In football terms, Morten Olsen is Mr. Denmark. Nineteen years' service as player and nine as coach have left the 59-year-old's name synonymous with his national team, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Proud and unabashedly patriotic, Olsen, the first Dane to earn 100 caps, captained his country on their memorable FIFA World Cup™ debut in 1986 and, as coach, led them back to the game's greatest stage 16 years later.
Now, after missing out on Germany 2006 and UEFA EURO 2008, the former Cologne and Ajax coach has successfully guided Denmark to a position of strength in what is arguably Europe's toughest South Africa 2010 preliminary section. With Portugal and Sweden trailing his side by seven points and a showdown with their Nordic neighbours looming next month, Olsen spoke exclusively to FIFA.com to share his memories of past glories and hopes for future success.
FIFA.com: Morten, in such a tough group, you must be thrilled to have started with four wins and a draw.
Morten Olsen: We are very pleased. It's been a tough opening programme for us but we have made an exceptional start, although that's all it is for now: a start. We are only halfway through and, coming up, we have a very difficult game away to our brother country (Sweden). Denmark and Sweden know each other very, very well, of course, and there is very little to separate the two teams. It should come down to who is in form on the day, or who has a bit of luck. But they are going to be very dangerous games, that's for sure.
When the draw was made, many expected that Portugal would be favourites and that it would be down to you and Sweden to challenge them for first place. As it is, you are seven points ahead of the Portuguese and Swedes, with Hungary your closest challengers. Has that surprised you?
It has surprised me, yes. I think most people would have expected Portugal to be on top at this stage, especially as they've started with more home games. They have had some problems, it's sure, and now I think they are in a position where they probably need to win all the matches they have left. But they still have a chance because all the teams in this group can take points off each other, so the picture could change very quickly. Hungary have been a big surprise to everyone, of course. They are a country with a great football tradition, but it has been a long time since they were a force in Europe, so they have exceeded expectations. We actually received a lot of criticism back home in Denmark when we drew over there in our first game but when you look at how Hungary have performed since, that's actually looking like a very good result now.
Although there is clearly a lot of talent in your side, it seems there are no real superstars. Has this been part of the secret to your success?
I think it works well for us anyway. We certainly have a good group of players right now, and a lot of very promising younger guys, like Nicklas Bendtner, who're beginning to make a real difference for us. The only problem for us, as a little country, is when we pick up three or four injuries because we don't have the same strength in depth that other nations have. Already, we've lost a couple of important players for the Sweden games, and we'll also really miss Martin Laursen (who has retired from international football).
You will have been Denmark coach for ten years by the time South Africa 2010 comes about. That's a long time for any coach to stay in one job these days.
It is a very long time. But I'm happy to keep going because I still enjoy the job and still feel I have something to offer. I think that, as a group, we also have a point to make after failing to qualify for the last two major tournaments. Getting to World Cups and European championships is the name of the game for us and it was a real disappointment that we didn't manage it in 2006 and 2008.
Is it true that you will stand aside after 2010?
No, not at all, that's not been decided yet. It's not even important for the moment. The only important thing is getting us to South Africa.
You're obviously bidding to be part of a special FIFA World Cup: the first on African soil.
World Cups are always special. The fact it's the first time in Africa is fantastic because it's bringing it closer to the people there, but every World Cup has its own unique flavour and appeal. I remember seeing how excited Asia was in 2002 to have it and what a fantastic experience that was for everyone. For me and for all the players, competing at the World Cup is the ultimate; it's the biggest honour for any player. That's what has been motivating us.
You mention the 2002 edition, which obviously saw Korea Republic reach the semi-finals. Do you envisage that 'home advantage' will be as beneficial to the African nations in 2010?
Playing on your own continent is a big motivation, there's no question about that. But I think that, with South Korea in 2002, their success had more to it than just being the hosts. Don't forget that they had a long, long time together before the World Cup to prepare; they were almost like a club team. The climate was also a big issue in 2002 because the European teams especially couldn't play in their usual style. I believe it will be winter in South Africa when the World Cup is on, so it could be that the European teams don't find it so tough this time. But that's not to say that one of the African teams can't go all the way.
Has the FIFA World Cup changed since you played in the 1986 edition?
It's always been popular, but now it's more global than ever. I think wherever you are in the world in 2010, someone will be watching the World Cup. Everyone looks forward to it, even people with no real affiliation. In terms of the scale and the appeal it has, I'd say only the Olympics comes close.
You, of course, were captain of the great Danish team that so impressed everyone at Mexico 1986. What made that team so special?
I think it was simply a special generation of players. We had also been given a great football education, particularly on the technical and tactical sides of the game. That really set us up to have good careers and we were lucky that so many of our players were playing for some of the best clubs in Europe.
Do you ever look back and think you could have won that FIFA World Cup?
Oh, we could have won it, I'm sure of that. We all felt the same. It was a special group of players coming together at the perfect time and, with a bit of luck, it could have been us up there rather than Argentina. But I don't look back with any real regret. It was a great experience, not only for us but for the fans who travelled together with us everywhere we went. In those days, the Danish fans were one of the first to paint their faces and make a real party out of these kind of competitions, and I really think they helped show other fans at that time that you could be passionate about team without being violent and aggressive. Our fans set a great example and that was important for us as a nation.
Was representing your country always the ultimate honour for you?
Absolutely. I actually think football brings out the best kind of nationalism, certainly in our country. In Denmark, there is one thing that everyone unites behind and that is the national team. If we can get to 2010 and do well, we'll have the whole nation standing behind us. Personally, I played for Denmark for 19, almost 20 years, and I've now been coach for ten, so that's half of my life I've devoted to the national team. The best thing is that I still get the same feeling I did when I first started, and I see that the young players are just as proud as I am. That's fantastic. When I don't have that feeling any more, I'll know then that I need to stop.