Denmark's makeshift squad -- a prison guard, a salesman, a YouTuber -- reflect on their big game
TRNAVA, Slovakia -- On Wednesday night, Slovakia played Denmark at home in a friendly which should have been a preparation for the UEFA Nations League for both sides. But it ended in a different kind of exhibition.
As the dispute between the Denmark players and their national football association (DBU) over image rights continues, Denmark were forced to put together a provisional squad that had never played for the national side (and might never again) and were largely unknown even to Danish experts.
Since the Danish players' association supports the players in the conflict, Denmark could only select players who are not its members -- that means semi-professional and amateur footballers from the third and fourth tier of the Danish league system, plus a several players from the national futsal team.
Many fans and pundits suggested the result could be a new record loss (the actual record is 8-0 against Germany in 1937), but the ragtag team actually finished with a respectable 3-0 loss.
While Slovakia were understandably angry about the Danes' decision -- head coach Jan Kozak said "they could have used the time better" -- Denmark desperately needed the game to be played. If they had not turned out, they would have been most probably excluded from UEFA 2020 qualifiers. As negotiations between the players and the football association stalled, an alternative squad was quickly put together.
Christian Bannis, a Danish central midfielder who plays in the third tier for Tarup-Paarup IF, was given the task of stopping Slovakia's most important man and Napoli star Marek Hamsik.
"Yeah, it was certainly different to games I usually play in, as I am in 2.Division [the third tier]," he told ESPN FC after the game. "Here, when you get the ball, you have to decide what to do very quickly. However, it was big fun and, of course, amazing experience for me, as I played against some big players."
Surprisingly, this Denmark side fared better than most expected and held Slovakia at bay. Although the home side played just about their strongest lineup, including former Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel, they did not have it easy against an organised and packed defence.
"We had very high expectations from what we saw and we were not surprised by anything from Slovakia," Bannis added. "We saw videos of the team and we also knew many of the players before, so it went very fast. It is an excellent team and we are very happy that we got a chance to play against such big players."
Denmark goalkeeper Christoffer Haagh put in a very good performance, making several good saves, even if he was unlucky with the third goal. "I am an administrative worker," he said. "Then, I have also my own company with goalkeeping stuff, and I also play futsal. Yesterday, I went to the office of my boss and I asked for a couple of days off. He told me I can go."
All of the Danish players have jobs. Kevin Jorgensen works as prison guard; Rasmus Johansson is a YouTuber and makes football freestyle videos; the captain, Christian Offenberg, is a salesman; Christian Bommelund Christensen a carpenter; Anders Fonss a boat mechanic; Kasper Skraep, 18, still attends a high school.
Bannis, who works at an insurance company, was in the office at the start of this week when he got a call that he was about to play for his country.
"It is not the type of call you would expect," he laughed. "I was working at that time. It was very funny."
The boss did not give him any trouble, though: "I just asked him and he was fine. He said to me: 'You can go, that is no problem at all.'"
Bannis also enjoyed jokes with friends about playing for the national team: "We make jokes all the time, so yeah, it was also about that. It was very nice experience. I would not imagine I could once play in such a big game."
Despite the fact that this team have never had a proper training session, they battled hard on the field and, afterwards, were more than satisfied with the outcome.
"We had a big cheer in the dressing room afterwards," Bannis said. "We were very pleased for ourselves."
Daniel Holm, a winger from a third-tier club Skovshoved who came on in the second half, told ESPN FC: "This match means a lot for me. Since I was a kid, I have always dreamed about it. It was special.
"I don't think they [Slovakia] played [as well] as they could. They played a little bit slowly, but at the same time you can see they are on a big level."
Holm spent his youth career at Brondby and he admits he was nervous before coming on the pitch. "A little bit, but I think that is normal," he said. "It is a specific situation in Denmark, but I do this especially for the future of the national team. I am happy with my decision [to play]. There were no jokes or something on me, but some people told me I am a good guy, and some that I am a bad guy."
Denmark play against Wales in UEFA Nations League on Sunday, and it is still unclear which players will be on the pitch. If the players and football association reach an agreement, their strongest side will play.
Holm hopes that will be the case: "A national team has to play with the best players, so I hope they will be those who will be playing."
Bannis agreed: "Personally I hope they get a real team back, because it is a competitive game and this was only a friendly. This one was still important, but the Wales game is more vital and I hope they will get the players back."
Either way, the Denmark team from Wednesday night did themselves proud. But, having got a taste of playing at the highest level, Bannis insists he is not thinking about a shift in his football career.
"That is not on my mind," he said. "As a youth player, I always wanted to get to the high level. However, I am 26 now and it is not within my reach. I also have a baby on the way."