FC Copenhagen were only formed in 1992 but have won six Danish titles in eight years
FC Copenhagen were founded only 19 years ago but they keep doing the impossible. They have won six of the past eight league titles; they have managed to get Jesper Gronkjaer fit and firing on all cylinders; and this season they are so superior domestically that they are making the Scottish Premier League look decidedly competitive. Not a bad feat.
Stale Solbakken's side are 19 points ahead of second-placed Odense in the Danish Superliga at the halfway point of the season. They are the Celtic or Rangers of Scandinavia. Or make that the Bayern Munich or Lyon of the north. They have become so rich and successful that they can buy the best emerging talents from other Danish teams, strengthening their own team while weakening those of their rivals.
Denmark, clearly, is no longer big enough for this emerging behemoth. On Tuesday FC Copenhagen take on Chelsea in the Champions League and they will do so in the knowledge that they rattled Barcelona in the group stage and that the English champions are struggling. The Danes will fancy their chances, despite not having played a competitive game for four months because of the winter break.
It is a remarkable position to be in less than two decades after the club was formed – a merger of two clubs (KB and B 1903). How have they done it? "There are two parts to our success," says the sporting director, Carsten Jensen. "First we came up with a long-term business plan, with the football club as the focal point and other businesses, such as holiday companies and fitness chains, supporting the football club. So that gave us a solid financial footing. Second, we hired Roy Hodgson as a manager in 2000 and he revolutionised the way we looked at football.
"Before Roy came in, the players had just come in to train and to have a laugh. He made us focus throughout the week. He prepared everyone thoroughly and within a year the whole attitude of the club had changed. He laid the foundations of an ethos, a philosophy, at the club and what he did still has a big influence on how we work here."
The club continued to prosper, having bought Parken Stadium (where England played and where Chelsea will play). They let it to entertainment groups (for concerts) and the Danish Football Association (for internationals) and increased their revenue. In 2006 FC Copenhagen beat Manchester United in the Champions League group stage and a seventh league title in nine years is sure to come in May.
Yet there is a slight difference in playing bottom club Aalborg in the Danish Superliga and Chelsea in the Champions League. But the fact that Chelsea paid a transfer fee – £50m on Fernando Torres – that would keep FC Copenhagen running for more than five years does not seem to perturb Jensen. "Talent-wise we obviously can't compete with the best teams in Europe," he says. "But we have looked at successful clubs around Europe, with Arsenal and Manchester United being good examples, and developed our own philosophy. We have a long-term plan and do not listen to outside influences such as media and fans and go and sack a manager after a few bad results.
"We have had three coaches in 10 years and not sacked any of them. We have a system that all our teams, from the Under-14s to the first team, play and when a coach comes in he doesn't tell us how to play, we tell him how to play.
"We have to be much better than the top teams tactically and that's where our system comes in. We started 10 years ago with Roy and we learned how to defend properly and work as a team and gradually we are learning how to go forward in different ways. When we defend we play a 4-4-2 or sometimes a 4-4-1-1 but when we attack the players take up all sorts of different positions with fluidity. But without the solidness of our defending we could not challenge the top teams in the Champions League."
FCK's current success has been underpinned by the colourful coach Solbakken, the former Norwegian international who had an unsuccessful spell at Wimbledon in 1997-98 (six league games and one goal). He stopped playing in 2001 when he suffered a cardiac arrest during training with FC Copenhagen. His heart stopped beating for around six to seven minutes and his team-mates thought he had died, but he was revived and made a full recovery.
The experience has made Solbakken a laidback person off the field but he remains extremely competitive when it comes to achieving success for his team. "He was very determined as a player, with a hint of arrogance," Gronkjaer told the Swedish magazine Offside recently. "He had a colossal will to win. He was a general, a special kind of winner. I only played with him for a few months but you could tell within minutes. He still has a lot of those characteristics and I have a lot of respect for him and his attitude towards the team. He is always asking: 'How do we move our positions forward?' He has succeeded in taking this team to a completely different level. He is a motivator of the kind I have never seen before."
One thing is clear: Solbakken does not fear anyone. After FC Copenhagen had drawn 1-1 at home against Barcelona, Solbakken nearly came to blows with Pep Guardiola, with Sergio Busquets having to step in and push the FCK coach away. Guardiola was upset over some comments the Norwegian had made in the pre-match press conference but after the incident Solbakken just said: "Guardiola's behaviour was wrong, maybe he did not realise that it was just a Norwegian making a very bad joke."
On Tuesday, the joke could be on Chelsea.