Legendary striker Lone Smidt Nielsen believes Denmark "have the potential to go all the way" in England.
By Peter Bruun
Having scored in the final of the last unofficial European Nations Cup in 1979 and now an adviser to the Danish national team, Lone Smidt Nielsen has had a front row seat to watch radical changes in the women's game.
"The progress since my own playing days ended in 1989 has been tremendous – it's completely different now" she told uefa.com. As if symbolic of those changes, the 18-year-old who struck Denmark's first goal in the 2-0 win against Italy that day in 1979 was a certain Lone Smidt Hansen – Nielsen being the legendary striker's later, married name. But, paradoxically, if the women's game has barely stopped evolving in recent times, it has been due in part to the sheer consistency of individuals like Smidt Nielsen.
She played in 53 consecutive internationals between her 1977 debut at the age of 16 and 1986 - when she took a break from football to have the first of her three children, Malene - and her unwavering instincts as a finisher brought her 21 goals in 57 appearances overall. Just as remarkably, she went through her entire international career without receiving a single caution, yet perhaps not surprisingly for a player with a spotless disciplinary record, she prefers to talk about the sport in general than her own personal achievements. "Danish women's football is a lot more structured today, mainly because the amount of training has been increased," she says. "First and foremost, this has resulted in technically and tactically better players."
Despite her modesty, and the ever-improving standard of Danish women's football, the country has perhaps never produced a more gifted female footballer than Smidt Nielsen herself. Indeed, by the time she was 13, she had been identified as one of the most talented players in Denmark thanks to her performances for Hover IF, a club based in the suburbs of Velje, the small town both she and Real Madrid CF's Thomas Gravesen call home. From there, she joined neighbours Kolding Boldklub and, still only 15, eased her way into the top flight before earning a move to B1909, the dominant force at the time. She spent seven years with the Odense giants and later returned there to finish her career after a two-year adventure in Italy with Sanitas Trani, where she won two league championships and played with current Italy coach Carolina Morace.
Having been such a precocious talent in her own time, Smidt Nielsen was an ideal candidate to take charge of the Danish Under-18 side after hanging up her boots and, although she left that role after two years in 1996, she continues to take a close interest in grassroots development. "Football has become more and more popular among young girls," she observes. "Clubs are attracting girls as never before, partly because the DBU [Danish Football Association] does a lot to promote women's football through summer schools among other things. But it's also because clubs have realised that having both sexes is fantastic for their social life, and it helps them keep hold of the youngsters."
At the senior level, the Danes have not been able to match the early feats of Smidt Nielsen and company since UEFA launched its first European Competition for Representative Women's Teams in 1982, but Smidt Nielsen is in no doubt that they are headed in the right direction: "Another reason for optimism is the 'Danish women's football on top of the world' project that the DBU have launched," she said. "Former national coach Poul Højmose has to take a large share of the credit for this. If he hadn't started the initiative, we wouldn't be where we are today. But of course the DBU also deserve praise for their willingness to allocate the necessary funds - it wouldn't work without money!"
With the Danish authorities now taking the women's game extremely seriously, and the team performing so well on the pitch, it is perhaps no surprise that Smidt Nielsen rates Denmark's chances at this summer's UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2005™. "We definitely have the potential to go all the way, but the tournament consists of eight really strong teams," she said. "In our group, you might say Finland are the team we have to beat, but the truth is that all the teams can beat each other." She may well be waving a Danish flag come June, but one senses that whoever wins, Lone Smidt Nielsen will be cheering another major step forward for women's football.