The rise and rise of Brondby is a fairytale in the best traditions of one of Denmark's most famous sons, Hans Christian Andersen. The irresistible parallel is to the story of the ugly duckling.
The club began only in 1964, in a newly-developing working class suburb of Copenhagen. But Brondbyernes IF, to give the full title, shook off early derision to sweep gracefully to the summit of Danish soccer. They have now been champions four times in six years, and it was a shock when they finished second twice.
While the traditional giant of Danish and Copenhagen soccer, KB, the oldest club outside Britain, flounders like a dozy duck in the lower divisions, the Brondby swan is transforming the style and substance of the nation's football. Two men have been instrumental in this amazing success story and a third now aims to complete the job. They are Finn Laudrup, Per Bjerregaard and Morten Olsen.
Laudrup is a familiar name to football followers worldwide. Both Michael of Barcelona and Brian of Bayern Munich made their names with little Brondby, becoming players of the year in Denmark as teenagers before big-money moves abroad. The club was the natural start because of father Finn, who now oversees their affairs. He was a skilful international in the 1960s before winding up his career with a last challenge at a new slightly ambitious club, working through first the "non-league" Danmarkesserien and then the proper divisions of the Danmarksturneringen. Danish soccer was astonished when Laudrup moved to a small non-league outfit, and nobody could have predicted the outcome. He scored the goals which began the roller-coaster ride up the divisions and was coach as they made the breakthrough into the Third Division East in 1973.
Copenhagen is full of excellent clubs; Lyngby, KB, B93, B1903, Bronshoj, Hvidovre, Frem, Fremad Amager, Vanlose and AB. But Laudrup's inspiration put them all under a threat they were too slow to see coming. Neighbours Hvidovre, the club where Brondby's Danish international goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel began his career, are now wasting away in non-league soccer: in 1973 Hvidovre were Danish champions.
Laudrup left the club in the mid-1970s, but his stylish legacy was sound. Brondby were promoted to the Second Division in 1978 and made it into the First Division in 1983. Two years later they were champions and they repeated the feat in 1987, 1988 and 1990. It is a formidable achievement. Chairman Per Bjerregaard was entitled to celebrate longest and loudest. He was one of the founders in 1964 when two tiny "Sunday morning" sides, Brondbyoster and Brondbyvester, amalgamated. East and west coming together here long before their time!
Bjerregaard was a humble Copenhagen doctor with a passion for football, just like millions of enthusiasts all round the world who spend their spare time tending their precious local club instead of the garden. He too did not foresee what would happen. But when Laudrup the father set the bandwagon rolling, Bjerregaard was the man with the necessary vision to complement ambition. He did the classic things, organised shirt sponsorships and the like to finance an amateur side in an amateur league.
An excellent 10,000-capacity municipal stadium provided a perfect home to entice fans from the other Copenhagen clubs. And football lovers drawn into an expanding capital city were naturally attracted to a new success story. Bjerregaard also made sure Brondby played their biggest European club matches at the national Idraetsparken stadium. That helped finances and prestige. The last match in the old Idraetsparken was Brondby against Bayer Laverkusen in the UEFA Cup last November. The ground is now being rebuilt.
Having conquered Denmark so thoroughly, though. Bjerregaard knew Brondby would have to go a stage further if they wanted progression to continue. He set a ludicrously ambitious target of reaching the semi-final of a European competition by 1990. To do that Brondby would have to go professional. The initial motor for that was the success of the Danish dynamite national side of the mid-1980s who transformed soccer in the country. Beside such thrilling achievements, the domestic Danish league looked pallid and poor.
Brondby's ability to rise so quickly in a way illustrated that perfectly. Bjerregaard could hardly demand a professional club and remain an amateur himself, so he gave up his job as a doctor to run the club full time. Finance, of course, always had been the reason why Danish soccer remained amateur. Low gates could not pay professional wages. Brondby broke the mould by following the lead of Tottenham Hotspur in England, going public on the Stock Exchange. A huge injection of capital allowed the club to pay good wages and to fend off predatory foreign clubs. For years Denmark's best players automatically went abroad. Now, if Brondby players were tempted, at least the club would get a realistic fee: £500,000 for Kent Nielsen, £800,000 for Brian Laudrup.
The system has helped Brondby keep their best players. They now have 10 with full Danish caps on the books. Other clubs, of course, had to follow the Brondby locomotive to keep pace, and most Danish First Division clubs are now fully professional. Next season the league is being reduced from 14 clubs to ten - a Superliga designed to maintain and continue the increase in standards.
Bjerregaard's dream of reaching a European semi-final by 1990 was not achieved. The nearest they went was losing eventually to Champions Cup Winners FC Porto in a close quarterfinal in 1987. But this season Brondby have been on the Euro trail again, defeating Eintracht Frankfurt (5-0 in the home first leg) and Ferencvaros on the way to a UEFA Cup third-round tie with Bayer Leverkusen.
And so enters the third hero of Brondby, Morten Olsen, the new coach. The man needs no introduction to World Soccer readers; 102 caps for Denmark, still playing for IFC Koln at the age of 40, one of the great liberos. History is fine, but as Olsen knows only too well it is tomorrow that counts in sport and football. "Yes, I've had a good start as manager," he says, "But if the results go badly then that will very soon be the end of it. Results ARE football when you are a coach."
I remember interviewing Olsen for World Soccer six years ago, on the eve of the 1984 UEFA Cup final, which he would lose with Anderlecht at Spurs. He vowed then he would never be a manager. At the age of 34 his mind seemed made up, the decision cast in stone.
"It was playing so long for Koln that changed me," he explains. "I became an assistant coach while I was still playing because they thought my experience would be of benefit. I was four years older than the real trainer.
"I found I enjoyed the experience that had lots of ideas I wanted to put into practice."
The most obvious is his introduction at Brondby of a "pressing" style of play that appalled the purists who saw Morten Olsen as a symbol of the beautiful game. He says: "Nobody had tried it in Denmark and it shocked any opponents. But we won the league by 11 clear points and went 25 games unbeaten after losing our first match.
"Players have to realise that when you are a professional you play hard to win. And you look after yourself properly too when you are in full time training. Of course, you enjoy playing the game, but as a professional you must have a hard ambition to be the best.
"Here at Brondby we have developed that, and the confidence that comes from winning helps it along. Doing well in Europe is a consequence of that. For so many years Danish teams went into Europe feeling and playing as underdogs, being negative if not defensive as well.
"We have been positive this season and have shown that Danish clubs can do what the Danish national side did in the 1980s - be successful with good, positive football. It is good to be part of that."
Olsen also is hoping that the introduction of the Superliga next year will bring better domestic competition for Brondby. He explains: "Of course we want to win everything. But if we dominate the league by 11 points every year it will not help us to improve.
"I hope the other clubs will make it much harder for us next year because that will mean Danish soccer is improving overall. That is what we need.
"I'm very glad to be back in Denmark and I want to be successful here as I've been elsewhere."
Brondby are realistic enough to know that Morten Olsen will not stay too long at the club, perhaps just long enough to fulfil the European aim. He is enjoying the day-to-day involvement of coaching, but is lined up as the next manager of the Danish national side. Yet there is no doubt they will have benefited by association with him. And the feeling is mutual. OIsen says: "Brondby are an example to every club in the world of what can be achieved if you have ambition and sense and determination to succeed.
"It is a very fine club and I have been lucky to begin another part of my soccer life here."
The tale of the ugly duckling will no doubt continue to inspire us for generations to come.
This article originally appeared in the January 1991 edition of World Soccer. Subscribe here for a limited time offer.