Just a little over 4 months in the past, a dejected and disgruntled Manchester United crew trudged off the sphere at FC Copenhagen‘s Parken Stadium having misplaced 4-3 to the Danish membership of their UEFA Champions League group recreation. The house crowd was delighted, euphoric, however possibly not all that stunned. A good few of them had, in any case, seen this occur earlier than.
Again in 2006, the membership often known as FCK had certified for the Champions League group stage for the primary time of their historical past, and in simply their second-ever house recreation they beat a Manchester United aspect that included Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. In command of the crew that evening was Ståle Solbakken, who believes that early success set the tone for the years that adopted.
“After we beat Manchester United 1-0, it grew to become the beginning of what we referred to as the ‘European nights’ at Parken,” Solbakken tells ESPN. “I feel that the environment that you’ve got at Parken, throughout these video games, has turn into self-reinforcing. So whatever the crew you are going through, you’ve got a perception that the gang and the environment and everybody will allow you to by way of it.”
Over time, the Copenhagen followers have turn into fairly used to seeing gamers from the European elite depart Parken sad. Now, with reigning European champions Manchester Metropolis coming to city on Tuesday for the primary leg of their round-of-16 tie, the Danes will probably be aiming to drag off their best feat but: Stopping Pep Guardiola’s sky-blue successful machine. They will be written off by many, however FC Copenhagen’s European document at house is formidable. They’ve performed 18 video games at Parken within the Champions League of their historical past, and so they’ve solely misplaced two of them.
With the Champions League more and more dominated by a handful of mega-wealthy golf equipment, FC Copenhagen are one thing of a throwback, a holdout from a time when European soccer was totally different. The Danes merely won’t cease being a nuisance to any glamorous opponent UEFA throws of their path.
This season, they progressed from the group stage forward of Manchester United and Turkish giants Galatasaray. In addition they managed a 0-0 draw at group winners Bayern Munich. Nevertheless it’s at house, on the raucous Parken Stadium, the place FC Copenhagen are inclined to unsettle the elite.
“I misplaced in 2013 in opposition to Actual Madrid, and so they misplaced in opposition to Bayern Munich this season,” says Solbakken, who racked up eight Danish league titles over two spells accountable for the membership and is now the supervisor of the Norway nationwide crew. “However these are the one two defeats they’ve had. I feel it is a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating factor. At its peak, I began considering we had been by no means going to lose in these video games. That was once we held Barcelona.”
Not simply any Barcelona, however Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. In November 2010 Guardiola went to Copenhagen with a crew that had Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique on the again, a midfield of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi and David Villa up entrance. It was a crew that may go on to win a second Champions League in three years. A crew that’s regarded by many as the very best membership aspect of all time. However FC Copenhagen, representing the relatively much less illustrious Danish Superliga, held them to a 1-1 draw at Parken.
That heroic consequence, and the wins in opposition to Manchester United, aren’t outliers. Throughout their varied European adventures, FC Copenhagen have both overwhelmed or drawn with golf equipment reminiscent of Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Benfica, Valencia, Sevilla, FC Porto, Celtic and, after all, Manchester Metropolis. When Guardiola’s males visited the Danish capital final season on their solution to successful the treble, they had been held to a 0-0 draw.
Although they’re underdogs in Europe, one of many causes for the crew’s success has been their refusal to play prefer it. Over time, they’ve realized the significance of with the ability to preserve possession and to attempt to play their very own recreation, even in opposition to a number of the greatest names on the continent.
“The FCK crew that beat Manchester United again in 2006 had stable, Scandinavian gamers — and we performed soccer accordingly,” Solbakken says. “Defensive organisation, set items, a number of muscle. However because the crew developed, we grew to become higher and higher with the ball as properly.”
Peter Christensen, the FC Copenhagen sporting director, believes the membership’s constructive ends in Europe have given them the boldness to play extra assertively.
“In fact we’re the underdogs, however we determined to vary the way in which we method the video games,” he tells ESPN. “We’re not ready in a defensive 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, we have determined to have a go. We determined to have a extra aggressive and extra optimistic method, and to play with extra braveness, even when we’re up in opposition to world-class gamers. The mindset modified due to our experiences as a membership, and likewise the outcomes. As a result of at house, we have been in a position to compete in opposition to anybody. That is an enormous issue.”
Having the ability to preserve the ball isn’t just a matter of favor or aesthetics, it is a obligatory device to deploy to be able to keep away from being overrun.
“You do must have a defensive base, as a result of if you do not have that you simply’re accomplished,” Solbakken says. “However on the identical time, the way in which soccer has developed, you may’t simply defend for 90 minutes. Typically you should have the ability to take the sting out of the sport, and simply transfer the ball round a bit. In order that the subsequent time you regain possession you may need the power to assault on the counter. I feel that is underrated. And I feel FCK have a practice for it, that when the crew has possession they perceive when to hit the accelerator and when to maintain the ball.”
Continuity and progressively constructing a membership tradition has been essential. Of the present workers, head coach Jacob Neestrup was previously on Solbakken’s workers alongside along with his assistant, Stefan Madsen. One other member of the teaching workers, Hjalte Nørregaard, performed in midfield after they beat Manchester United again in 2006. Rasmus Falk has been taking part in for FCK since they beat Membership Brugge 4-0 and held Porto and Leicester Metropolis to 0-0 attracts again in 2016.
FC Copenhagen was based in 1992, when Kjøbenhavns Boldklub and Boldklubben 1903 merged. It was an formidable membership from the beginning, aiming for home success and European adventures. “The tradition is totally different in Copenhagen to wherever else,” Christensen says. “We’ve got been actually particular about what we would like, even when the membership was based. You must perceive that mentality, it’s good to perceive how issues work each internally and externally, by way of dealing with stress and issues like this.”
Head coach Neestrup was promoted from inside having beforehand been accountable for the under-17s after which working as a first-team coach. Sporting director Christensen says was at all times assured in regards to the 35-year-old’s means to step up. “We had been by no means unsure once we needed to appoint a brand new supervisor. He is a younger man with an excellent expertise for teaching,” Christensen says. “We’ve got a coach now who is admittedly clear on what he needs, and who expects the very best from the gamers. So excessive calls for, undoubtedly. However these are the identical sorts of calls for we’ve all by way of the membership, from the workers all the way in which right down to the under-15s.”
Former boss Solbakken believes this inside continuity is essential. “One of many benefits FCK has is that you simply at all times have a number of gamers who’ve skilled it earlier than and who, together with the coaches, can move that have on,” he says. “So it turns into a part of the tradition of the membership. Even when this can be a large problem, they know it has been accomplished earlier than. And it isn’t simply a few times, it is occurred many occasions.”
FCK’s house help additionally helps. Sektion 12, the two-tiered stand behind one of many targets the place the membership’s ultras assemble, has a well-earned popularity for each producing noise and placing on placing shows earlier than massive video games. Forward of the 4-3 win over Manchester United in November, they unfurled an enormous banner depicting a sleeping pink satan and displaying imagery from the 1-0 win again in 2006, and above it the phrases: “Your theatre of nightmares.” Neestrup additionally sparked headlines within the English media when he described the environment at Parken as “100 occasions” extra intense than what he skilled at Previous Trafford. Whereas that assertion could have been bullish, the depth of the noise and the environment generated by the Copenhagen crowd is simple.
“[Neestrup] needed to ship a sign that we’re used to taking part in in entrance of huge noisy crowds,” Christensen says. “At house they’re after all an enormous help for us, they’re like a twelfth man on the pitch. What they’ve accomplished and what they’ve created is very large. They create an surroundings for our crew by which the gamers go on the pitch they know that the followers are in a position to carry us by way of a few of it.”
These massive European nights carry with them a distinct dynamic for each the gang and the crew. Sure, they’re perpetual Champions League underdogs, however domestically they’re essentially the most financially highly effective membership in Scandinavia. They’ve used these sources to draw a number of the most promising younger gamers within the area just like the match winner in opposition to United, 18-year-old Swedish winger Roony Bardghji. At all times looking out for rising Scandinavian expertise, FC Copenhagen had been one of many golf equipment making an attempt to signal a 16-year-old Erling Haaland when he first left his hometown membership of Bryne — however the striker opted to maneuver to Molde, to be taught from then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Along with attracting younger Scandinavian expertise, FC Copenhagen have additionally fleshed out the squad with Scandinavian gamers who’ve expertise in greater European leagues like Mohamed Elyounoussi (previously of Southampton), Diogo Gonçalves (Benfica), Lukas Lerager (Genoa and Bordeaux), Nicolai Boilesen (Ajax), Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta) and Birger Meling (Rennes). The technique is easy sufficient: belief the children from the academy and from round Scandinavia, then add seasoned professionals who may also help them.
“This can be a clear technique,” Christensen says. “We have determined to place some huge cash into the academy, we’ve a extremely spectacular workers there, who’re consultants at what they do. The standard and the expertise is there. After which we get gamers in from massive leagues with massive CVs. That is the combo we needed and it is performed out very well up to now.”
It is proved a potent combine, and domestically expectations are excessive, however Solbakken believes taking part in these massive European video games can truly really feel liberating for the gamers.
“Within the Danish league you are anticipated to win each single recreation, daily, yearly,” he says. “However then in Europe, they get video games the place they’ve all the pieces to achieve. The group will at all times be behind us. I feel you are feeling that in all the stadium, that lastly we are the underdogs. That occurs just some occasions a yr.”
The knockout part of the Champions League is usually the protect of the superrich golf equipment, however Christensen stays undaunted by the dimensions of the opposition.
“We do not talk about budgets and the way far we’re from the opposite groups, as a result of we expect that is simply excuses,” he says. “We would not have the ability to do that if we did not have a method of play, if we did not have this unimaginable setup and had gained that have over time. And if we did not have our fanbase doing all the pieces they will on these European nights.”
Not often, if ever, will they be greater underdogs than in opposition to Manchester Metropolis. However FC Copenhagen will face them with out concern, figuring out that upsetting illustrious opponents is a part of the membership’s DNA. They may know that it has been accomplished earlier than, so there isn’t any motive to suppose it may well’t be accomplished once more.