Was it the expectations? Was it the armbands? Was it the tinkering? Or did Denmark just not have what it took to progress as expected at this World Cup? The postmortem can now begin for the team ranked 10th in the world, because Kasper Hjulmand’s men are going home.
Their second defeat was in keeping with all but brief periods of their two other matches in Qatar: insipid. A team that had stormed their way to the semi-finals of the European Championship last year, and romped through qualification, didn’t look as if they had the belief to win a game against Australia.
Last year Denmark were driven by unique factors absent from this World Cup. Most important was the desire to play for their stricken playmaker Christian Eriksen, but there was also the effect of playing at home during the group stages, in front of crowds who were similarly animated. Here in the Gulf Danish fans are in short supply and they were outnumbered by Aussies at the Al Janoub stadium. Eriksen, meanwhile, is restored to the side but has proven far from the talisman of previous years.
Denmark have also been denied a second cause to play for this year. Among the European nations who have spoken out on issues of migrant labour rights and LGBTQ+ equality, Denmark have been perhaps the most vocal. They agreed to wear the OneLove armband and produced versions of their training and playing kits that would acknowledge the deaths of migrant workers caused by this tournament. But none of the items have been worn.
Fifa’s late, unspecified threat of sporting sanctions against players who wore the armband was accompanied by a straightforward “no political messaging” ban on the training gear. Unlike Australia, who concentrated on delivering their own – powerful – video message before the tournament, Denmark found themselves deprived of their plan and unable to create an alternative. After the opening draw against Tunisia, Hjulmand said the affair had disconcerted his players. On Wednesday he strongly denied it was still an issue. But regular Danish observers, watching a team so unlike themselves, said they were not so sure.
Hjulmand did admit his team had been affected mentally, acknowledging composure had been lacking against Australia. “We haven’t played with the right tempo and rhythm,” he said. “The structure just went out of the match and we were too emotional. The thing we shouldn’t do is play with emotion in a match like this, we should play with quality. But the football sucked.”
The absence of Simon Kjær will not have helped in terms of mental resilience, the captain proving so crucial in galvanising Denmark last year. But it was surely also the case that Hjulmand made some bad decisions during the tournament.
Speaking after the match the coach did not stint in criticising the levels of performance. “It’s a big disappointment and it’s not going to be good to look back on,” he said. But when he does pore over the videos – providing the Danish Football Association does not intercede first – Hjulmand may reflect on why he had clearly not settled on a preferred attacking system before the tournament, instead changing shape and personnel up front for each of the three matches, with an attendant shift in approach.
Against Australia, his team needed to win but a decision to abandon the familiar back three in favour of a four did not provide a greater attacking impetus. Instead, it not only appeared to stymie the attacking forays of his wing-backs but left his team open to the counter, something exacerbated when a double substitution led to the system switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 on the hour. The Socceroos finally exploited the vulnerability a minute later, breaking three on three for the winning goal.
Tactics played their part, and a lack of a sharp striking option surely cost Denmark, too. Ultimately, though, it seems that what undermined this team the most was something going on inside them and, right now, only they know what it was.