As FC Midtjylland goes through their debut campaign in the Champions League group stage (on CBS All Access), the Danish champions can't help but look back on the journey that brought them here in the first place. If you go way back, it's a story that took them to the brink of bankruptcy, a defining-takeover and a transformative way of developing and nurturing talent thanks to a carefully managed academy and data-centric philosophies. All concluding (thus far) with three Danish Super Liga titles, including last season's triumph.
Most recently, however, the memory of last month's victory against Slavia Prague, which gave them the entrance ticket to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history, remains fresh in Brian Priske's mind.
"It was an amazing evening for everybody around the club. This is for sure our biggest achievement. In the short time that we've had as a club, qualifying for the Champions League is of course absolutely amazing, for the size that we are as a club," said the 43-year-old manager, who had to push his team to come back from 1-0 down in the second leg against Slavia Prague with only 25 minutes remaining in regular time. In the end, Midtjylland won 4-1 and sealed their fate in the biggest European club tournament of all. Priske admits that it took a moment for him to soak it all in as reality -- as often does -- hits a little after the fact.
"First of all, it was the performance and the result that we delivered. Secondly, when we had some time to breathe a bit, we realized what we actually achieved, it's even bigger. So we're really proud to be part of this club at this moment. A lot of fans have also been waiting for this and dreaming for this for many years, and especially recent years where we took three Championships in six years so they've been dreaming of the Champions League. It's not easy to qualify for a small country and a small club like ours, so for them this was a major step, and even though they couldn't be inside the stadium, fans were cheering outside and celebrating with us, I think for the whole community and region is a massive achievement."
This 21-year-old club is a baby compared to the experienced Goliaths in the tournament, especially the ones in Midtjylland's group, which to put quite frankly, is no walk in the park. Nevermind the threat of their first opponent: everyone's favorite steam train Atalanta, but they also have to face Ajax (34-time Eredivisie champions and 2018-2019 semifinalists of the Champions League) and Liverpool, who won last season's Premier League and were crowned UCL champions two seasons ago. This group, essentially, is a mountain to climb and conquer, but Priske, though respecting these teams, refuses to bow down or become reactive. On the contrary, FC Midtjylland is here to play their football and no one else's.
"This is a big group. Some big opponents with a lot of history including maybe the best team in Europe at the moment in Liverpool. But that's the reality and what we are facing," says Priske. "But we're going to do everything we can to pick up points, and if we can, take the wins as well. But I believe in keeping the same mindset we've had for a long period, we're going to try and approach this just like the first three games of the qualifiers. We're going to try and be aggressive without the ball, high pressure, that's our club's DNA and also we need to be compact ... and we need to of course find a good day offensively to make it difficult for the teams."
Financially, especially during these times when COVID-19 has impacted the world of soccer to such drastic measures, just being part of the group stage is massive for Midtjylland. "It's huge. We played in the group stages of Europa League a few years ago and it lifted every level of the club," says Priske. "In the football department, the players' level and performance rises but also their value. Also, in our commercial department, all the restrictions and guidelines from UEFA reaches the highest level so it lifts the whole club to a totally different level and has the possibility to stay at that level for some years if we continue to do well in the Danish league. So in every aspect, this lifts us. And for the players it's the biggest stage and level in the World. Of course the World Cup is huge but the Champions League is just massive."
His captain, Erik Sviatchenko can only concur.
"This is just really, really, really big for the club and the fans," said the 29-year-old defender, whose career began at the club but has also included a tenure at Celtic, where he won a domestic treble. "Herning and Ikast are two small cities who merged back in 1999 with the dream of being a good football club, maybe not in the Champions League, but now 21 years has gone and suddenly we're in the Champions League. This is another step for all those dreams that the club has had, when they would tell each other that we could achieve something big but maybe not able to achieve it."
Sviatchenko has been in this situation before back with the aforementioned Celtic, and can't wait to live through those emotions again with the club that developed him."
There are two other factors about this club that don't solely define them but most definitely give soccer fans an idea of what they're about. First, as they're owned by majority shareholder Matthew Benham (also owner of Championship side Brentford) there is a detailed approach to training, development and scouting. Benham made economic success thanks to statistics and algorithmic philosophy determining results in gambling through his company SmartOdds, and this approach has been added to his clubs. Data is a driving force behind this team. It's not the only component but it's a key ingredient, especially when analyzing the opposition.
The second factor, and perhaps most importantly, is that this club is about people. It's a community where everyone is involved in order to nurture it. The CEO Rasmus Ankersen, for example, was a player and coach for the side. Players and their families constantly engage with the community and are all part of a culture that celebrates an open and prosperous family-based organization. Success and fortune, therefore, comes thanks to a strong foundation, and it begins with the people. This includes the squad.
"Midtjylland has a hierarchy, but it also has a flat structure," says Sviatchenko. "It doesn't matter if you're 19 years old or 29, we listen to what you have to say and that's something I emphasize to my team. You can come to me, you have a voice no matter what."
But in the end this is about what happens on the pitch and Sviatchenko knows what's about to come in the tournament. A group with deadly opponents. But for now, he just wants to savor the moment as the team plays its first UCL season, and make sure his teammates take it all in.
"I remember my very first Champions League game for Celtic," he said. "I was standing there before the game and the Champions League theme song started. This ball boy was standing in front me and looking up at me, and I was looking down on him...and we both felt the same. My first time, his first time. And the fans going mental. ... I am going to miss that part but it doesn't matter, it's just going to be amazing ... just playing in the Champions League."