The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Enlisting in the “Yellow Blue Army”

Posted by steigs on April 7, 2008

The Danish league just kicked off again after the long winter break deemed prudent by the country’s northern clime.  It is a frequent destination for second-tier American players looking for a fatter paycheck than MLS offers and, perhaps, a chance to be spotted more easily by more prestigious European leagues.

One of the stories of this season has been the way perennial powerhouse Bronby FC has faltered.  They currently sit ninth in the twelve team league.  Not long ago, they were regularly winning the league and competing in the Champions League (preliminaries) and UEFA Cup.  I was lucky enough to see Brondby play during happier times back in 2004, and while the game did not go Brondby’s way (a significant understatement), I gained an appreciation for the joys of watching soccer, Danish style, with Brondby fans, rooting on their “Yellow Blue Army.”  (Hint: alcohol plays a role.)  For details, including a recap of the magical Danish Euro ’92 championship and a mini-tour of Copenhagen, read on after the jump!

Copenhagen B March 2004


I’m in a bakery in Copenhagen along the Stroget, the pedestrian-only street splitting the heart of downtown.  Outside is the rain, a chilly steady drip, drip, drip.  Inside, I am mulling over the discovery that the pastry we know as a “danish” is known in Copenhagen as “weinerbrod,” which translates to “vienna bread.”  It’s tasty, this weinerbrod, crispier and flakier than our version, and comes without the pool of fruity goo in the middle ours often have.  Yum.


My guidebook explains that the pastry was brought to Denmark by a Viennese baker and presumably came on to America via a Danish baker.  Therefore, we Americans think of it as being Danish and the Danes think of it as being Viennese.  Do they call it something else in Vienna?  Did it arrive there from Turkey or Spain spreading like a virus form of pastry?  The guidebook offers no answers. 


I am amused but also a trifle disconcerted at having a familiar item change its identity.  What other food and drink has such misconceptions associated with it?  What happens when you order a White Russian in a Moscow bar?  A Mexican omelette in Vera Cruz?  Swedish meatballs in Stockholm?  Do they have such different histories too?


Watching the rain out the window, I can’t help but conclude there is something existential in this as well, here in the city of Kierkegard.  Why should I be able to single out one particular form of pastry as being “danish” here?  Aren’t they all Danish pastries here?  Hmm.


Enough, I decide, and plunge back into the rain, continuing my strategy of alternating between museums and cafes/bakeries.  Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction is the Tivoli Gardens, that 19th century precursor of Disneyland.  Alas, it is shuttered for the winter, due to open in a month’s time.  When I hurry past later in the day the rollercoaster peeks over the fence, a promise of future thrills.  So it is on to the museums for me.


Along the Stroget are dozens of stores, offering clothes, furniture, snacks and so on.  Many of the names are familiar.  Even with the weather, the street is bustling.  Parents go from shop to shop to café tugging cute little Viking children by the hand.  It has the organic retail neighborhood feel that our mall planners aim for but rarely achieve. 


A canal is nearby, separating us from the Danish Parliament building and other bulky government edifices.  A scent of the sea is in the air.  On the map Denmark is a Michigan-like peninsula jutting up from Germany.  Copenhagen is not on that main part of Denmark, it’s on an island to the east, just across a narrow channel from the Swedish coast.  In the old days this was a most convenient spot to insist ships plying the Baltic pay a toll as they passed, money that helped construct the numerous palaces around Copenhagen.


At the National Museum I spend most of my time with the Viking exhibits.  I find it a little disappointing, to be honest.  There are a few impressive reconstructed boats — they sailed to Iceland in that? — and a host of items dug up from bogs around Denmark.  There are several collections of ancient coins from throughout Europe and beyond.  Not much else.  As one exhibit notes, the Vikings were more “takers” than “leavers.” 


I am puzzled.  How does one get from the ruthless piratical Viking culture of a millennium ago to the friendly modest Danes of today, who bike all over town and avoid wars and conflict?  Did they get it out of their system like straight-laced middle-aged professionals setting aside a wild youth?  In the Norse sagas the raiding parties often seem to be composed of restless young men.  Aggressive male bonding rituals.  Summer road trips with violence and alcohol.  A bit like being in a fraternity except with murder and robbery involved.


Did all the crazy violent ones get killed off leaving behind only the calm ones in the gene pool?  Did all the wild ones end up populating Iceland and other distant places leaving the quiet home-bodies in Denmark?  A mystery.  After the museum, over a crisp Carlsberg in the art deco Café Norden, I decide someone should investigate this.  There are a lot of countries around the world who could benefit from a similar transformation.  Denmark-ification, it could be called.


In international soccer, however, the Danes still mount raids, regularly qualifying for major tournaments and, once there, regularly winning games against much larger countries.  The wonderfully nicknamed “Danish Dynamite” team was one of the stars of the 1986 World Cup, for example.  In the 2002 World Cup the Danes advanced out of the group stage by beating the defending champion French and Uruguay before falling to England in the round of 16.  That said, the greatest triumph of the Danes came in a tournament they didn’t actually qualify for, Euro ‘92.  We have our favorite Cinderella stories in American sports — the “Amazing Mets” of 1969 or the Villanova NCAA Tourney winners of 1983.  The Danes of Euro ‘92 are one of international soccer’s most famous equivalents.


The Danes finished second in their group in the qualifying for the tourney, which was hosted just across the water in Sweden.  At that time, the European Championship was smaller then it is today so this meant Denmark failed to qualify.  Yugoslavia won the group, which wasn’t a surprise since they had made the knock-out stages of the 1990 World Cup, a tourney for which Denmark had also failed to qualify.  Yugoslavia was, however, in the process of falling apart.  As a result of the violence between the various pieces, international sanctions were put on Yugoslavia and they were kicked out of the tournament.  This decision came just days before Euro ‘92 was to kick off and the Danes were hurriedly offered the berth of Yugoslavia.  Legend has it that Danish players were caught on their way to beach vacations and summoned back to represent their country.


They started the tournament as if their minds were still on the beach.  The Danes drew 0-0 with England and then lost 1-0 to the Swedes.  On the verge of elimination in the last group game they came up with a win over France.  Now they were finding their way.  They had advanced out of the group.


The European Championships were just eight teams then.  So the Danes had made it to the semi-finals just by getting out of the group.  They were up against the mighty Dutch, defending European champions (from ‘88).  Somehow they managed to hold the Dutch to a 2-2 draw during regular play and then won the game on penalties.  (The Dutch, of course, always lose on penalty kicks.)  Holy cow!  The team which wasn’t supposed to be in the tournament in the first place was now in the final.


To make the underdog story even more straight from Hollywood, they got to play — who else? — the Germans.  To make the odds longer, the Germans were the defending World Cup champions.  In 1992 Germany had been in a remarkable six of the last nine World Cup and European Championship final games.  Denmark had never been in a final of a World Cup or a European Championship. 


Of course the Danes went out and won the game 2-0.


So now it is a requirement of major tournament previews to at some point cite the Danish upset of 1992 when describing the chances of an underdog.  Even teams who don’t qualify can win tournaments, it seems.  Sometimes fairy tales do come true.  Sometimes Cinderella can beat the Germans.  Dane Hans Christian Andersen would approve.


Beyond the magic of 1992, the Danes are known for one other thing in international soccer B their fans.  They are known as the “Roligans,” a combination of the Danish word for relaxed and hooligans.  So they’re the “relaxed hooligans.”  In other words, jolly happy drunks.  Here’ the Guardian describing a “cliched fan” of the Danish national team:  “Everybody loves them….Viking helmets, red and white face paint and lots of beer that they hate to see leave Denmark.”


Late Saturday afternoon finds me in a “sports pub,” a rather generic bar just off the Stroget distinguished by an excess of plasma screen televisions and pool tables.  Initially it is about half-full with people watching a game from the English league featuring Arsenal with Danish commentary.  Listening to the Danish language keeps confusing me.  At times it has that sing-songy cadence I associate with the Swedish Chef of the Muppets.  At other times there’s a guttural German tone to it.  It makes sense, I suppose, given how Denmark is right in between the two.


A few minutes before five o’clock, a wave of fans come in to catch the only Danish league game of the day, FC Kobenhaven — Kobenhaven being the Danish way to spell Copenhagen — versus Frem.  It is the first weekend of games after an extended winter break — understandable given the northern latitude — and these guys are clearly ready for a game, several in FC Kobenhaven jerseys, descending on the bar for Carlsbergs and Tuborgs. 


FC Kobenhaven is one of the two leading teams in Danish soccer.  To be honest, though, that’s not saying much.  While supposedly the Danes were among the first in continental Europe to take up the new-fangled English sport way back when, their league has always been a small-time affair.  The teams were not actually professional until the 1980s — some not even until the 1990s.  The Danish national team only started getting noticed in the 1980s.


FC Kobenhaven, in fact, were created in 1992, as an attempt to give Copenhagen a professional powerhouse by merging small amateur teams in the capital and backing them with cash.  It has been, on balance, a success.  FC Kobenhaven have won league championships and developed a solid fan base.  The guys around me are certainly intense about the game, which is being played away at Frem, wherever that is.  (During a pause in the action I ask and am told it’s actually just a suburb of Copenhagen.  Not a large country, Denmark.)  It is about two-thirds of the way through the season and FC Kobenhaven is in third place, close enough to hope and far enough out to worry as well.


The rain makes the match heavy going, amusing at times as the players slide and the ball does unpredictable things.  Frem, who are next to last in the league, steal a goal against the run of play.  FC Kobenhaven eventually put two goals of their own in, winning 2-1.  More reason for their fans to be hopeful, as well as for them to worry.


I end the evening at the Hviids Vinstre.  An 18th century tavern, it is a cellar of wood paneling, cubby holes, and good beer, which Hans Christian Andersen is supposed to have frequented.  Well, actually, he just used to live around the corner, so they figure he must have been a regular.  Judging from the crowd, a lot of people in the neighborhood are.


Sunday dawns clear and dry, as if the weather gods have substituted an entirely different setting for the city.  I stroll the parks and gardens and even, like every tour bus in town, make my way to visit the Little Mermaid sculpture along one of the canals.  It’s a tiny thing, quite pretty, but is dwarfed by the crush of photo-taking visitors like a celebrity surrounded by paparazzi.


I also go across the canal to visit Christiana, a three decade old squatters colony on a former Danish military base.  It is a grand-scale commune, with cafes and shops, where they enforce their own laws.  Or, in the case of marijuana, don’t enforce laws.  The result is something like a permanent version of the wandering carnival that used to follow the Grateful Dead on tour — joints, Bob Marley, organic food, bikes and so on.  As a former Berkeley grad student this is a familiar milieu for me, an almost nostalgic one.  I find an outdoor spot at a café, away from the smoky haze, and enjoy the warm afternoon.


The other big team in the Danish league is Brondby, rather bitter rivals of FC Kobenhaven.  I eventually move on from the hippie zone so I can catch a game of theirs.  The history of Brondby, which is based in a working class suburb of Copenhagen of the same name, is wrapped up with the Laudrup family.  In fact, you can say the same about Danish soccer in general.        


Finn Laudrup had a pretty good career as a player, including some time in the Austrian league.  Near the end of the 1970s, as his career was winding down, he joined the then lowly third division team of Brondby, eventually taking over as coach when he retired as a player.  He laid the groundwork for making a professional go of things B training, scouting, coaching and so on — and the team started rising through the ranks of Danish soccer, brushing aside the more amateur teams. 


Perhaps just as important in the rise of Brondby was the fact that Finn’s sons Michael and Brian played for the team, before heading off to famous clubs in other countries.  They are arguably the best players Denmark has produced.  Michael, for example, played in the “Danish Dynamite” 1986 World Cup side and was still playing, as team captain, in the 1998 World Cup.  He actually missed out on the miracle of 1992, though, because he was fighting with the team’s coach.  His pro resume is distinguished, with stints at Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax and Real Madrid.  Brother Brian was part of the 1992 side and played for teams like Bayern Munich, Rangers and Ajax.  The Laudrup/Brondby link continues — Michael is now the coach.  He seems to be doing a decent job.  They’re in first place and were just knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Barcelona after putting up a good fight.  No shame there.


I take a regional train out to Brondby.  At each stop, groups of cheerful Tuborg-clutching Brondby fans pile on.  They are obvious in their yellow with blue trim jerseys and their visible good cheer.  We all get off at the Brondbyoster stop and head for a nearby bus, except for two men who detour to a nearby liquor store first but they make it back to the bus before it leaves.  There are tall apartment complexes in the area and a few low-key shops and restaurants.  We are in a residential area, that’s clear.  There is, inevitably, a McDonalds adjacent to the train station too. 


The bus winds along a broad avenue through more apartment buildings, rows of townhouses, and even some open meadows.  It seems middle-class, in a modest and restrained way.  The population density is relatively low here.  We cross a highway on an overpass and the stadium lights become visible, off behind a line of buildings.  I follow the yellow-clad masses off the bus, through an office park, and towards the stadium, known as Park Alle. 


Before we reach the Park Alle, though, we come to a bar named the Hytten.  The house, which looks more like a clubhouse, is filled with groups of Brondby fans, and they spill out on to the front lawn.  There are grills cooking sausages, and multiple utilitarian bars serving quickly and efficiently.  It takes me a second to realize why it looks so familiar — i’s basically a fraternity pre-game cookout with everyone required to don the yellow Brondby jersey.  Van Halen’s Jump is playing loudly.


It’s two hours until the 5:30 pm kick-off.  I had allowed far too much time for the train and bus ride, just to be safe.  So why not?  I plunge into the crowd.  My attempt to buy a beer yields two.  The people are friendly, despite my lack of a Brondby jersey, and the music segues into 80s era hair metal.  I end up talking to Rolf, who appears to be in his 20s.  His English is perfect, despite the beer, and he gives me an update on the Brondby situation.  He feels pretty good about how the team played in the matches against Barcelona, which gives him confidence they can win the “Superliga” as the Danish league is known.  When he finds out I live in Washington, DC I get to hear all about his tourist adventures there, which involved getting lost frequently because of the diagonal streets, or so he claims.


Not bad at all, I decide, when I’m into my second beer and getting tips on which Brondby players to watch during the game.  There are a variety of favorites, a wealth of talent that may explain why the team is in first place.  I get curious and explore the house, which is decorated in Early Brondby, but quickly go back outside because the smoke is thick.  The Danes are mean smokers, for all their outward healthiness and bike riding.


Observing the Brondby fans like Rolf, it appears that it is not enough to have a team jersey.  No, you need the jersey of a specific player.  Or a jersey and a team scarf.  That’s Rolf’s look.  Another favorite is a jersey with the autographs of several players on it.  These fans are into their gear, that’s clear. 


Rolf says a big turnout is expected for the game so I eventually go over to Park Alle to see about a ticket.  There are dirt practice fields on one side, a parking lot on the other.  Yellow-clad fans are streaming in from every direction.  The aroma of grilling sausages wafts out of the stadium.  I find the Brondby club shop, source of so many of the yellow jerseys.  They prove to have a surprisingly wide selection of baby Brondby clothing — they start them young in Denmark.  There’s also a Yankee sweatshirt available in the corner.  Cross marketing, uber alles.   


I buy the cheapest ticket and only later realize it puts me in the standing section with the Brondby ultras.  People are pouring in the entrance designated for my ticket type so I go in too, an hour before kick off, hoping the ultras are as harmless and friendly as the Hytten fans.  We are behind one goal, the lower tier of a two-tier stadium.  It=s two tiers all the way around with modern-looking seats in the other sections, a quality video screen in the corner and a scoreboard like you would find at a college football game hanging high over the goal opposite us.  Sausages at the concession stands, of course, as well as popcorn and…Domino’s pizzas.  And plenty of beer.  The Danes are determined drinkers when soccer is involved.


Even though the game is in an hour away most of the standing section is occupied already.  The rest of Park Alle is empty, with the exception of a narrow section behind the opposite goal for the visiting fans from Esbjerg.  I had checked beforehand and Esbjerg proves to be a provincial center on the far side of Denmark, although it=s not as if that is a particularly long distance away.  Esbjerg had one good string of seasons in the 1960s, winning the league four times in five years at one point, but have only one title — way back in 1979 — since then.  The official team web site history section includes descriptions like this:


1980-1985: A period of decline for EfB. The club kept finishing lower and lower in the division, and a lost Cup final in 1985 could not change the impression.”


            This season Esbjerg have somehow put the pieces together and are currently second to Brondby.  A win today would tie them with Brondby on points.  Not that fans like Rolf think that’s very likely.  He was more worried about third place FC Kobenhaven sneaking up on Brondby.  He had told me that fans were already trying to score tickets for the Brondby-FC Kobenhaven showdown a month away, figuring it will decide the title.


When the Brondby players come out for warm-ups, they engage in a ritual with the ultras.  Periodically, the ultras begin chanting the name of a Brondby player.  When this happens the player breaks off whatever he’s doing and jogs over to the stands, stopping to do a series of Tiger Woods-style fist pumps right in front of us.  The fans respond with a yell of “Hey!” for each fist pump.  Most of the time the player does a trio of fist pumps so it’s “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”  We spend much of the warm-up period, as the rest of the 28,000 fans file in, gradually working through the Brondby line-up.  “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”


The Danish league does not pay well by European standards so the majority of the players are native Danes.  The foreigners tend to be from elsewhere around the Baltic, such as Sweden and, in one case, Lithuania.  Here are some of the last names of players in the program to give you a flavor: Olesen, Nielsen, Johansen, Jakobsson, Kahlenberg, and Daugaard.  I feel like I’m reading the Minneapolis phonebook.


I have a spot up in one corner of the standing section, next to a Heath Ledger-looking teenager who is clearly a rebel since he’s wearing the alternate non-yellow version of the Brondby jersey used for road games.  He has a bunch of sullen followers in the row behind us.  They express confidence about the game and brighten a bit when I offer a round of beers.  They already had beers when I arrived so I figure I’m not doing anything illegal.


The ultra fans start other cheers now, as if doing their own share of warming up for the game.  “For-za Brond-by!” is the most common, an adaptation of the Italian cheer.  There’s also a “Yellow blue army!” chorus, in English.  Despite being next to Germany, Dane fan culture seems to look more to England.


Brondby runs onto the field to Van Halen’s peppy poppy Jump.  Maybe there’s a reason it was on back at Hytten.  The ultras kick into a “yellow blue army, we love you” song, again in English.  The teenagers behind me are particularly loud on this one, perhaps because the army rhetoric sounds a bit tougher than the “Forza Brondby!” chant.


The game starts well for the “yellow blue army.”  They move the ball around the field confidently, quickly.  Esbjerg, in blue and white striped jerseys, look respectable as well.  And then the nightmare begins for Brondby:


  •                    A Brondby defender makes a bad pass, gifting the ball to Fredrik Berglund of Esbjerg in a dangerous position.  He sprints down the field and slams it past the keeper.  1-0, Efsjberg, only eight minutes in.
  •                   While we’re recovering from that, Esbjerg attacks the Brondby goal again, and Jan Krisiansen floats a remarkable chip shot over the keeper.  2-0, Esbjerg, only 16 minutes in.
  • Shock among the teenagers and other Brondby fans.  Still, there’s some “Forza Brondby!” chants to encourage the team.
  •                    A false dawn.  Brondby get a nice cross into the Esbjerg box, right in front of us. Dan Anton Johansen turns it cleanly into the goal.  2-1, Esbjerg, 26 minutes gone  The fans are reassured.  The yellow blue army is regrouping and counter-attacking.
  •                  Fredrick Berglund scores again to end that notion, 33 minutes.  3-1, Esbjerg
  •                    Then there’s a cross into young forward Tommy Bechmann, already set to switch to Bochum in Germany in the summer, and he bangs it in.  4-1, Esbjerg, and it’s still the first half.  38 minutes gone.
  • The “yellow blue army!” chant continues, though the volume is lower than it used to be.
  •                    Confident now, Esbjerg keeps coming at Brondby.  Off a corner kick, Anders Moller Christensen scores.  5-1, Esbjerg.  And it’s still not even half-time. 

It is a total rout.  It is not actually that Esbjerg has been dominant in the run of play.  They don’t control possession continually.  They are just playing well and having one of those magical days where they have scored on almost every single good chance they have.  It’s like an NFL team throwing deep six times in a half and getting five touchdowns out of it.  It is remarkable to see.  They probably won’t play a half that sweetly in any game the rest of the season — and they produced it in their away game to the first place team.  Perfect timing.  The Esbjerg fans opposite us must be in ecstasy.  They are certainly making noise.


The beer lines are long at half-time.  They flash the odds on the scoreboard for the stadium betting shop — if you had bet on a 5-1 Esbjerg lead at the half your pay-off would have been 75-1.  Yeah, right, I think.  What a rip-off.  More like 750-1.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that was 5-1 at half-time, let alone one involving the first and second place teams in the league.  I don’t have the heart to look for Rolf.  The teenagers are smoking like mad.


To their credit, Brondby come out for the second half with some composure, attacking and moving the ball around.  However, in the 60th minute, Jess Thorup of Esbjerg gets onto a crossed ball and makes it 6-1, Esbjerg.  Fans in other sections begin to melt away.  We shout “yellow blue army” a few times mainly, it seems to me, to demonstrate we’re not like those lame fans leaving early.  We are still behind Brondby.  After that, the magic runs out for Esbjerg and Brondby is unable to locate any of their own so the game becomes rather mundane.  I find myself checking the clock now and then. 


It ends that way, 6-1 to Esbjerg, who take over first place as a result.  “Historic” says a paper the next day.  It proves to be the biggest defeat Brondby has been dealt at home in years.  An “embarrassment,” says Coach Laudrup.  A column is headlined “Surrealistiske Esbjerg,” a bit of Danish I think I understand.


But then you’d think Danes would remember that upsets happen, after what they did in 1992.  On the train back to Copenhagen the fans are quiet, still in shock.  At each stop a few more of the yellow blue army disappear into the night.  But I’ll bet they’re singing on the buses back to Esbjerg. 


One Response to “Enlisting in the “Yellow Blue Army””

  1. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

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