Last season the world of European football was mildly surprised to see a new name joining the Champions League jet-set. Many words have already been written, including our own views, on the miraculous rise from regional cup final to the world’s richest club competition of FC Nordsjælland. Whilst the champagne corks were popping in the Farum, the sleepy northern Copenhagen suburb back in May, there was the usual end of season soul-searching on the other side of the Capital of Cool. Brøndby IF, for so long the title also-rans, had experienced a season from hell, finishing just two places and six points above the relegation zone. Fast forward twelve months and the situation is even more dire.
At 5pm today Brøndby kick off against AC Horsens in a “winner takes all” game. A defeat in East Jutland for the blues will see them relegated from the top division of Danish football. For the Brøndby fans, this was another serious kick in the teeth. In the past few years, the big two, or “New Firm” of the Blues and arch rivals FC Copenhagen have seen their power base eroded by the likes of OB from Odense, AaB from Aalborg and FC Midtjylland from Herning. Add to this list the new Superligaen champions, FC Nordsjælland and you can start to feel the pressure that Brøndby are under each season in a league of just twelve sides. But even so, they should be better than a relegation-haunted side. So where has it all gone wrong?
Danish football is not flush with money. FCK’s Champions League millions of Kroner aside, teams are successful in the domestic game today because they invest in their youth and scouting structure. This approach has benefited the national side as well as they are going for qualification to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which will be their third major tournament in a row.
To understand how far Brøndby have fallen behind the rest of Danish football we need to go back ten years to the 2002/03 season. Back then, the rivalry with FC Copenhagen was just a decade old. The Blues had finished the previous season as Superligaen champions, pipping FCK to the title on goal difference after a 1-1 draw in the final New Firm derby at Parken, the national stadium in front of a sell out crowd. In a major coup, the club managed to convince Danish legend and ex-captain Michael Laudrup to join the club as coach.
The name Laudrup is like royalty in Denmark. At Brøndby it is revered like a deity. The Laudrup legacy goes back three generations, starting when Finn Laudrup joined the club as coach in 1973. Back then live in Denmark was very different to today. The major teams were the likes of KB, Vejle, Hvidovre and B1903, small amateur clubs who relied on team spirit, windswept muddy pitches and little else. Brøndby were a small team playing in the fourth tier of Danish football in an athletics ground with no spectator facilities. Both of his sons, Michael and Brian, started off in the youth leagues in the mid-Seventies, with the elder son Michael making his debut for the side in 1982, the same season that they finally made their debut in the top tier of Danish football.
A season later, Laudrup was a star in the making. Liverpool had been on the verge of signing him, but terms couldn’t be agreed and instead Denmark’s Player of the Season headed off to Juventus for around $1million, money that enabled Brøndby to build a foundation both on and off the pitch that delivered a Danish Championship for the first time in 1985. In the next seven seasons the club were never outside of the top two, winning a further four titles as well as reaching the quarter finals of the European Cup in 1987.
Life looked rosy for the Blues. And then along came FC Copenhagen. A team made after a controversial merger of KB and B1903 and given Parken as their home stadium was never going to be popular in Denmark, let alone in Copenhagen. Whilst the next few seasons still saw three further titles, it was the off the field activities that had the club hitting the headlines. After becoming only the second football club in the world, behind Tottenham Hotspur, to float on a stock exchange, a strange policy of diversification saw the club invest in a bank that almost took the club to financial oblivion.
Fortunately, events on the pitch saved the club. The Superligaen title returned to western Copenhagen in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and a huge redevelopment project began to deliver a stadium fit for European football. But the turning point for the club came in the summer of 2003 as the club basked in the glory of their ninth title. That was when Michael Laudrup came back to the club.
His plan, along with his assistant John Jensen, was to build a dynasty based on his principles of short passing style, with a very structured 4-2-3-1 formation. He started to bring in young players such as Daniel Agger, Casper Ankergren and Johan Elmander, player who would go on to make an impact on the English Premier League. In his first two seasons they finished runners-up to FCK but there was a feeling power was about to shift across the city.
The 2004/05 season will go down as the best in the history of Brøndby IF. Despite a poor start with a home defeat to Odense, the Blues soon moved towards the top of the table. They threw down their marker in the first Ny Derby game at Parken in September when they won 3-1. After that game they recorded eight wins and a draw to head the table going into the winter break. The title was there’s to lose. They didn’t taste defeat until April, losing at home to FC Midtjylland before a humiliating reverse in the game against FCK threatened to blow open the title race. But on the night of the 16 May, the Blues and Laudrup finally put the nail in FCK’s coffin. A five nil win at home was as good as it ever got for the club and the title was theirs.
So everything seemed in place for a new dynasty of Brøndby dominance. The following season the club found FCK in resurgent form. Going into the final few games of the season with the teams neck and neck at the top, there were mutterings that all was not well off the pitch. Laudrup and Jensen had met with the club to discuss a new contract but so far nothing was forthcoming. Whether this was a contributory factor to the team getting just four points from their last five games we will never know, but the title was conceded after a 4-1 defeat to Horsens.
It turned out the rumours were true and Laudrup left the club in the summer, and so too did the hopes of thousands of fans. The club never really recovered from the end of the Laudrup era, often briefly promising to break the dominance of FCK that has seen the white half of the city claim five out of the last seven titles. Laudrup has now arrived in Wales, looking to try to repeat his success in the Premier League. However, he also has found live tough since leaving Copenhagen. Gigs at Getafe, Spartak Moscow and Mallorca haven’t yielded any success so far and as time goes on so does the hope of landing one of the big European jobs he was once tipped to take. There is of course the possibility of him taking over from Morten Olsen as National Team Coach, a role that Olsen tipped him for some four years ago.
There is, of course, another possibility. Could he be tempted back to Brøndby for another attempt to recreate the spirit of 2005? After last season’s disappointment, few thought that things could get any worse for the Blues. But just two wins from their opening sixteen Superliga games has seen them fail to get out of the relegation places for some weeks. Five points from seven games at home has seen some fans start to turn against the team.
The good times seem to be a million miles away for Brøndby at the moment, and they can only look on with envious eyes at the full houses champions FC Nordsjælland have had for the games versus Chelsea and Juventus. With every team in the Group Stages due to collect a base of €8.6 million it is hard to see how Brøndby will be able to compete financially with a team who were once seen as a small provincial team in Danish football.
Next season FCK and FCN will once again carry the Danish flag into the Champions League, whilst two more of the “upstarts” Randers and Esbjerg, both relegation favourites themselves in times not too long ago will go into the Europa League. If they don’t win, then Brøndby will have local derbies against Brønshøj BK next season, whose ground didn’t have floodlights when we last visited in 2010.
Football can be a harsh mistress at times, having no respect for reputation or past glories. Brøndby have a passion fan base and will support their team to the end. However, they will be hoping that next season they are still looking forward to the volatile atmosphere of a New Firm derby with FC Copenhagen rather than one against Brønshøj BK.