With next summer’s UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 waiting in the wings, Switzerland sit top of their World Cup qualification group. His players come from a culture noticeably different to his own, and as Nils Nielsen strives to help La Nati shape a style that is truly theirs, the ex-Denmark boss believes he is also a coach all the better for lessons learned.
Four more summers have passed since Nils Nielsen first led a senior women’s national team at a major tournament, as Denmark confounded expectations to reach EURO 2017’s final. After that impressive showing on a big stage, came an intriguing, if perhaps surprising, side project for the one-time Best FIFA’s Women’s Coach runner-up, assisting compatriot Peter Bonde with China’s Under-20s.
The follow-up to 2017 now approaches with him leading a new band, sonically and stylistically different to Denmark, and still chasing their grand breakthrough. EURO 2022 in England will be the Swiss team’s first headline tour together since their head coach’s late-2018 arrival. They are a group without major-label expectation, but undoubted talent, and a smattering of huge experience.
It is not all just musically metaphorical, however – this team actually did release a song together (‘United in Red’ for EURO 2017). If such an extracurricular endeavour should resonate with anyone, it is their current coach.
“It was blues mostly, and soul, stuff like that,” he says, recalling the band he once performed in. “Also, a little bit of the softer kind of rock.”
“I was not playing the riffs, we had another who was much better than me, but I was singing. It was when I was at school, it wasn’t a professional band, but we played together and also did some concerts, and it was a lot of fun.
“So, if it hadn’t been football, then I probably would have gone that way! I taught myself to play the guitar, because I was bored with the teaching.
“I think I went there for half a year, just to learn some stuff, but it was not at all what I imagined. I just wanted to learn how to play some songs and sing and enjoy myself, and it was way too serious!
“Whenever I have felt bad, or I felt happy, I was sitting there with my guitar and playing some things that reflected whatever mood I was in. I always enjoyed that, and it actually helps to get it out that way, if you are sad or something like that.
“Even still now, I listen to music and it makes me put things in perspective, I have to say.”
Life, and coaching roles, may have altered the course somewhat since, but does he ever still get the chance to jam?
“Only on rare occasions. I enjoy it still to play, with my family but also with the teams that I coach; if we have something to celebrate ever, yeah, why not?
“I like it, but it has to be in a group where they also like it. When I was younger, we did it a lot, on the beach in the summer and stuff like that, around a fire.”
On the pitch, his team enjoyed a very successful outing late last month in Sicily. The 2-1 victory over Italy extended Switzerland’s 100 per cent record in their World Cup qualifying group to six games, as they target a spot at Australia/New Zealand 2023.
Keeping La Nati finely tuned and in step takes obvious top priority over the next few months. Asked whether any players Nils has coached in recent years have known about his performing background, or just shared conversations around a mutual liking for music, the defender who took the lead on that aforementioned Swiss song for EURO 2017 comes up, and certainly not for the first time on this site.
“We have one player who is an extremely good singer (Rachel Rinast), so we talk about music sometimes, but I don’t think that she’s particularly into my kind of music! Before every meeting we have with the Swiss team, I always put music on, because it sets a certain mood that we need at that moment, and that’s what music can do for you, it can put you in the right state of mind to receive whatever information is coming next.
“So, I use it, but performing myself? I think that time is over!”
A detail that many have been drawn to with Nils is how he was born in Greenland, though he actually only lived there until five years old. It was the small, Danish island of Ærø where he mostly grew up.
Back to those years, does he recall the first music he bought?
“Oh, wow, that’s a long time ago, but I played the guitar and I always loved Dire Straits with Mark Knopfler, and Eric Clapton, so I’m pretty sure that it was one of them. ‘Money for Nothing’ or something like that.
“There were lots of other good guitarists, but those two, I thought they were really cool.”
Although playing music came to the forefront at high school, football was right there alongside it. Featuring in high-level Danish youth football, Nils was an attacking midfielder, and sometimes on the wing, which he laughs was not for his pace but his crossing.
If his early idols in music could be found over in England, so too could the footballing versions.
“I have to say that I have always been a Liverpool fan. It started in the early-80s, with Kenny Dalglish, Terry McDermott, Phil Neal, Ian Rush, all those players; it was especially Kenny Dalglish I really, really liked.
“When they beat Real Madrid in the (1981) European Cup final, I think it was one of the first football games I watched on TV. Ever since then, I have always been rooting for Liverpool, and there were a lot of years where there was not much to celebrate!”
As a coach, you wish for the kind of on-field chemistry between players that those iconic Reds sides had. Perhaps not unlike the electrifying link-up that Eric Clapton and Duane Allman found too when they briefly played together.
In the pantheon of successful coaches, how much of a bond they choose to foster between themselves and their players can vary, and fascinatingly so. While some favour unity through a close connection, others have prospered with a decidedly more distant stance.
“It has to fit with your personality, for sure,” says Nils. “For me, it has always been about the relations.”
“Not necessarily friendship, until they finish playing for you, because in my opinion, you need to be at the same level to be friends; if I am making the decision who’s playing or not, then we are not really friends. But the respect has always been there, and I understand that people are different and have different needs in order to perform, and that is why the personal relations has always been the main thing for me when I’m coaching.
“It has never been ‘my way or the highway’, never, because that way, you take away so many opportunities. I have never experienced that there is only one way of playing.
“We need to find a way that is ours, with whatever group I’m in, but I’m not the only one who tells what our way is, it’s also the players. It needs to fit with them also, otherwise you will never be successful.”
— 🇨🇭 Nati (@nati_sfv_asf) January 14, 2019
In the quest for increased familiarity and camaraderie across football, the initiation song for new players in a team plays its own unique part. They say the pressure of a penalty shootout can never be replicated, but the feeling of getting ready to belt out a tune in the silence of a room filled with footballers and backroom staff might even beat it!
While mostly deployed by club sides, it can also work in national teams, especially when a young player first steps up to join the senior side.
“When I started here in Switzerland, we actually all, including myself, were on the stage and doing something for the rest of the group. We have a moment where we do it once in a while, when we are not playing for points, for example.
“They do some kind of act – most of them don’t want to do it alone – it doesn’t have to be a song, but some kind of entertaining thing they all have to do when they are new in the group. I think it’s about time we did it again, because we have a lot of new players.
“In the Danish team, they also did it, but it was not so much with music, they were making videos and stuff.”
Footballers aside, if he could see any artist from all-time perform live, Nils’ choice would be Michael Jackson, or Freddie Mercury-era Queen. He has, though, already seen the former of those.
“I just remember the show, it must have been Copenhagen some time, I don’t remember the exact date. It’s just the feeling you get when an artist like that goes on the stage – that, I remember.
“But it was also in that time of my life where you don’t remember everything – especially weekends!”
The national team he inherited three years ago are, as mentioned, already familiar with a recording studio. What if Nils was to follow suit, and record a cover song with any player(s) he has coached?
“I would definitely ask Rinast; she’s really, really good and I like hearing her sing. I would definitely ask her, and we would do a funny one.”
When so much of coaching centres around expression of ideas and sentiments, maybe it helps to already be comfortable conveying some of that via music and thinking creatively. Adaptability in general is certainly advantageous, and coming from a multilingual nation, the Switzerland team know all about that, which can be particularly helpful for Nils.
“All the players understand English, so I can switch to English if I have to, because my German is okay, but not more than okay. If I really need to express something, it’s much easier for me to do in English, and all the players understand, it’s just some of them are not comfortable speaking too much English.
“They can speak in German and I can easily understand it, but sometimes you want to express something specific, and if you don’t really have the words, it becomes annoying. It is a challenge with all those different languages, but I have to say here, the Swiss are really strong, because in the same sentence, they can switch between the languages and it doesn’t even bother them, they don’t get confused.
“That’s really cool that they can do that.”
As young as 13, Nils was helping out with coaching six-year-olds at his club back home. Having also coached badminton, as time progressed, the realisation set in that a future on that side of football was significantly more viable than one on the pitch.
As well as playing a prominent part at Brøndby, his time at the Danish FA spanned work with the men’s Under-15s to 21s, before his appointment as women’s national team coach in 2013. Although missing out on qualification for the World Cup in 2015, they were among the biggest success stories at the EUROs two years later.
Having found their way through a particularly tricky group – with hosts Netherlands, Norway and Belgium – as runners-up, the Danes’ 2-1 win over Germany was the shock scoreline of the tournament, toppling a team in the quarter-final that had won the competition six times in a row. In the early Sunday kick-off in Rotterdam (rearranged from the previous evening after torrential rain), Nadia Nadim and Theresa Nielsen (Eslund)’s headers secured a momentous, come-from-behind victory in the second half.
For all the build-up and anticipation in the months before, a major tournament can seem to go by in a flash for those involved. How much did Nils feel they were able to stop and absorb what they were creating that summer?
“We actually tried to enjoy ourselves, because we knew that it could be over in the next game. I think that was also one of the things that made us strong, that we managed to keep it at a little bit of a distance, what we were actually doing, right at that moment.
“We took one game at a time and focused on that; ‘okay, we won this one, now we get three more days or four more days here’. I think it actually made us strong, especially when we played Germany, because it was also a rain delay there.
“It definitely helped us, because we were thinking ‘okay, that’s great, we get one more day here’, and I think the Germans were in a different state, and it probably made them more nervous. For us, we could have played on the first day or the second day, and the performance would have been the same, because the attitude was just joy, not being nervous about different things.
“We were not one of the favourites, so it was easier to have that kind of attitude.”
— Asif Burhan (@AsifBurhan) July 30, 2017
A penalty shootout triumph over Austria in Breda set up a date with the Dutch in the final. With it having become clear that they could really now become champions, how did they approach it with the players, as coaching staff? Attempt to cool emotions or instead build up and emphasise their chance – ‘don’t doubt yourselves, we can win this’?
“It was more the last one, but we actually had a talk about it before the final. It was clear Holland were favourites, we lost some players during the tournament due to injuries and stuff, and we discussed it – ‘should we just see if we can park the bus and see if we can win on penalties, or do we want to play with them?’
“I asked the players how they felt about it and there was not one who said that they wanted to park the bus. They wanted to play their chance, like we had done the whole tournament, and see how far it could bring us.
“Yeah, we were one of the surprise teams of the tournament, but in our minds, before we started, it was always our goal to show what we could do as a team, and we don’t want to stop that just because we’re in the final.”
Via an expertly-struck Nadia Nadim penalty, they briefly led in the first few minutes, disturbing the raucous house party in Enschede like Danish police at the front door following up a complaint from the neighbours (was it Belgium or Germany who phoned them?). Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens’ goals cranked the volume back up, but Pernille Harder broke free to cut in from the right and wrap an equaliser inside the near post in the 33rd minute.
Dutch skipper Sherida Spitse stroked home a low free-kick early in the second half, and though it took another from Miedema in the closing minutes to seal it at 4-2, the day and indeed the tournament duly belonged to the hosts. The Danish team’s profile had undoubtedly risen, though, and so too that of Nils.
Likely nobody would have predicted that the next major competition he coached at would be the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, as China assistant.
“I’d just started a new family and I had that as a first priority at that moment, so I didn’t want to have a situation again where you have to invest so much, like I had to do with the Danish team. It wasn’t the right time, and I needed some time just to enjoy, and so when the offer came from China, it was something that we could do together, and together with a friend from Denmark (head coach Peter Bonde).
“It was an experience that came at the right time, but it was mostly because it fit with the family situation, not because I thought it was a step up or step down. When that was over, with the U20 World Cup in France, Switzerland were available, and that also fit very well in the moment.
“I enjoy it very much, to be with the team here.”
Among those he can call upon is Paris Saint-Germain’s Ramona Bachmann, arguably one of the game’s most skilful attackers and a genuine star on her day. Ana-Maria Crnogorčević has been part of an awe-inspiring Barcelona in recent times and is the team’s all-time top scorer. Arsenal’s Lia Wälti captains the side, while fellow midfielder Coumba Sow (of Paris FC) is among those in the ranks who has been making a big impression.
If not for Camille Abily’s late free-kick in Breda, Switzerland would have advanced to EURO 2017’s quarter-final at France’s expense. Their opponents would have been England, and in keeping with the theme of what might have been, it leads us to The FA identifying Nils as a candidate to succeed Mark Sampson as Lionesses manager in late-2017 (though Phil Neville would be appointed in January 2018).
Together with its obvious appeal, the level of scrutiny that now accompanies the England job is close to the most intense in women’s football. Did the toll that could potentially take ever come into Nils’ thoughts when discussing the position, given his aforementioned personal circumstances at that time?
“I didn’t think much about it, honestly. I talked to them, yes, and it’s one of the biggest jobs in women’s football, so of course it was an honour that they would even talk to me!
“We discussed it, but I think they made some good decisions. It was the absence from family that made me tired, it wasn’t the other things.
“At that moment, it wasn’t right, but it’s a job that doesn’t come along very often, so of course it was interesting.”
Some languages are invaluable connectors between nations, though there are always cultural subtleties to try and negotiate. After three years in the role, Nils shares his thoughts on how the details differ between coaching a Swiss team and a Danish one.
“I think when you grow up in Denmark, you are taught that your opinion matters; not just boys, it’s everybody. You are taught how to express your opinion and that it’s important, and that is not something that is necessarily the same in Switzerland.
“For me in Denmark, we found our way, but there was no right or wrong, we just needed to go in the same direction, all of us. That’s something I have worked a lot with in the Swiss team, trying to get them to express their opinions, because they know more about women’s football than I will ever do, so I try to get them to help me form the team.
“In Denmark, that was never a problem. Here, it was a challenge in the beginning, but now we are getting there, so I’m happy that they open up the little Swiss oyster there and I can see the pearl inside!”
He is also reflective enough to say where he may have got some of it wrong with Denmark, as he goes on to describe when assessing how he is different today as a coach.
“I found out that with different cultures, you also need a different amount of structure. In a place like Switzerland, you need to be a bit more structured, because that’s how they are brought up, with a lot of structure, and it’s very difficult for them if you set few boundaries.
“If you make it too open, then the process becomes really slow. I also learned from being with Denmark that to be clear was very important, because we talked about so many different things, and when the decision was made, I needed to be clear.
“Sometimes all the things we had discussed were still on the table, because I wasn’t clear about what we actually chose! Once the decision had been made, it needed to be very clear what we are doing, and that I brought with me to Switzerland.
“It has actually made me a better Swiss coach.”
While it is startling now to think that La Nati did not appear at a major tournament until 2015, given some of the players in their armoury, they are still currently minnows in unforgiving, international waters. Sweden, Netherlands and Russia await them in Group C of EURO 2022, with the latter of those their first opponents, at Leigh Sports Village, current home of Manchester United Women.
Their remaining two matches will be at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, and having most recently been in the country for the tournament draw in October, Nils tells how his previous trips to England included visiting his sister when she studied at Oxford University. Extending his contract last June to December 2022, during his time in the job, he has swapped the city setting of Bern for a more central, rural location that also allows him to travel around different clubs more easily.
Growing up in altogether flatter surroundings, he laughs that he cannot explain how he has such a liking for mountains today: “It could be the Greenland roots, I don’t know!”
Nils celebrated his 50th birthday last month, and as this year and last have reiterated in the strongest terms, savouring time with those who mean the most to you is paramount.
“I have to say the biggest inspiration in my life is actually my wife. I don’t think I have ever met such a positive person; there is nothing so bad that she cannot see something positive in it.
“When you have a job where there is always a winner and loser, it’s nice to have someone who has this view on life, and it also reflects in the character of our children. That brings me so much joy, to spend time with them, and that is by far the most important thing for me, honestly.”
His days of looking to send a devilish delivery into the penalty area may seem as distant as his musical-performing pomp, but he returns to action in this regular closing question. Given the choice of either players he played with growing up or has coached, Nils is asked to picture himself in a small-sided team, with four others required to go alongside him.
Based on those criteria, the final player he names may not be strictly eligible! He is admittedly, though, worth bending the rules for…
“I would choose Andreas Christensen from Chelsea; I worked a lot with him when he was young. He was in my team in Brøndby, and a national team player when I had the youth teams in Denmark.
“He’s a great player, so I would definitely choose him. Then I would choose Pernille Harder, because when it comes to having a winning attitude, I don’t recall having many others like that!
“I think I would choose Lia Wälti, because I cannot run any more, but she has the perfect mind to win a football game, so she would know where to put me if I cannot run! She always helps whatever team she’s playing on to become so much better.
“As the last one, I would choose…Michael Laudrup, just because he’s the greatest Danish football player ever. How you can remain so humble with all the success he has had, I have no idea.
“We have those courses to refresh our coaching licences, and when he became a pro coach, I have been lucky enough to work in groups with him. When you meet him for the first time, you actually get surprised that he’s so humble.
“I’m really a big fan of him, I have to say.”
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