“If you can’t handle the pressure, you shouldn’t be a national team coach.” Those were some of Kaspar Hjulmand’s first words when he took charge of Denmark ahead of the September 2020 UEFA Nations League games against Belgium and England. “I have a vision to achieve great things,” he added, fresh from replacing Åge Hareide, “and I’m looking forward to getting going. I’ll do my best for the team and for Denmark.”
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It is hard to believe right now that it has been less than a year since Hjulmand took command, with one of the big surprises in his first Denmark squad being the selection of Joakim Mæhle. The then 23-year-old right-back had limited experience at youth level with Denmark and was playing in Belgium with Genk. Fast forward to July 2021 and Mæhle is one of Denmark’s brightest stars at EURO 2020, an emblem of how the team has moved on since Hjulmand assumed control.
A successful Danish league coach with Lyngby and Nordsjælland, Hjulmand should not by rights have been in charge at these finals. He was slated to replace Hareide as boss after EURO 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the tournament until this year. With Nations League games and FIFA World Cup qualifiers on the horizon, Hjulmand took charge on schedule and was handed the task of leading Denmark to this EURO too.
He inherited a team unbeaten in 34 matches. In that context, introducing new ideas might have proved controversial, but Hjulmand quickly got the players on side. His team has both won and lost since he took charge, but more importantly they are exciting to watch and enjoying their football after a run of underwhelming finals performances. Tellingly, their 4-0 round of 16 victory against Wales was Denmark’s first knockout phase success in a major tournament since they beat Nigeria 4-1 at the 1998 World Cup.
It is not just the players whom Hjulmand has inspired. In the year between his announcement as Hareide’s successor and his first meeting with the team, Hjulmand did not merely spend time pondering how to incorporate Andreas Christensen, Simon Kjær and Jannik Vestergaard into Denmark’s defence. He also contacted musicians, chief executives, Denmark’s royal master of ceremonies, and former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, among others, to deepen his grasp of Denmark’s national identity.
He saw the job of national team coach as more than simply running a football team, and perhaps Denmark’s current success on the pitch owes something to those serious thoughts and reflections off it. Hjulmand works hard, knows his football and has good players at his disposal, but his achievements have stemmed as well from winning over the nation.
“I’m not motivated by setting a goal of getting into the top six or into the quarter-finals; that’s just goal-setting,” he explained ahead of Denmark’s quarter-final victory against the Czech Republic. “My motivation, I think, comes from telling others to dream big and not to be afraid to say that this is what we dream of. In our childhood dreams, we always ended up with the trophy and made the nation proud, but to do that you need dedication, trimming the fat, and very hard work. Only then can you make dreams come true.”