great feeling for a team to have. But it’s easier said than done and you need to pick your moments because if you press at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, against the likes of Belgium, they will kill you. It’s a great challenge to get that balance right though, and I think Kasper is doing a fantastic job in making the most of the precious time he has with the players on the training ground.
We’ve seen in the past how crucial Christian Eriksen has been to Denmark. Is he still as central to the team you’re building, or are you trying to move away from being so reliant on him?
Christian is just a great player, and what’s been so important to us from day one has been to get him into the best positions on the pitch to help the team. You have to get the best out of your top players and, with Christian – who is definitely one of ours – we can see we’re moving in the right direction.
Roles were reversed when you and Kasper worked together at Nordsjaelland, as he was your assistant back then. How does the dynamic between the two of you work now?
First and foremost, we get on very well. There’s big respect between us and we know each other’s personalities and strengths extremely well. When I brought Kasper in as my assistant, he already had head-coach experience by then. And although there’s a difference between the two roles – I’m experiencing that now too – if you feel you’re part of something that makes sense, and a great coaching team, it can be a real pleasure too. That’s definitely the way it’s been for me.
How do your personalities mesh? You’re quite a calm guy; is he similar or is there a contrast there?
We’re not that different. You still hear sometimes that it’s important to have one calm guy and another who screams and shouts – the old good cop, bad cop routine. But I think times have changed. Kasper doesn’t come in shouting and bawling at the players at half-time, and he doesn’t want me doing that either. It’s all about motivating the group and, with this team, I really like and respect the fact that the players have been the first to recognise in matches when things aren’t going well. We’re there to help them along the path but, at half-time in Austria for example, it was the players who saw that things weren’t going to plan in an attacking sense and needed to be improved.
Having been to major tournaments with Denmark before, how excited are you by the prospect of doing that again?
Oh, very much so. We’re really excited about the EURO coming up, and all the more so now as we’ve been told that we’ll be able to have at least 12,000 fans inside the Parken Stadium – and we have three home games in the group stage. I’m very excited about the World Cup too. I think it’s going to be a special one having the competition concentrated in such a small area – it will create such a fantastic feeling. When it’s a big country, everything – and everyone – is spread out more. But having all the matches, all the teams, all the fans, gathered in a small area will make this really unique and special – the feeling will be intensified. The World Cup, for me, is still the biggest thing in football.
Given your love for the World Cup, was playing at France 98 the highlight of your playing career?
It’s up there, definitely. There were so many at club level with Celtic too, and other special moments with the national team, like winning the Intercontinental Championship (later renamed the FIFA Confederations Cup) in 1995. I also remember in EURO 2000 qualifying, we had to win away to Italy to get through, went 2-0 down and came back to win 3-2. That was amazing. But the World Cup is always very special.
You watched the great Denmark team at Mexico 86, and later you’d go on to play with the likes of Michael Laudrup. What was that experience like?
That was such a big thing for me because that team, in my opinion at least, was Denmark’s best ever. That whole period was so significant because the 1980s was the first time that we’d shown that Denmark could compete against the best in the world. As for Michael, he was my hero growing up, so to get the chance to play alongside him – and then later under him in his first coaching job, and working on his coaching team at Swansea – was so special for me. It was something I couldn’t have dreamt of growing up and I feel very privileged. For me, he’s still Denmark’s greatest-ever player.
You mention the Intercontinental Cup win you had, and Denmark had won the EURO just a few years before. Is it your ambition to have the team challenging for trophies again?
It’s certainly what we dream about. To expect it is a different matter because we’re a nation of 5.5 million people, so we’re never going to start any tournament as favourites. Winning is what we work for and what we play for. But the most important thing is to go as far as we possibly can and also, I feel, to make people stop and watch. The ’86 team is a great example of that because, even though they didn’t win the tournament, they’re loved and respected as Denmark’s greatest because they entertained and had the world watching.