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From UNF to Copenhagen: How a former Osprey led his nation to Euro glory

Riley Platt, Sports Reporter

Featured image: AP

No matter your own perception, your school may reach farther than you think. UNF is making an impact all throughout the world, including Denmark, where former Osprey Kasper Hjulmand has led his team to unthinkable heights.

The 2020 (postponed from last year) UEFA European Football Championship started in June with 24 teams, winding down over the past few weeks. Entering the tournament, Denmark was far from being considered a favorite to win. However, the Danes prevailed and found themselves one of four remaining teams.

 Kasper Hjulmand played soccer for UNF, and now coaches Denmark’s all-star studded national team.

Despite dropping their first two matches of the tournament, the Danes managed to advance from the group stage. This was their first time surpassing the preliminary round since 2004. Denmark won Euro 1992, defeating Germany, but the peninsula on the Baltic Sea isn’t exactly a traditional soccer power. In fact, Denmark had the lowest odds (+950) of the remaining nations to win. 

This doubt failed to stop Denmark’s run as they rolled through their competition. A 4-0 blowout of Wales in the round of 16 propelled the Danes to the quarterfinals, where they defeated the Czech Republic 2-1. Up next was a showdown with tournament favorites England.

Having established how Denmark got to this point, it’s time to look at the man behind this magical run: Kasper Hjulmand. The 49-year-old has been credited with much of the team’s success, but his roots in the sport run far deeper.

Born in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city, Hjulmand came to the United States to play collegiate soccer in 1994. His college: the University of North Florida. Before UNF, the Dane had played for professional clubs Randers Freja and Herlev IF. Despite only spending one season here in Jacksonville, Hjulmand contributed significantly, scoring six goals in a 12-6 season for the Ospreys.

Beating the odds is nothing new for the coach and his team alike. When Hjulmand was announced as the new coach of the Danish national team in 2019, many were perplexed by the decision. It’s safe to say that he’s proved the doubters wrong.

Denmark has faced adversity ever since the beginning of the tournament. In their opening match against Finland, the soccer world came to a grinding halt when Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed due to cardiac arrest. Eriksen luckily survived, and the nation rallied around him during their push for the cup.

All that remained between the Danes and a spot in the championship match was the powerhouse of England. It all came down to a duel with the heavily-favored Three Lions squad on Wednesday. Denmark forged ahead early, with Mikkel Damsgaard scoring in the 30th minute. The score would even up nine minutes later when an awry deflection found its way in the back of Denmark’s net.

Things would calm down in the second half, as the 1-1 tie took the teams into extra time. England seized control of the match, and it seemed like the only way Denmark would come out on top was if they could escape extra time unscathed to get to penalty kicks. 

Unfortunately, it was a penalty kick in the 105th minute in the 105th minute that would ultimately doom the Danes. A penalty was called, and Harry Kane was given an opportunity to seal the deal. An initial block from Danish keeper Kasper Schmeichel would prove futile as Kane pounced on the deflection, netting it to provide England with its first lead of the match.

Denmark found themselves with their backs against the wall, needing a goal in the next fifteen minutes to stay alive. England did what they did best throughout the match, keeping the ball away from Denmark. Extra time would expire, as England prevailed 2-1 to advance to the championship match, which they would later ironically lose to Italy in penalty kicks.

Despite coming up just short of the final, this was still an incredible run for Denmark and Kasper Hjulmand. The odds were not in their favor, but they couldn’t have cared less. The small Scandinavian nation rallied behind this team and their story through to the bitter end. It’s safe to say that Hjulmand and his Danes are far from being done and have also picked up quite a few fans along the way.

________

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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