Like good wine and goalkeepers Morten Olsen has matured with age. He is now 34 and at the height of his career as a footballer; captain of his country, Denmark, and involved in successive European finals with his club, Anderlecht. And 1983 was a vintage year for him; the highest ranked defender in the European Footballer of the Year poll, and player of the year in Denmark -- the first footballer to be so honoured when not playing in the domestic Danish league. Indeed, in his home country he is almost a folk hero these days; for leading Denmark to the European Championship finals this summer, defeating England at Wembley on the way as 83 per cent of the nation watched spellbound on television.
Morten Olsen was born August 14, 1949 in Vordingborg, a charming peaceful town set on the south cost of Zealand, 100 miles from Copenhagen. It was there that he began his career as a winger with the town's tiny club. His promise soon showed and he was snapped up by one of Denmark's oldest clubs, first division B1901 of Nykøbing Falster. He stayed with them as an outside-right until the age of 22 when he played in the 1972 Olympic Games, having made his international debut against Norway in September 1970. Now Olsen is Denmark's second most capped player behind Per Røntved. Cercle Bruges of Belgium saw his potential, and like so many other Danes, Morten Olsen followed the golden kroner-laden trail abroad. He said: "For me it was the only move to make if I wanted to improve as a footballer. I am ambitious and, of course, the money was tempting too."
So he moved as a still raw, rather gangling youngster of 6ft who sped up and down the wing. At Cercle, however, he soon wondered whether he had made a wise choice. Olsen remembered: "The trainer there played me in every position in the team apart from goalkeeper. I didn't like it at the time and sometimes got depressed. But now I know it was very good for me, and I'm grateful. I learned how to play football there." He finally settled into a midfield role and was transferred to Racing White of Molenbeek in 1976 where he spent three seasons before moving on to Anderlecht in 1979.
It was with the famous Brussels side that his career blossomed, as he was transformed from an average club and international player to the star he is now. In his first year at Anderlecht he operated in midfield. Then came a more serious operation - on an injured shin, which briefly threatened to end his career. Olsen said, "I was 32 and had six months out of the game. It nearly finished me off. But when I came back the Yugoslav trainer Ivic said I should try playing libero.
"My favourite position was in midfield and I still prefer to play there really. I am at my best going forward and that's what gives me most pleasure in football. But libero was a success and I played as a real libero, not just a sweeper. I have always been allowed to get forward."
An intelligent player, able to read the game well, it put Olsen's career on a higher plane as Anderlecht won the Belgian league, the UEFA Cup in 1983 against Benfica, then just failed to retain the trophy in the dramatic penalty shoot-out against Tottenham. Against Spurs he stood out as the classiest player on the field, an imposing presence in defence, but constantly breaking into the attack. In the first leg he scored Anderlecht's equaliser, and in the second played the defence-splitting pass for his side's only goal. Commenting on the match Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough remarked that he had never seen a defender get forward so much, to such good effect.
Olsen knows, however, that his defensive role is just as important. He said: "At Anderlecht I have learned to enjoy the craft of defending, too. We play off-side and the 'pressing' game, which is very effective."
Morten Olsen continued to turn out in midfield for Denmark until 1982. Then the Danes' libero Per Røntved flew to play in North America and Piontek looked elsewhere -- to Olsen, who also succeeded Røntved as captain. Olsen believes that it is the time Danish international soccer took off. He said, "When I started to play libero for Denmark I was playing along with Søren Busk in defence who also plays in Belgium. We decided to go to Piontek and change the system and play as we did there, with off-side and 'pressing'". Piontek agreed, and ever since the defence has been better.
"At the same time Piontek was lucky when UEFA ruled that players must be released for competitive matches, and so for the first time he could have all the players he wanted together for important games, like the one with England. This made a big difference. Piontek brought discipline too, and suddenly we were winning."
Olsen's career was winning too. Highly respected as a player and captain he has become vital to the Danish team. He is a big player in every way, dominant as the famous Goose Tower which stands high on the hill overlooking his home town of Vordingborg.
Plaudits rushed in from every quarter. The most important for Olsen was being footballer of the year in Denmark. "It gave me very great pleasure," he said proudly. And France Football made him the best defender in their annual European Footballer of the Year poll. But, modestly, he said: "When your team is doing well, then you will get noticed. It is just a cliche to say anyone is the best."
The success, though, has made Olsen change his mind about quitting the game. He had originally decided to retire at the end of the season just finished, but has now signed a further one-year contract with Anderlecht. He revealed: "If I had been with a middle-ranking club I would have stopped. But I'm still ambitious and with both Anderlecht and Denmark there is still a chance to win trophies. Playing at the moment is very exciting. If I feel the same way in a year's time, then I'll carry on."
If Denmark have a chance of going to the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico there is little doubt Olsen will be around if wanted. However he has no ambitions to go into soccer management when the boots are finally hung up. "I have a shop in Vordingborg and I will go back there to run it," he said.., which is a shame for football because Olsen is an intelligent man and player. He has strong views about the game. He said: "Unfortunately today it is results and only results which matter. It is a real problem because people are not coming to the grounds anymore. Football is not entertaining or exciting enough. It will always be a business now, but clubs must realise that it will be good business sense to give fans what they want. Otherwise they will carry on staying away.
"Winning must not be so important that the excitement is taken away by careful football played across the park. This is especially true in recession times when there is less money about. And, of course, people have more leisure choices." Olsen is genuine in his views, speaking with passion on the subject. But, as he himself pointed out, Anderlecht play offside, one of the most negative of tactics which often ruins matches as a spectacle.
However, Olsen is one of football's gentlemen, never dirty in his play or discourteous in manner. He rarely gets booked, and reminds one very much, of the English stalwart who retired at the end of last season - West Ham's Trevor Brooking. Like Brooking he is a simple but mature man, with no airs or graces, and without false modesty. He is no longer the awkward youngster who left Vordingborg dreaming of the glory now in his grasp; holding his head up high whenever he walks out on to a football pitch, whether it is for Anderlecht or Denmark.
This article first appeared in the July 1984 edition of World Soccer magazine.