Football: The artful dodgers of Europe

One city, two teams: Rarely has Copenhagen taken such a turn in the wider footballing spotlight; visits the club who welcome United in the Champions' League
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The Independent Online
Spotting the odd one out at the draw for the 1998 Champions' League hardly needed Mystic Meg's crystal ball. Not even the healing hands of Eileen Drewery could have resuscitated the executives of Brondby IF, who had watched, the blood slowly draining from their faces, as the first Danish side to qualify by right for the big league were pitched into bottomless waters, mere bait for the great whites of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United in Group D.

"That was hard to swallow," Ebbe Skovdahl, the coach of Brondby, recalled. "It was first Bayern out of the draw, then Manchester, then came Arsenal. So they said, 'OK, it cannot be two English teams', so they put back Arsenal and gave us Barcelona instead." Tak, as they say in Danish. Thanks very much. So what did he tell his trembling team? "I said 'there's nothing we can do about the draw, so now we are going to try to steal some points'."

Three from Bayern in the opening Group D match was mild pickpocketing; United, who play the Danes twice in the next fortnight - starting on Wednesday at the national stadium in Copenhagen - should beware full-scale mugging. As Liverpool, a recent victim, would testify, Brondby are Europe's Artful Dodgers. "Why," asks Skovdahl, "should we come into a tournament we prayed to qualify for and then be afraid?"

Across town, Copenhagen FC prepare for their European Cup- Winners' Cup tie against the defending champions, Chelsea. The Danish side were initially drawn at home for the first leg, on Thursday, but wisely considered a simultaneous invasion of United and Chelsea fans too combustible a mix and switched the first fixture to Stamford Bridge. One week United, the next the return of Brian Laudrup, Denmark's prodigal son; in between, the Manic Street Preachers on the latest leg of their world tour.

Ancient footballing passions are generally confined to some hell- raising in the local derbies between the upwardly mobile Brondby, the self-styled club of Denmark, and their trendier, more volatile neighbours at the recently reformed Copenhagen FC. The rivalry is strictly personal; rarely has Copenhagen taken such a turn in the wider footballing spotlight.

Defeat would leave United four points behind the Danish champions halfway through the group stages and, by strange chance, provide further ammunition for the proponents of the breakaway European Super League, whose vision of the future is based on eradicating exactly those sort of footballing mishaps. European football in the next Millennium will not countenance a team with average gates of 12,000 and offices crammed into an extension of the local hotel. Bad for business. It would not be lost on the good people of Brondby that success in Group D might only hasten their own demise. In future, United's connection with Copenhagen will be happily confined to the sale of Ryan Giggs baby suits at the United shop due to be opened soon in the main airport. The notion of "from cradle to grave" merchandising has uncomfortable overtones for clubs such as Brondby who have a thriving mail-order operation turning over pounds 1m.

"The game could move away not just from us but from a lot of eastern European clubs because football wouldn't continue to develop in those countries," Emil Bakkendorft, the club's general secretary, said. "But we cannot hold back the big clubs from earning more money if it's there. It's up to Uefa to put more money into their tournaments."

The club knows its influence is limited, that higher forces are at work and that, at best, access to a larger European competition will become harder, with more teams from the bigger leagues involved, and that, at worst, they will be excluded from a closed shop. But in the unpretentious suburban Copenhagen, where Brondby's home merges with the apartment blocks and the warehouses off autumnal avenues, there is an air of relentless optimism, based on the touching conviction that Uefa will do what is best for football.

Work on an ambitious new 30,000 all-seater stadium will begin next summer and after an embarrassing financial miscalculation six years ago when attempts to buy a bank on the anticipated revenues of beating Dinamo Kiev in the qualifying round for the European Cup ended perilously close to their own bankruptcy, Brondby are no longer relying on income from Europe to finance their future. Instead, a flotation of B shares will raise the necessary capital from the Danish stock market, where Brondby shares are trading at a steady pounds 1.50. Only Tottenham, of European clubs, beat Brondby to flotation. A complex formula of A and B shares has ensured protection from unwanted predators. "It couldn't happen here," says Skovdahl of the pounds 623m takeover bid by BSkyB.

European exclusion would bring fresh impetus to the formation of a Scandinavian league, an idea which has been the talk of the Baltic for the last decade. In an effort to heighten competitiveness, the reserve teams of leading Scandinavian clubs already play in a cross-border league. The thought should prick United's conscience. Ties between the two clubs have strengthened since the transfer of Peter Schmeichel. Brondby have been regular members of United's pre-season fixture list and regard for United's top brass seems markedly higher in Copenhagen than around Old Trafford. United's history retains a peculiar hold on the Danes and on Brondby, whose own traditions stretch back a mere 35 years.

"When you go to Old Trafford," says Bakkendorft, "the whole place smells of football. You become a United fan as soon as you enter the stadium. These clubs have high expectations and there is a lot of money involved. But they are still football people. They have not forgotten that football is the main thing."

Skovdahl has until Wednesday evening to banish any vestiges of awe from his young team. An ambling, grey-haired man in jeans and jersey, cigarette glued to the end of his fingers, Skovdahl once played for Brondby and is in his third - and most successful - spell as their coach. Besides leading Brondby to their third successive league title last season, Skovdahl's status is enhanced by his family. His sister is the mother of the two Laudrups, Michael and Brian. "She only had two boys and I always say to her, she should have had more for the sake of Danish football." He laughs, a nicotine-stained chuckle. The Laudrups were the most gifted students of the Brondby youth academy, which is fed by 60 teams from the ages of eight through to 16. "No," Skovdahl says, "we have no more Laudrups at the moment."

But in Ebbe Sand, Brondby have a strong skilful goalscorer who could well join the export trade once the European trail has gone cold. United, says Skovdahl, pose a different set of problems from Bayern or Barcelona not least because United won their last friendly, in the summer, 6-0, and because Schmeichel's massive presence could scramble the minds of the Brondby forwards.

"I know now what we mustn't do," Skovdahl says. "United know us better than the other two and their philosophy is quite different. Barcelona are very technical, a lot of quick passing, and are best at changing the pace of the game. Bayern are more predictable, very disciplined, very physical, very determined one on one and all of them two metres tall and shooting very hard. United just go full speed ahead, short pass, long pass, they don't care, they can do both and when they get into your box they are poison, so dangerous." Any players he particularly admires? "That Keane, how do you say, he has lungs like a horse and Giggs, so fast, and the one on the right, what's his name?" Beckham. "Ah, Beckham, good feet."

Alex Ferguson would be wise not to be fooled by this assessment. Skovdahl will have departed Old Trafford yesterday with a shrew idea of weaknesses as well as strengths. "Player by player they are better than we are," Skovdahl adds. "If not, they would perhaps come and buy some of our players. We will try to get some luck." But there is no guarantee that either English side will chorus the wonderfulness of Copenhagen's many attractions two weeks down the line.