And so, as heartbreaking as it is, there will be no Danish fairytale at Euro 2020. Kasper Hjulmand’s brave and battling team exited the continental finals in the most dramatic fashion following Harry Kane’s very controversial 104th minute penalty goal, which left the Danish coach “bitter”. Even so, his Denmark will be remembered for its collective ethos, tactical acumen and resilience at the European Championship.
The team demonstrated how far Danish soccer has evolved, a mainstay that always seeks improvement and innovation. It’s something foreign investors have picked up. They have targeted Danish clubs for a panoply of reasons: good entry prices, low player wages, established youth development, and a liberal mainstream culture. But at what point does foreign investment become a threat to a thriving domestic soccer culture?
In winter, the UK-based investment arm of Mansour Group, a family-owned Egyptian conglomerate, invested in FC Nordsjaelland. The day Joe Biden was inaugurated, I spoke to Hjulmand, who pointed at the larger debate in soccer over foreign investment.
It is not only in Denmark that we are discussing this,” Hjulmand told me. “It is all over the world, and all over Europe where you see foreign investment going into bigger clubs. If it is based on the right values, understanding the Danish values and you are an owner with respect and knowledge that can add value, I don’t find it a big problem that we have foreign ownership. If it is just to have a toy to play with – something for very rich and wealthy owners – just to do something quick or give excitement in their daily life, it is a problem – or if they feed into a structure where they own more clubs and they can just put players around in this system.
In 2014, English businessman Matthew Bentham, owner of newly promoted Premier League club Brentford, invested in FC Midtjylland and since then capital-rich foreign investors have acquired shares in 9 out of 24 clubs in the country’s two best leagues, the Super League and the Nordic Bet League. During the pandemic alone, five Danish club accepted foreign investment. Last autumn, SønderjyskE was acquired by Robert Platek, who also invested in Serie A Club. Former player agent Andrej Zolotko from Moldova now runs Vejle Boldklub. Randers FC, AC Horsens and AaB have also indicated they are open to foreign investment.
All Danish clubs have something to offer: Nordsjaelland the best youth academy, Fc Midtjylland a data-driven approach, and others a good sell-on value for players. Tom Vernon from FC Nordsjaelland explains why Denmark is such an attractive proposition to investors. “Regulations around the number of foreign players that you can play is attractive to a certain profile of investor,” said Vernon. “A key part of our project is that we want to develop Danish and Scandinavian players and not just import foreign players, but there is a challenge to retain <danish culture and I know that is something that the DBU do talk about.”
Indeed, the Danish soccer association has been considering whether an owners test should be introduced in the game to protect clubs from dubious foreign owners, who could destroy the domestic ecosystem. Vernon is a supporter. He says: “The motivation of foreign or local investors coming into any club needs to be scrutinized more closely and things like ‘fit and proper person’ tests like we have seen in England really don’t dig deep into what are the motivations and objectives. Football in general, including Danish football, needs to review whether there are ways to more robustly analyze the business plans and objectives of investors and to maybe more robustly hold them accountable to the promises they make coming into a new country.”
European and Danish soccer is increasingly becoming the playground of foreign investors, with a notable, recent influx of venture capital and private equity, which concerns Hjulmand at a broader level. “I have concerns about the morality of football and the beauty of the game,” said Hjulmand. “I joined Common Goal as a movement inside football, trying to counter some of the moral of football, remembering to feed the grassroots, using football as the platform to create a better world for our kids, and that type of thinking is very important to keep in the game.”
That’s what Hjulmand and Denmark will need to repeat their achievement of Euro 2020 in the future: a stable and authentic domestic soccer scene that is about more than simply serving foreign investors.