The World’s Largest Lesson

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I have a question for you. If you could win the World Cup, but in exchange you’d die five years later, would you take that deal?

One study asked a variety of athletes a similar thing in the 1980s. 

More than half of them said yes. 

Totally crazy, right? The results have been disputed, and more recent versions have found that not nearly as many would say yes. But before we start playing in Qatar, let me tell you something. 

As a national team coach, I can totally relate. 


Of course, I know that football is not about life and death. We learned that after we almost lost Christian Eriksen on the pitch at the Euros last year. But when you are at a major tournament, it is unbelievable how focused you have to be. You are there to win, and for those weeks there is nothing else in your life. You’re chasing a dream. There are almost six million people in Denmark who also want to win, and you don’t want to let them down. You go into a bubble. You shut off the world. At the Euros, there were times when I even forgot my family. 

If you ask me the life-or-death question two months after the World Cup, I will say, “Puh. That’s silly. No! It’s just a game!”

But when you are there, it certainly can feel like life or death.

Keep this in mind if you end up disappointed that more of our players aren’t speaking out on human rights during the World Cup in Qatar. Please understand that many of them are young guys who are under incredible pressure to perform. They can speak up if they want to, but don’t expect it. For a player to talk about complex human rights issues while he’s in this bubble, it’s almost impossible. 

If a few of them do say something, I’m sure some people will say, “Stick to football.”

If they stay silent, others will say, “Why don’t you raise your voices?”

Some things are very clear. We all know that the way this World Cup was awarded was wrong. It’s crazy that the players and coaches are not heard in these big decisions. I don’t really believe the people at the top are making the right calls. 

Do I agree with the decision to have Qatar host this tournament? No. Absolutely not. Our team stands for diversity, tolerance and respect for all people. We know the issues with Qatar around these values. 

It’s sad that we cannot go to this World Cup with pure happiness. Some say we should have boycotted it completely, but over the last year I have talked to both unions and human rights groups, and none of them recommended that action. Instead, they have urged us to use our platform to put a spotlight on the issues.

Our team stands for diversity, tolerance and respect for all people. We know the issues with Qatar around these values.

Kasper Hjulmand

So that is what I will do today. As bad as things can seem sometimes, football is still an incredibly powerful force for good in the world. 

I only fully realised this a few years ago. And you know what? 

It saved my career.

I spent 17 years in a tunnel. Every day I’d ask, How can I win?

I never stopped to think, WHY do I want to win?

Like most kids I wanted to be a footballer, but by the time I was 26, I’d had seven surgeries on my right knee. The doctor told me, “If you want to walk when you’re 50, you have to stop.”

I had no idea what to do, but I loved football. When I was two, I’d climb out of bed to watch the ’74 World Cup. I had an Allan Simonsen shirt hanging in my room. When Sepp Piontek created the great Denmark team of the ’80s, every game was like a party. But my first love was Brazil in 1982. Zico, Éder, Falcão, Sócrates … they acted like the stadium was a schoolyard, you know? Italy won that year, but the way Brazil expressed themselves together was breathtaking. This was football, and I was obsessed.

Kasper Hjulmand | Denmark | The World’s Largest Lesson | The Players’ Tribune
Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

One day, after I had retired, this guy told me, “Kasper, you’re a coach.”

I had just become a father, so I was like, “No, not now.”

He said, “Yes you are. Come with me to Lyngby.”

He was Birger Jørgensen, the youth director of Lyngby, a team in the Danish top division. He wanted me to coach the under-18s. Almost unpaid. Part-time. 

I had another job. Wasn’t sure about it.

Soon I was working there hour after hour, every day. 

Three years later, in 2001, Lyngby went bankrupt and was relegated to the fourth tier. Almost everybody left, including me. A few months later, Birger invited me back. 

We were two of just a few employees in what was now an amateur club. So we began a dream: To take Lyngby back to the top. We needed coaches who were crazy enough to work 60 hours a week for almost nothing. We found Thomas Frank (who is now the Brentford manager) and Johan Lange (the sporting director at Aston Villa). 

Then we entered the tunnel. 

The tunnel is that space where you are so focused on winning that you shut out everything else. Since the club was so small, we did everything. At six in the morning we’d get up to prepare training sessions, set out cones and pump up balls. We coached the first team and took part in the youth team training methodology and training sessions. We refined the recruitment. We overhauled children’s football. We nurtured a new culture. We built a video library. We were first movers on stats and data. 

We forgot our families. 

I became head coach. We got promoted once, then twice. 

In 2007, exactly 2,000 days after we’d gone bankrupt, we returned to the top tier. 

That journey made all of us. A year later I joined Nordsjælland, first as assistant and then as coach, which turned into another fairy tale. We had one of the smallest budgets in the top division, but we lifted two Danish cups (2010, 2011), won a league title (2012), finished second (2013) and played in the Champions League (2012–13). Then in 2014 I signed for Mainz. I was given a year to prepare and study the Bundesliga, but when Thomas Tuchel resigned that May, they called me and said, “You’ve got a week.”

Kasper Hjulmand | Denmark | The World’s Largest Lesson | The Players’ Tribune
Thomas Eisenhuth/Picture Alliance via AP

Over the summer my wife sold our house, and she and our three kids moved with me into a hotel. Unfortunately, there was a big turnover at the club, and in February I was out of work for the first time in 17 years. One Saturday I remember taking my daughter to the park near our home in Bad Homburg. We rode our bikes there, played mini golf and went for a walk. We ate ice cream. Then it hit me. 

This is the first weekend that I’ve gone for a walk with one of my kids. 


My mind was racing. Why has it been like this? Why am I obsessed with winning?

Why do I leave my family alone so much?

My wife had left her life in Denmark to come to Germany with me. My kids had quit their schools and left their friends. Why? So that I could try to win titles with Mainz?

The next six months gave me my senses back. I relearned how to listen to music. I could really taste food again. I could see the colour of the trees. I appreciated art. I revived my social life. I also realised that I had become disillusioned with the industry. There were — and still are — a lot of agendas that I don’t like. Greed. Money. Power. Where did I fit? What clubs were aligned with my values? Maybe I should just coach kids. 

Maybe I should quit altogether. 

I really did consider it. I needed a vision, a why. I also wanted to be closer to my parents and my younger brother, Simon, who has a learning disability, and who I hadn’t spent much time with. One day a friend called me and said, “You should meet Tom Vernon.” 

Vernon used to be chief scout for Manchester United in Africa. In 1999 he set up the Right to Dream Academy with the aim to help boys and girls in Ghana get athletic scholarships in the U.S. It was very successful. I went to Africa with Tom and saw the work that Right to Dream was doing. He told me he wanted to buy a club in Europe and run it as a nonprofit. The aim would not only be to win, but would also be to use the money to help children. I was amazed. I wanted to be part of it. 

In December 2015, Right to Dream bought Nordsjælland. A month later, the club hired me as coach. I was back, but with a new vision, and that saved my career.

Finally, I had a purpose. 

One time I visited Right to Dream’s residential academy outside Accra. I sat down in the cantina with two girls who were 14 and 15, and I asked, “What are your dreams?” One of them looked me in the eyes and said she wanted to become a lawyer. 

As a girl in Ghana, it is not easy to have a dream like that. The gender inequality is unbelievable. People had made fun of her, calling her “Madam Lawyer.” But she wanted to use football to get a scholarship, take her degree and go back to help girls in Africa. “That is my dream,” she said. 

I was stunned. I went back to my son Mikkel, who was 14, and asked, “What is your dream?” I did not see that same fire, I can tell you that.  

Tom also introduced me to a movement called Common Goal, which helps more than 200 players and coaches pledge 1% of their salaries to community organisations all over the world. They explained how football could create social change in the world, and it made perfect sense to me. I signed up. Nordsjælland became the first club to sign up, too. 

When I was hired as coach of the Danish national team, I wanted to find a greater purpose. I got the job in 2019, a year before I was actually supposed to take charge. Åge Hareide had done a fantastic job, but off the pitch not many people engaged with the team. We couldn’t fill Parken very often. There had been a pay dispute between the players and the federation. There was not a real connection between the players and the people, nor between the players and the press. Everywhere I was seeing children running around not with the red and white colours of Denmark, but with the shirts of the big clubs. 

When I told my kids about the Denmark teams of the ’80s and the big parties, they had no idea what I was talking about.

The football director at the federation, Peter Møller, told me to help write a vision. Why do we have a national team? To find answers, I met with 25 to 30 people: musicians, actors, prime ministers, national team coaches, CEOs … and everything started with identity. Who are we? 

We found that our core values are trust, team spirit and courage. We wanted to be both ambitious and generous. Our purpose became to inspire the 350,000 boys and girls playing football in Denmark. 

Our headline was: “We want to help make Denmark the best place in the world to be a child.”

Åge was supposed to step down after Euro 2020. Then COVID-19 came, the tournament was delayed and I was handed a calendar year that included a Nations League A group and World Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, the players bought into the vision right away. 

When you have values, you may have some nice words up on a wall.

When you have culture, you behave accordingly. 

When Christian had his cardiac arrest that day in Parken, that was culture under pressure. Do we really stick together? Do we really help one another? 

We all know what happened. Christian was dead for four minutes. Our medical team saved his life. They got his heart beating again with millions watching. They brought him back. The players showed exactly who we are. They protected their friend from the cameras. They supported his wife. The whole country had our backs. The rest of the world, too. I’m so proud that people got to know us by this behaviour.

When you have values, you may have some nice words up on a wall. When you have culture, you behave accordingly.

Kasper Hjulmand

One of our players had been at Ajax when the same thing had happened to Abdelhak Nouri. I had lost my uncle to a heart attack on the pitch. When Christian collapsed, these faces came back to us. It opened up a box of emotions. 

The next few days were very difficult, because even though Christian had survived, we knew he could have another incident shortly after. Me and two of my staff had been there before. At Nordsjælland, Morten Wieghorst, Christian Nørkjær and I had seen one of our players, Jonathan Richter, get struck by lightning on the pitch. He spent 10 days in a coma. We didn’t know whether he was going to live or die, and for the players it was hard to know how to react. Was it O.K. to celebrate a goal? Could we laugh? Could we cry? 

That experience served us well at the Euros. While Christian was recovering, we told the players that they could be aggressive in training, they could celebrate goals. And outside the pitch they should expect all kinds of emotions. Some would cry without knowing why. Some would wonder why they didn’t cry. We said, “Whatever you are feeling, it’s O.K.”

Kasper Hjulmand | Denmark | The World’s Largest Lesson | The Players’ Tribune
DDP Images/Sipa via AP

These players have become role models for the children of Denmark. It’s unbelievable how many children are running around with red and white jerseys now. The other day, when we played France, 130,000 people wanted tickets. Whenever we play, people party. The diversity at Parken is amazing: Boys and girls, young and old, people from all parts of society. So yes, the vision has worked out very well. Now we just need to win something!

I hope you can see the value here in having a greater purpose. I hope you also understand the power football has to bring people together. We have a society that is trying to divide us.  

You’re either from the north or south. You’re either red or blue. 

You’re black or white. 

With us or against us. 

Actually, we have far more in common. 

In 2015 the United Nations created 17 goals for sustainable development. I have a ball that shows all of them. Some examples: 

Gender equality.

Zero hunger.

Climate action.

No poverty.

Quality education.

All companies and organisations can use these 17 goals as clear guidelines — a clear direction. I believe football must take the same direction — and that includes the way we award major tournaments. Everyone will be talking about Qatar for the next few weeks, but after that there are more big decisions to be made. If we raise our voices loud and clear, we can create a movement that takes us towards the 17 goals. Remember that this is not politics — it is much more fundamental. 

As long as I’m here, I’ll do everything to push this agenda. 

I think the urge within the game to do this is strong. A lot of footballers are already doing great stuff without telling anyone. I see more and more players doing fantastic things. Still, I encourage you to sign up to Common Goal, because it unites us through what is probably the biggest social phenomena in the world. We are stronger when we do it together.

Kasper Hjulmand | Denmark | The World’s Largest Lesson | The Players’ Tribune
Ali Yaqub for The Players' Tribune

There is another message on the ball:


With empathy, creativity and play everyone has the power to make the world a better place.

This is what football can do. I know that. I have seen it with my own eyes. So I urge you, whoever you are, to find a greater purpose in what you do. 

You see, by doing that, you don’t just improve the lives of others.

You also improve your own.