By Lars Hendel
To be honest, FC Nordsjaelland have been somewhat of a joke in Danish football for the last decade.
And that is pretty much the entire length of time in which this year's Champions League debutants have played in the Danish Superleague since surfacing from amateur league obscurity.
Twenty years ago, two clubs in the seventh tier of Danish football, Farum IK and Stavnsholt Boldklub, merged to become Farum Boldklub with the ambition of reaching the top flight. Had anyone noticed, they would have laughed.
Ten years ago, many did when the club changed it's name to cover what is, at least on paper, a whole region of Denmark. It seemed like an act of megalomania. Can you imagine Millwall naming themselves London United? FC Nordsjaelland were only known for having been lifted up from a lower local league by a - to put it mildly - progressive politician by the name of Peter Brixtofte.
He was very conveniently both the mayor of the town and the chairman of the club, and used this dual identity to pour tax-payers' money into both direct and very creative indirect financial sponsorship of the local football club.
Brixtofte was later convicted and kicked into jail for this and other bend-or-break-the-law stunts in the municipality of Farum, where he also had a top modern stadium built for a lower league club without supporters.
The scandalised owner then left the club on the brink of bankruptcy, and to the echo of his visions of playing in the Champions League one day. Sympathy in the rest of the country was limited to say the least.
Two years ago FC Nordsjaelland were still known for having next to no supporters - often literally only a handful at away games in the not very large country of Denmark.
They developed a reputation for only attracting players who could not make it in the bigger clubs in the Copenhagen area, and for nursing talents and then losing them at the first glimpse of a slight chance of a career abroad.
Their tactics and style of play also saw them dubbed 'the Danish Barcelona', in a tongue in cheek if not actually sarcastic way.
FC Nordsjaelland want possession, passing and playing the beautiful game the way the Catalan giants do - and they had absolutely no success doing just that for years and years.
|THE ONES TO WATCH
Expect the unexpected. The youngest son of Michael Laudrup is doing well for Denmark U21s and looking ready to fulfill at least some of the huge expectations put on his shoulders by his family name. Son of Michael, nephew of Brian, and grandson of Denmark international Finn.
Opportunistic striker who was in the Denmark squad for the World Cup in South Africa 2012. Quite quick and with a whiplash shot.
The 26-year-old is an elegant player, who is a quick and creative passer of the ball. And he has a great shot from the distance as well.
Manager - Kasper Hjulmand
Forty years young and totally inexperienced at continental level, but a brilliant modern motivator and with clear tactical skills. Took Lyngby to the Danish Superleague and was relegated immediately in his first job at Danish top level. Assistant coach to Morten Wieghorst and took over last summer, leading FC Nordsjaelland to the first championship in club history.
The style was introduced by former coach Morten Wieghorst - remembered from both the national side and Celtic as a lion-hearted fighter and comeback king who overcame injuries, a lack of natural talent and a terrible attack of the Guillain Barre Syndrome which left him paralysed in a Glasgow hospital bed but, miraculously, didn't end his career as a top football player.
But being a successful coach at FC Nordsjaelland for a long time seemed to be the one task that even Wieghorst couldn’t overcome.
Was he well respected? Yes, indeed. But that was for the person he is and for his intentions with the team, however naive his vision seemed, rather than for the results which, exactly like the level of the passing and possession game of the side, were yoyo-ing between sublime and substandard.
Wieghorst was a winner on the pitch - the Danish equivalent to Terry Butcher, often seen playing with a bloody head bandage and fire in his eyes, sparked by a special spirit and the desire to win through never giving up.
But as a coach it seems he was doomed to be a dreamer without a route map towards success. But then something strange happened: FC Nordsjaelland sneaked into the Danish Cup final in 2010.
It was obviously quite an achievement for such a small club, and was further enhanced when they duly won their first trophy. But in Denmark the respect for and the atmosphere surrounding the cup title is nothing like the FA Cup, the League Cup or probably even the Johnstone's Paint Trophy in England.
The following year FC Nordsjaelland repeated their cup win, but many pundits and the public at large were still laughing at 'the Danish Barcelona'.
And then it all changed in the most unlikely way and in the most unlikely moment of time. Wieghorst departed the club to take up the post of coach of the Denmark Under-21 side.
It definitely looked like the beginning of the end for FC Nordsjaelland. With two cup titles to show for his efforts Wieghorst had finally hit some success with the rather flamboyant style of his team, but he elected to leave it at that.
Kasper Hjulmand took over a seat which was not exactly red hot, and little was expected beyond the club's traditional inconsistency - winning in great style followed by an almost comical capitulation.
The new coach was welcomed by the press with a smile and a sigh.
Kasper Hjulmand's last name has a funny familiarity with the Danish word "Julemand", meaning Santa Claus, and more than a few sniggeringly suggested his new team would not be slow in gifting points to the opposition.
The new idealist at the helm of 'the Danish Barcelona' was a man only really known outside the narrow football environment for taking Lyngby into the top flight a few seasons before, only to crash out again immediately with a flamboyant but sadly ineffecient style.
That set alarm bells ringing and, when Hjulmand took over last summer, some were even predicting a quick relegation for FC Nordsjaelland. Only 10 months later they were crowned champions.
Such a triumph was sensational, but the signs that something big was in the offing had been detectable for some time. The team had developed with patience, and the two cup wins had created maybe the most important psychological weapon in team sport - the winning mentality.
Suddenly FC Nordsjaelland believed they could actually win - recent successes had proved to them that they could, even if nobody else found the two cup titles all that important.
The defence worked for the first time in the club's history, tied together by two young Danish central defenders. Jores Okore and Andreas Bjelland began last season as nobodies to the wider public, but ended it as full internationals and squad members at the EURO 2012.
|CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LATEST
|22/1||Nordsjaelland are 22/1 to beat Chelsea 2-1 on Tuesday
In the Danish Superleague many clubs last season had larger budgets, more supporters and better players - at least on paper, and the supporters of clubs like FC Copenhagen, Brøndby, Odense were once fond of jokes about Denmark's answer to Barcelona.
But suddenly nobody is laughing anymore.
Now the new Danish champions are facing Chelsea in Copenhagen's Parken Stadium, because their own Farum Park - built in the days of Peter Brixtofte in what looked like almost mad ambition - is too small for the Champions League.
Of course if you ask people in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe about FC Nordsjaelland's chances in that game, they might laugh. But the club is not a joke anymore.
Lars Hendel spent 16 years on the sports desks of Danish newspapers BT and Berlingske, covering football in both Denmark and England, as well as World Cups and European Championships. He is now a freelance football journalist with firstmoversport.