“I think of it like Noma, the restaurant,” he said. “At first, nobody thought foraging their own food would work. But it did what it believed in, and after a while, people started to appreciate it.”
Soccer finds this sort of reverse-engineered explanation compelling, bordering on irresistible. It takes what appears, at first, to be an unsettlingly opaque sort of success — an unheralded team suddenly coalescing and crystallizing into something formidable — and transforms it into a story, one with a beginning, a middle and an end, one with an inner logical structure.
The appeal is obvious: It means there is a recipe that can be followed, a method that can be packaged, a result that can be replicated. All you need is a team to institute the same sort of principles as Nordsjaelland — a focus on and a belief in youth; an emphasis on style as a vector for victory; an international outlook, as manifested in the collaboration with Right to Dream, an academy with its roots in Ghana that bought the club six years ago — and, in time, your national team, too, can have a quarterfinal against the Czechs.
Laursen knows that is magical thinking. While he sees Denmark’s renaissance as vindication for Nordsjaelland’s work — the club, he said, thinks of itself as a “university,” the best place for teenagers to complete their education so that they are ready to go out into the world, an account that Damsgaard, now with the Italian club Sampdoria, has endorsed — he does not pretend that it has changed Danish soccer.
Nordsjaelland, he said, is still an outlier: younger than most of its opponents, with a less “tactical, physical” style, less likely to place considerable emphasis on set pieces. His hope is that its role in Denmark’s success can lead to a “breakthrough in the Danish consciousness.” But he knows that Nordsjaelland could not be a beneficiary if it was also the cause.
The reality is far messier, far more complex. There is no one single factor behind Denmark’s rise, no order than can be easily retrofitted.