On 6 August 2017, the Netherlands took on Denmark in the final of Euro 2017 at De Grolsch Veste in Enschede. The Dutch, who had thrilled their home fans the previous three weeks, ran out 4-2 winners, with goals from Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens and Sherida Spitse settling the match.
For Denmark, though, there was great pride. Although they wouldn’t take the trophy home, the tournament reflected the work they had put in over the years and set them up for a bright future in the game.
“That was a big achievement,” says Janni Arnth, the team’s centre-half. “We worked hard for that for so many years. It was something that really boosted the women’s game and national team. It opened people’s eyes towards the national team and how good we actually were.”
“People started learning about who the players were and everything related to the team. Additionally, the league grew, and it drove the game forward. We made a big statement, allowing us to take the next step in women’s football in general.”
Women’s football in Denmark has been on an upward trajectory over the last decade. Having had a few successes in the 1990s, reaching the World Cup quarter-finals and European Championships semi-finals on multiple occasions, there was a period of silence as they entered the 21st century.
However, with the rise in star names in recent times such as Pernille Harder – who is their all-time top goalscorer – and Nadia Nadim, amongst others, they are back on the map.
If there’s anyone that knows the ways through the Danish football system, it’s Janni Arnth. She started off with the U-15s, played all the way to the U-19s before making her way to the senior team, for whom she has now played 93 times in an international career spanning 12 years.
At the time of Euro 2017, she was in the middle of a four-year spell at Swedish club Linköpings, and after that journey, she represented Arsenal, Fiorentina and Rangers, where she currently plays.
A lot of Arnth’s success came at home, though, where she played for Varde and Fortuna Hjørring, winning the top-flight title with the latter. Now 35, Arnth has had enough experience at home, abroad and with the national team to see the growth in women’s football in her country, and she thinks that the nation is well-placed to get even better.
“Overall, women’s football is growing really fast. That’s helped women’s football in Denmark. The national team is getting better, and more women are playing – football’s the biggest sport for women in Denmark – so that’s helped.
Many clubs are also investing, starting their own teams to go along with men’s team. That creates better conditions for players to reach their highest potential.
Ultimately, the quality of players and everything around it has become so much better over the years. When situations around football improve, the football itself becomes better and in turn, that has raised the interest level even further.”
Having left home in 2014 and having lived in four different countries since, Arnth has seen plenty in the game. She spent the longest time in Sweden, where the set-up for women’s football is one of the best in the world.
Arnth then spent a year in England at a time where investment in the women’s game was only growing. After that, she spent two years in Italy, where the country’s big names such as Juventus and Milan are driving change. She’s now in Scotland, where her club are aiming to be amongst the best and creating a home for international footballers.
There’s a lot to learn when moving abroad: not only is there a change in culture and outlook towards life, but career-wise, footballing ideology and methods are different.
As Arnth explains, moving around countries helped her identify where the game was at and how it was progressing, allowing her to compare it with the situation in her native Denmark as well.
“When I moved abroad, I feel certain countries were a bit further with their organisation and were doing it within bigger clubs, which gave them an advantage,” Arnth says. “That’s probably because they started investing in women’s football a bit earlier.
I still feel the quality and facilities are quite similar. I’ve learned so much since I’ve moved abroad, but I’ve noticed that there are some areas which Denmark is already so good at, and other areas which we can make changes in.”
She continues: “The biggest thing is that the progression in the bigger leagues is quite good and that means it’s easier to be a full-time professional footballer outside, compared to Denmark and that’s one of the major factors.
Since I’ve been abroad, I’ve been a football player full-time, and that’s been my mindset at all times which has allowed me to fulfill my potential as well as easily adapt to the country and culture. I’m also surrounded by, and I play against players who are in football full-time, which helps lift my game.”
Back at home, there are people looking to leave their own mark on the game. Anja Heiner-Møller is one such person. Currently, the head coach of FC Nordsjælland’s U-18s team, Heiner-Møller’s career started off with aspirations of wanting to be a player.
Due to the lack of a girls’ team growing up, she played solely with boys until she was 11, before being called up to youth national teams, but after having combined a semi-professional playing career with university education, she decided the best way to pursue her dreams in football would be through coaching.
After various experiences in Denmark and Canada – most notably with Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps – Heiner-Møller returned home to Denmark and joined Nordsjælland in December 2020, who’s ambitious women’s football programme wants to see them become one of the country’s best.
Heiner-Møller is playing her part in wanting to see her nation improve and avoid scenarios that she found herself in growing up.
“The crazy thing is that until the age of 15, I hadn’t met a girl like me playing football and loving the game,” Heiner-Møller says. “It was only until I got selected for the U-16s national team. That has changed now. We have role models and girls playing at every club. It’s much more public now.
The women’s national team and domestic clubs have also grown to become more popular for the public. It’s not as well-broadcasted as the men’s game, but it’s obvious that girls can now see a better pathway towards playing in the best leagues and maybe going to the best clubs abroad.”
“I’m in a club where we are combined with an elite academy and they’ve decided we should have all the same opportunities: so we’ve got the same access to the facilities, the experts and that means we are developing very fast because we have all the knowledge around us.
I think that’s important in order to develop our players better. Within clubs, we need to develop so that we are at a level where we can compete with the world’s finest as well. We’re improving in that regard, however, that speed of development is even faster in other countries across Europe.”
As a coach herself, Heiner-Møller has recognised the changes, but still feels more can be offered. Football isn’t only about the players itself – they are just one cog in a machine. The entire system is built and bettered by aspiring coaches and referees, and Heiner-Møller feels there aren’t enough of them at a grassroots level in Denmark yet, and that may hinder younger players:
“There are still a lot of girls in Denmark coached by parents and volunteers. That’s okay, but within clubs, you need experts that know what kind of age-related drills and training needs to be done. I lived in Canada for three years where you pay more to play, but you get professional coaches making session plans and parents only assist. That’s a much higher level.”
Throughout our conversations, both Arnth and Heiner-Møller use the words ‘role models’. It’s unsurprising that they do so – Danish football now has that many. In previous years, there were the Schmeichels, Laudrups, Elkjærs and Eriksens, but now there’s more.
Nadim, who scored in the final of Euro 2017, has an incredible story, fleeing war-affected Afghanistan as a child to make a career in Denmark. Harder, another scorer in that final and captain of the team, has had an incredible career for Wolfsburg and Chelsea, finishing in second place in the race for the Ballon d’Or in 2018 as well as winning the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2018 and 2020.
Apart from those two, top players are currently playing across top clubs in Europe. Simone Boye is at Arsenal, Signe Bruun is at Manchester United, Sofie Junge is at Juventus while Caroline Møller is at emerging Real Madrid.
Arnth on the impact her team has had on youngsters: “I definitely see that. Young players have more people to look up to. Every girl who plays football has someone they can show to the rest of the world. It’s something I’m really happy about.
Ten or 15 years ago, I couldn’t name any players from the national team, but now, many girls can relate and reflect themselves onto someone from the team. Some of the role models and some of the profiles we have in the squad are great examples for youngsters. That’s something I’m proud of.”
Role models are born out of actions and this Danish team have stood up several times. They’ve made their voices heard when necessary, with a view to the long-term future and creating a better game for generations to come.
Their most symbolic action came in October 2017, when they refused to play the Netherlands in a friendly and Sweden in a crucial World Cup qualifier, protesting against the Dansk Boldspil-Union (Danish FA) over pay and conditions.
Denmark ended up missing the 2019 Women’s World Cup but forced a significant change: a new collective bargaining agreement was signed, which saw a €270,000 rise in investment.
“It was something we felt that needed to be done at the moment, with a view to the future and seeing how we could improve the game for the next generation,” Arnth says. “It was designed to be able to continue with the goals we have as a national team.
We want to be able to compete at the same level and with the same conditions as other top national teams. We found a fair solution with the Football Association and something good came out of it for everyone, so everything can hopefully continue as it is now. We were really happy with the outcome.”
There’s lots of positivity around Danish football at the minute. The men’s team were excellent at Euro 2020 and in their World Cup qualifiers, while the youth sides are consistently producing top-level talent. On the women’s end, it’s no different: they are constantly improving, having their best players across top clubs in Europe and ready for big things.
They may have missed the last World Cup but are in the driving seat to qualify for the next one in 2023. For now, though, it’s still a work in progress to maintain that level of proficiency. Domestic clubs can’t rest, investment in the game must continue and encouragement to play the sport and making it as accessible as possible should still be the priority. Heiner-Møller doesn’t want to see her nation take the foot of the pedal.
“We’re in a process now where we see our best players leaving Denmark to get competitive experience. We need to learn, like the Danish men, how to create the best framework and environment for our league to be amongst the elite. These clubs are the ones that will bring our youth players to the top level. There can’t be a gap and it would be good for Denmark.”
In the coming months, they have another tournament to prepare for, one that Arnth is likely to take part in. It’s close to a place she’s lived at before, too: the European Championships return this summer and it’s in England.
The last time they were here, Denmark reached the final, agonizingly falling short against the Netherlands, and the challenge won’t become easier this time around. England will be the favourites, Spain are excellent, France, Germany and the Netherlands are always a threat.
However, Denmark aren’t worried – they await the challenge. Arnth: “At Euro 2017, we reached the final, and we want more. I hope that it will be a good tournament with some good matches and performances. I see a bright future.
“We have great players playing in big clubs across Europe, and the quality is getting better, with more players getting chances with the senior national team. It’s a good moment to be with us.
The culture surrounding us has grown in the last three years. Also, the way we play is enjoyable to so many people – it’s good football: very modern and we’re proud of it. I hope we can show that this summer.”
Things are looking up for Denmark. This is where they want to be in football, and it’s come as a result of years of positive thinking and achievable ambitions.
By: Karan Tejwani / @karan_tejwani26
Featured Image: @GabFoligno: Nick Potts – PA Images