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European Championship

'Ronaldo-esque' Damsgaard has become Denmark's Euro 2020 breakout star

08:00 BST 03/07/2021
Mikkel Damsgaard Denmark
The 21-year-old has excelled thanks to his goal threat and his dribbling abilities and is ready to take on the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals

Mikkel Damsgaard has been among the best players at Euro 2020 and has generated plenty of transfer interest with his performances. 

The 21-year-old Denmark winger has been linked to Arsenal, Tottenham, AC Milan, Tottenham and Leicester to name a few.

The way he played against Belgium in the group stages made people sit up and take notice but it was his stunning goal against Russia that really put him on the map - a dipping strike from the edge of the area that sparked a 4-1 win to confirm the Danes' place in the knockout stages. 

It has been a meteoric rise for Damsgaard - from appearing at the Milk Cup junior tournament in Northern Ireland to turning heads against some of the best in Europe in the space of just three years. 

While the Sampdoria man’s displays at the tournament have prompted a new legion of admirers, his quality has come as no surprise to FC Nordsjælland (FCN) owner, Tom Vernon, who watched the Dane thrive at the club before his move to Italy.

“I’ve seen him score that goal 100 times in training so it was no surprise to us,” Vernon told Goal about Damsgaard’s finish against Russia. 

There was a buzz around the attacker heading into the tournament and, having closely watched him during his time in FCN’s academy, Vernon knew that Damsgaard would shine when given the opportunity. 

“When I bought the club he was in the Under-15s and just four years later you see him as a globally-known player with how well he has done in the Euros," he said.

"I’ll never forget one of the goals he scored for the U-17s. I was with Kasper [Hjulmand, current Denmark coach] and he scored a pretty ridiculous goal where he beat three players, put the goalkeeper on his backside and tapped it in. 

“We had this knowing look between us that we both knew at that stage he wasn’t going to be in the youth team much longer.”

Vernon was proven right as Damsgaard quickly made the step up to the first team and, while it took a long time for him to start scoring, it was his touch, technique, vision and tactical understanding of the game that made him stand out. 

“One of his early goals was from inside his own half, a very David Beckham-like goal,” Vernon recalled. “The little technique which is a little bit Ronaldo-esque that we saw in the goal against Russia, where he doesn’t follow through in the normal way, we all know that’s his bread and butter so it was pretty cool to see him doing it in such a big game.”

Despite impressing coaches from a young age there were those who had doubts about his ability to make the step up before he signed for Sampdoria in 2020. 

“When he was here people were debating if he had the physicality to go to the next level and I think a lot of clubs made the mistake of thinking that physically he wasn’t going to be able to take the next step,” Vernon said.

“As we’ve seen with all the best players throughout history, it’s the speed of your brain not the size of your muscles which determines your success and his brain moves at top speed all of the time. Then he combines that with a really creative mind with how to get out of tricky situations which is so nice to watch.”

Vernon is certain, if Sampdoria decide to sell, that Damsgaard is ready to take his game to the next level.

“I think the speed to which he adapted to Sampdoria was incredible. When we did the transfer we ensured he stayed with us for six months and that really helped him because he learned a bit of Italian and he focused a lot on adapting himself to the Italian game,” Vernon explained.

“I remember seeing a game here that we played away in the rain, and it was a really miserable game and not particularly attractive, but even on that tough pitch in the tough conditions he was tactically and technically so far ahead.

“So I’m very confident that I’ll watch him doing that in the Champions League in the next couple of years, I don’t think he’ll have any problem.”

Damsgaard is one of a long list of players whose career Vernon keeps a close eye on. Since setting up the first Right to Dream Academy in Ghana over 20 years ago, the former Manchester United scout has been identifying talent to join the ever-expanding academy system in the hope of creating pathways not necessarily available for certain youngsters in a normal system. 

Denmark was the location for their second academy, with FCN the first Right to Dream-owned club, and there are plans to expand into Egypt in the near future.

While they might well hope to stumble across the next Cristiano Ronaldo, the model is structured as much around education and personal development as it is around football. 

“This year we’ll look at 50,000 players across Ghana, Ivory Coast and Egypt and we academically screen all of our kids as well," Vernon explained.

"Some of our kids who get in are the brightest kids in the community, who are quite good players, and others might be a great player and very bright or a great player and academically further behind. Then we also try to identify the characterful, soulful kid within the team who has that kind of spark that’s hard to define.

"You just know there’s something special about them as a personality. Some of our greatest successes haven’t been professional footballers but people who have excelled at universities in America and then got good jobs afterwards.

"We think academies should take a more holistic view to the role they can play, developing different profiles within the community rather than it just being about the financial asset of a player, and some academies have got a little bit lost in that train of thought.”

The financial asset is still important, nonetheless. But Vernon hopes the likes of Damsgaard, who secured his move to Sampdoria last summer for €6.7 million (£6m/$8m), are proud that their transfer fee goes back into helping develop the next string of youngsters coming through. 

Damsgaard isn’t the only player Vernon has been watching with interest in the Denmark squad. Brentford midfielder Mathias Jensen also came through the academy, as did Bologna winger Andreas Olsen. And then there’s the coach Hjulmand, who finished his second stint at FCN when he took the national team job in 2019. 

Vernon believes the mentality instilled in those players from such a young age has been pivotal in the Danes getting to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, as has giving Hjulmand the chance to coach at a club with those values. 

“We believe a lot of the experiences they get with us helps them to adapt and cope with pressure at a younger age, maybe more than in other environments,” Vernon said. 

The whole squad’s mental strength was tested in the most unimaginable way when Christian Eriksen collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest in Denmark’s opening game against Finland.

The way the team rallied around each other, Eriksen’s partner and their stricken team-mate was testament to who they all are as individuals and not just footballers. 

“In that awful 10 minutes afterwards we saw so much 'Danishness' which I’ve come to understand over five-and-a-half years,” Vernon said. “That’s what really unites the nation because in a crisis you’re really reminded of what your best traits are and so much of that came through and it was instinctive.” 

It was that strength, resilience and incredible support from the fans that has helped to push Denmark forward in the competition and set up a clash against the Czech Republic on Saturday.  With the focus on the emotional side, and the mental strength and resilience, their tactical ability has been somewhat overlooked. 

“Kasper [Schmeichel] is one of the best on-pitch coaches that I’ve ever seen, if not the best,” Vernon said. “There’s been key tactical elements in how they’ve set up, how they’ve adapted tactically during games and timings of substitutions as well. 

“I’m sure that everyone that’s in the know in the game sees that, right from the start, the way they’ve played and tactically set themselves up has been top class. I’m an Englishman and I’m not sure that’s going to be an attractive semi-final match up if they both get through.”