Embracing differences and collaboration key for Denmark
By 2008, Norway had become the record title holders of the Women’s EHF EURO, replacing Denmark — the nation that dominated the first years of the competition. Since then, every edition except for one, a new team took on Norway for the title. Sweden were defeated in 2010, Montenegro came out on top after extra time in 2012, Spain lost in 2014, the Netherlands were defeated in 2016 and in 2020 France were dethroned after taking the trophy in 2018.
This time around, it is Denmark’s turn. As they look for their fourth EHF EURO trophy, Denmark also hope to beat Norway for only the 10th time in history.
Nine previous wins may sound like a lot, but Norway have defeated Denmark 17 times in official matches, although Denmark won the main round encounter between the two (31:29) at the EHF EURO 2022.
“We know each other really well and I think we also are going to see tomorrow that we know each other so well. It’s going to be a tough match and it’s going to be so fun — two amazing teams,” said Denmark back Michala Møller at the finals media call on Saturday.
For Denmark, reaching the final ended a long wait for the previously dominant country in the event. After taking their last trophy in 2002, the most recent final was in 2004, so it was a big moment on Friday night when the final buzzer brought a 27:23 win over Montenegro.
“It was so crazy. Everybody was so happy and relieved also in a way and just really proud to be in this team, with the girls and the staff behind. It’s crazy and we are so happy,” said centre back Kristina Jörgensen.
“We know it’s going to be a really, really tough game and that Norway have been in this situation, in the final, so many times — also in a row now — and they are used to it and we are not. It’s totally new for us to be in the final, but we’re looking forward and we are giving everything we got. I promise to my country that we will give whatever it takes.”
Although Norway have greater final experience than the current Denmark side, who have been floating around the top rankings for the last couple of years at major championships but could not crack the semi-finals, Denmark look to have the upper hand regarding depth. That has been on display throughout the EHF EURO 2022, which saw them lose only the opening match to Slovenia before taking a perfect record all the way to the final.
“That’s maybe one of our strengths, that we can switch and also be at the same level,” said Jörgensen. “It’s been a long tournament and there’s been a lot of games and now it really comes to this — who’s got the most energy at the end. So, I hope this will be in our favour.”
Aside from depth, there is another element that has become increasingly visible and has been talked about by coach Jesper Jensen as something important in how the team have developed: attention to the individual personalities in the team and allowing the personal differences to be communicated and turned into a collective strength.
“It’s also one of the parts why we are here now, because we are really one union in the team. We are different, personally and also on court,” said Jörgensen. “We have really good communication and we love to be with each other. It’s a long time to be one month with 25 people in a hotel room and so on, but we really get the best out of it and we try to to be happy all the time. And we try to make all the differences come good together.”
Her teammate Rikke Iversen commented on the same aspect of the team:
“It’s actually been a main focus for us in our team: that we have to respect each other and also respect that we’re different. How we act after a game — if we lose, some people will be fast over it and some of us will maybe take a longer time. We have to respect that we have differences and it actually makes our team have more confidence in each other. We become such a group who believe in each other and who trust each other, so if somebody’s sad or somebody’s down we can talk openly about it and I think that’s the main difference, that we have so much trust in each other. I think it shows on the court as well — that we don’t ever give up and we believe, and whoever comes in believes in the concept and we believe in them.”
So where exactly did that come from? Was that driven by Jensen alone? Iversen said the team leadership were collectively responsible for this approach and it was something they began working on immediately when the new coach started in 2020.
“When we started we were doing some profiles, like, personal profiles, and we had to share them with each other,” said Iversen. “It was the first gathering we had like summer three years ago. It was the main focus. Like, who am I as a person? What do I think and what do you think? And how do I react in a situation where we are maybe behind with three and how do you? So it was actually the coaches and the leaders who set the way to be this team during a match.”
The approach has been slowly coming to fruition, with increasing success in the past two years. First, Denmark made it to the EHF EURO 2020 semi-finals, although they were disappointed to finish fourth. Then, one year later, they left the 2021 World Championship with the bronze medal — and they were very close to the final, only losing to France by one in the semi. Now, they have reached their first final in any competition in 18 years.
The cooperation within the team is clear to observe. At half-time of the semi-final for example, goalkeeper Sandra Toft approached Jensen, who took notes as he listened to her observations. The players are encouraged to share their perceptions of the match and make suggestions.
One of his [Jensen’s] strong sides is that he really listens to us and when he comes into the locker room, he’s like, ‘OK, what did you talk about? What do you think — is there anything we need to do? How is your feeling?’
“One of his [Jensen’s] strong sides is that he really listens to us and when he comes into the locker room, he’s like, ‘OK, what did you talk about? What do you think — is there anything we need to do? How is your feeling?’ And we can say like, ‘OK we think that maybe we should get a little bit higher or maybe we should go a little bit to the left because Sandra [Toft] and Althea [Reinhardt] want the shots from the right’ or something,” said Iversen, who plays an important role as a central defender together with Kathrine Heindahl.
“I think that’s nice, that we have that communication. And also us in the defence really have a good communication with Lars [Jorgensen]. He’s always like, ‘what do you think? Do you feel this?’ And then he can say something and I can say something and then he’s like, ‘I believe in you because you’re on the field. So if you feel this is the best, we will do that.’ So it also lets us evolve as players because it’s not often you get a coach who’s listening that much.”
The fact that Jensen and Jorgensen were players for Denmark themselves likely helps them understand the valuable input the players can have. They are not alone at the EURO in this approach — in fact, all the semi-finalists appear to have a very equal and collaborative approach. However, the attention Denmark have paid to this area and the time spent getting to know each other on a deeper level both personally and as players has clearly paid dividends. Will it pay all the way to the biggest reward — the trophy?