The decryption of what happened in Qatar, for Denmark, was quite simple: Hjulmand’s team focused too much on aspects that do not concern the pitch, on the protests for discrimination perpetrated in the emirate, on the shirt without symbols designed by Hummel for the races of the world championship tournament, on what was to all intents and purposes a battle of political militancy. This reading is transversal, in the sense that it is shared: the journalists of the Berlingske, the oldest newspaper in the country, which published an editorial entitled “Now let the national football team play football and politicians do politics”; they think so too Guardian, on which Paul MacInnes wrote that “Denmark was influenced by the fact that Fifa prevented players from conveying political messages”. Even coach Hjulmand, after the first draw against Tunisia, said that his group “was disconcerted by the bans imposed by Fifa”.
The reality, however, is decidedly more complex. And therefore even more negative, for the Danish national team. The truth is that the hyperkinetic and modern team seen at the European Championships a year ago, and also in the wonderful qualifying process for the World Cup, has never manifested itself in Qatar. It’s as if it had disappeared, and it’s a matter of technical-tactical values that cannot have been canceled by the emotional condition of the players, at least not completely. And so there was also something that didn’t work, as evidenced by the number of goals scored: only one in three games, like Qatar, like Wales. Moreover, Christensen’s goal against France only came from a corner, meaning Hjulmand’s players have managed zero goals from open play in three games. Two of which against Australia and Tunisia, or rather two national teams universally considered inferior to the Danish one.
The involution compared to the European Championships a year and a half ago was evident: it is true that Denmark had lost against Finland – at the end of a match that had to be stopped, given what had happened to Eriksen – and Belgium before eliminating , one after the other, Russia, Wales and the Czech Republic, but it is also true that the intensity of the ultra-attacking pressing and the ability to attack in the open field, as well as to create sophisticated ball-and-chain actions, had aroused sensation throughout the ‘European. Even in the games he lost, especially the one against Belgium – resolved by two beautiful but sudden goals signed by the Red Devils. And after all, even the semifinal against England had been balanced and had also been resolved in a controversial way. In short, the journey of Hjulmand’s men had certainly been facilitated by the scoreboard, but it had also been glittering, thanks to some players able to perform well above their theoretical qualities: they were Maehle, the Højbjerg-Delaney central dam, by Damsgaard, by Dolberg, obviously also by Simon Kjaer and Christensen, the technical and emotional references of the three-man defense.
There were great expectations from Denmark due to the continuity impressed on the project, due to the fact that Eriksen had recovered and was back in traffic and game management, because in any case a team that reaches the semi-finals at the European Championships has a good some credit to spend. And instead, as mentioned, everything went badly in Qatar. Those mechanisms that had made Hjulmand’s team strong turned out to be ineffective, to the point that the coach decided to renounce the three-man defense – and therefore the full-range wingers, a distinctive feature of his game model – for the decisive match against Australia. The goal, obviously, was to revive an attack that appeared lacking in incisiveness, net of the various attempts made to reverse the trend through substitutions: as also written by Andrew Das on New York Times, «Denmark used one offensive option after another, the various Braithwaite, Dolberg, Lindstrom, Damsgaard, Skov Olsen, to chase the goal and qualify for the round of 16, but none of them worked». Obviously the failure in attack must also be shared with all the members of the other departments, and not only due to the inability to build chances for important goals: on the occasion of Leckie’s decisive goal, the one that sanctioned Australia’s qualification in direct confrontation , Maehle found himself alone against his opponent, and then got around too easily, considering the difference in theoretical quality between the two.
Australia’s decisive goal
That is precisely the point: it seemed that the draw had given Denmark a favorable treatment, pitting them against two lower quality opponents – in addition to France, who however had lost twice out of two against the Danes in the last round of the Nations League. Instead, Hjulmand’s team has regressed in a clear and unexpected way, in terms of individuals – Damsgaard, above all, seemed like a player who is very far from the one we saw a year and a half ago, also due to the injuries he suffered – but also in collective expression of play. That is to say, in what had made it unique and had projected it to the semi-finals of the European Championships, to represent a benchmark for all middle-class national teams that cannot count on a vast reservoir of talent, and therefore must put their players capable of practicing brilliant, sophisticated, modern football, like that of a club. This is what Denmark saw in Qatar was missing, even before the ability to respond to emotional adversity related to Fifa, politics, everything that does not concern the playing field.