Denmark caused the first giant shock of Euro 2012 Saturday despite being ensnared in an extraordinary political dispute caused by coach Morten Olsen's decision to ban his entire squad from using Twitter and Facebook at all times.
The Danes stunned World Cup finalists the Netherlands, 1-0, in their opening Group B clash in Kharkiv on Saturday after entering the tournament as rank outsiders in the pool known as the Group of Death. The victory gives Denmark a serious chance of moving on to the knockout stages.
Olsen is an old-school coach who believes social media offers no constructive help to a team's chances of performing well at a major tournament. Although many of his star players, including star striker Nicklas Bendtner, are regular tweeters with thousands of followers, Olsen refused to back down even when the saga got the attention of the Danish government.
As recently as the day before Saturday's remarkable result, one that puts the Netherlands in serious danger of elimination going into its remaining games against Germany and Portugal, Olsen was coming under fire for his actions.
Uffe Elbaek, Denmark's culture minister, launched a scathing attack on Olsen's policy, claiming that it could be viewed as a violation of the players' human rights. After further discussion in political circles and in the Danish media, legal opinion was sought and Elbaek stated it is likely that the policy is indeed an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Convention, which applies in all European countries that have signed it (including Denmark since 1950), calls for stringent punishments in cases where basic rights are found to have been infringed. Olsen has come under steady pressure to back down over the past week, ever since the squad arrived at its base in Poland, even though its group matches take place in Ukraine. Although several other national coaches have requested that their players to use social media sparingly and sensibly, Denmark is the only one to issue a formal ban.
Elbaek, whose remit includes overseeing the nation's sporting practices, has lobbied strongly for Olsen to change his mind, and has been bemused by the lack of flexibility on the coach's part.
"In no way do I understand his decision … or his position," Elbaek said. "There are [human rights] issues that are serious."
Olsen is the longest serving coach at the championship, having been in charge since 2000. His hard-line approach has not been to the liking of all, but has generated solid recent results, and Denmark reached the tournament having topped a qualifying group that also included Group B foe Portugal.
It is primarily the pedigree of the other group sides – with Germany one of the favorites, the Netherlands having come so close at the World Cup, and Portugal featuring Cristiano Ronaldo – that saw Denmark installed as underdogs . In reality though, Denmark is ranked 10th in the FIFA world rankings and makes up for its lack of big names with a strong collective approach.
Given that any punishment under the Convention would first require a legal challenge from a player, it is unlikely that Olsen is too concerned, especially after the result in Kharkiv.
"I don't agree with it, but I will respect the decision," said Bendtner in a television interview. "It would have been nice to express some thoughts."
Denmark had to ride its luck and was thankful that the Netherlands lacked its usual killer touch. Robin Van Persie, so dominant with Arsenal during the English Premier League season, squandered several of his team’s 28 scoring chances.
The Netherlands had only themselves to blame for repeatedly being unable capitalize on their possession advantage.
The decisive goal came after 23 minutes, when Michael Kronh-Dehli pounced on the ball in the penalty area and smashed a low strike through the legs of Dutch goalkeeper Marten Stekelenburg.
"It was a big moment and a big win, but we don't want to stop here," Kronh-Dehli said.
Denmark's superb start may have given the Scandinavian side belief it could even recreate its most famous hour, when it lifted the trophy in 1992.
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