Scandinavian players in the Bundesliga. Past, present – and future?

To an extent, the Bundesliga is to an extent perceived as an extremely desirable destination for Scandinavian football talent. While the league does not quite have the historical cachet of the English Premier League – which wildly popular in the Nordic nations – or the Dutch Eredivisie’s reputation as an exceptional nursery league, the Bundesliga is for many an equally attractive prospect for Scandivanian talent as the league still retains some comparative advantages not evident in other nations’ top flights.

Footballers from Europe’s most northerly nations have a long-established and comparatively illustrious history within German football. Perhaps, in this modern age of transfer-fee inflation, one aspect rendering Scandinavian footballers attractive to German sides is that players young and old rarely come with big price tags, particularly if coming direct from their home Scandinavian nations. While this emigration negatively affects Scandinavian domestic leagues, it favours the Eredivisie whose clubs explicitly seek to recruit young, more malleable players; the emigration pattern also means that German teams who don’t have the resources of their English or Spanish equivalents can recruit economically without much risk or sacrificing quality, as those involved in online betting took advantage of during this year’s Champions League campaign.

Another factor relevant particularly to German football is that Scandinavian players are largely considered practically and intellectually suited to its demands. Nordic football is ostensibly a far closer cousin to the German game than any other top league. Hannover 96 scout Flemming Rossen claims that the “will to win, mentality to work hard, speed and humility” are coveted traits Scandinavian players are sought after for, since German clubs about these players’ personalities as well as their technical abilities. Rossen considers these character traits of paramount importance in German football; technical skills are not disdained, but neither are they fetishised by German scouts. Instead, skills are perceived, in many cases, as a secondary priority.

One of Rossen’s successes, exemplifying the traits outlined above, is Hannover’s Norwegian striker Mohammed Abdellaoue. Extremely one-footed and occasionally somewhat of a shin-and-bobble merchant, Abdellaoue’s effectiveness stems from his workrate and nuggety determination. Unfortunately, Abdellaoue suffered injuries this season, seeing him drop down the pecking order at Hannover 96, who finished the season frustrated having failed to earn a third successive season of European football. In terms of time on the pitch, he has been restricted to barely half of the amount of game time afforded to his striking rivals Mame Diouf and Didier Ya Konan, which arguably renders Abdellaoue’s tally of 8 league goals quite an achievement.  One of a number of quality strikers on hot-and-cold Hannover’s books, Abdellaoue has attracted interest from English clubs as well as Borussia Dortmund this term. Given that Dortmund’s fingers were burned last time they tried to pluck striking talent from within the Bundesliga (with their deal for Julian Schieber) perhaps their interest alone evinces his quality.

Although younger Scandinavians appear to prefer Holland as an initial destination, one must wonder whether the demonstrable current success of German youth football policies may change this fact. Bayern’s Danish youth-international Pierre Emile Højbjerg, who became Bayern’s latest record-breaker in their record-breaking season, may be one of a new generation of Scandinavian youngsters brought up within German football. Replacing David Alaba against 1.FC Nürnberg on Matchday 29, he became Bayern’s youngest-ever Bundesliga first-team player, beating the man whose record he broke by four days. That he was trusted to do so speaks volumes of his potential; he has enjoyed a solid season in the regional leagues for Bayern’s U23 team, scoring 6 goals from midfield in 27 games in the Regionalliga Bayern.

As it stands though, the Bundesliga is seen as a step up from other, less prestigious leagues. For example, both the Swedes Markus Rosenberg and Marcus Berg made the move from Dutch clubs after fruitful periods in the Eredivisie, but failed to make a similar impact for Werder Bremen and HSV respectively.

However, the movement of talent from Dutch to German football has a long history. One of the most successful transfers from the Eredivisie to the Bundesliga (despite the player having previously played a couple of seasons for 1.FC Köln) was Flemming Povlsen’s move to Borussia Dortmund after a successful season at PSV. The Danish striker enjoyed his most prolific time as a player at the Westfalenstadion for 5 seasons, becoming a fan favourite, although in the end he succumbed to ligament injuries which ended his time in the football elite in 1995. Another of Denmark’s greatest players (perhaps second only to Michael Laudrup), Søren Lerby, moved along this well-trodden path, leaving Ajax after five championship victories in order to join Bavarian giants Bayern München. A man arguably summing up the appeal of Scandinavian footballers – hardworking, determined, and hard as nails – Lerby was renowned as one of the fiercest competitors in world football. Describing him as dogged would be underselling his capacities; at his best, he was little less than a force of nature in midfield. He won two league titles and the same number of cups while playing in Munich, scoring 8 goals in 31 games during the double-winning campaign of 1985/86.


The two sides of the Danish coin: Preben Elkjær and Søren Lerby

In terms of playing style, his compatriot Preben Elkjær was not dissimilar. A chunky, physical striker with a fierce shot off either foot, Elkjær knew only one way to play and would charge head-down at the opposition goal, skittling defenders with his pace, power and not inconsiderable dribbling ability. Described by observers as “determination incarnate,” Elkjær failed almost entirely to establish any kind of a career in German football as he was hopelessly unsuited to the demands placed on him by management, resulting in an exceptionally short stay in Cologne. It was not an uneventful stay, however, if only because of Elkjær’s colourful private life. A handsome, affable and charming man, his rakish behaviour was comparatively scandalous in the context of the relatively staid and disciplined world of German football. He won admirers for his behaviour without a doubt. One now-legendary exchange involved him and the manager Hennes Weissweiler with whom he clashed almost constantly. When challenged to explain the fact that he had spent the whole night in a nightclub with a woman and a bottle of whiskey, Elkjær mischievously replied that, on the contrary, it had been a bottle of vodka and two women.

Elkjær played only nine times for Köln in the 1977/78 season, deciding afterwards that a change of surroundings would be ideal. Elkjær’s example is still relevant, despite its shortness; clearly, he lacked the professionalism and groundedness that arguably characterizes Scandinavian footballers. These days, for example, much has been made of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Nordic contingent being more enthusiastic about sightseeing than training during Gladbach’s Dubai winter camp, something perhaps unexpected given the available leisure opportunities. But Gladbach themselves were perceived as perfect Bundesliga representatives during their stay – perhaps the culture of discipline in German football both suits and attracts Scandinavian footballers used to behaving in professional and co-operative fashion.  After all, their sides are purged of top talent early, making “the team the star.”

Teemu Pukki’s move to Schalke marked him out as a particular Scandinavian to watch. Finnish players of his stature tend to leave their native country early, due to the long winters and colossal deficiencies in the footballing structure. Wages are often paid late or not at all, many players have to have second jobs, and it has been said that Finland basically lacks a football culture. As such, it exports players to a dramatic extent, many to leagues far less prestigious than the Bundesliga. This reality is arguably why Pukki’s presence in the league is exciting, as he is viewed ostensibly as Finland’s biggest footballing star.

The Bundesliga has featured Finns before, such as Pasi Rautianen (Bayern München, Werder Bremen, Arminia Bielefeld and SV Wattenscheid), Petri Pasanen (144 appearances for Werder Bremen between 2004 and 2011), Mikael Forssell (Borussia Mönchengladbach and Hannover 96) and, more recently, Sami Hyypia at Leverkusen (now manager). However, I have never gotten over my Jari Litmanen man-love (who incidentally briefly played for Hansa Rostock in 2005). So I am terribly excited to see a potential Finnish star in German football.

Sadly, Pukki has only shown his quality in flashes during his time in Gelsenkirchen. With 5 goals in 21 games for his country to his name, chief among them a well-taken poacher’s goal in Finland’s surprise draw – the miracle of Gijón – with Spain back in March, Pukki himself must hope that he will in future be able to realise his evident talent on a more regular basis for Schalke. His pace is without doubt his most potent weapon, but with only 3 league goals this season in 17 appearances (15 of which have been from the bench), he has for the most part largely flattered to deceive for Schalke.

His signing came after an outstanding performance against Schalke in a 2011 Europa League qualifier, where he was instrumental in effecting a surprise turnaround, firing his club HJK Helsinki to a 2-0 victory over his future employers. He tormented Schalke’s defence that day with his movement and bagged a brace, the first goal a sweet left-footed strike cutting in from the right. Schalke won the tie, 6-3 on aggregate (Pukki contributing all three for the Finnish side over the two legs), but decided to sign the man who had given them such a hard time. Since then, he has only 8 league goals in 36 games. It could be said he has lacked opportunity, particularly during this year’s Rückrunde – and existing in the long shadow of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar cannot be easy – but he needs rapidly to become more clinical if he (and, indeed, his side) are to fulfill their potential. Pukki has already had one unsuccessful spell at a continental club, having initially signed for HJK after a frustrating period at Sevilla. He was named the best player of round 29, orchestrating his side’s comeback against Leverkusen, so we can see that there is much more to Teemu Pukki than we tend to see most weeks.

Another young Scandinavian star making waves is Swedish-Croatian Branimir Hrgota signed for Borussia Mönchengladbach  in July 2012, but was quiet until Matchday 33, his first Bundesliga start, as he exploded onto the scene with an assured and astonishing hat-trick to blow away Mainz. He showed no lack of composure or self-belief in converting an audacious chipped penalty to open his top-flight account; so too did he demonstrate persistence with his second goal, as well as technical ability in completing his hat-trick with his final goal. He didn’t let up a week later. Racing onto Mike Hanke’s punted through-ball and scooping the ball over Heinz Müller, he made himself the first name on the team-sheet for Matchday 34 against Bayern, and looks to be one to watch next season.

It could be said that Germany has missed out on some of the greatest Scandinavian players, however. Zlatan Ibrahimović is unlikely ever to feature in German football, Litmanen’s stay was short and slightly bizarre, and of course the great Michael Laudrup’s career is arguably blighted only by his not playing in Germany! Well, perhaps not…but in any case while German football missed out on him, his brother Brian enjoyed great success in the Bundesliga. Moving to Bayer Uerdingen in 1989, and winning Danish Player of the Year, saw him picked up by – who else? – Bayern for a then-record fee of six million DM, but the Dane enjoyed a mixed time in Bavaria, winning Striker of the Year in 1990 with nine goals in thirty-three games, but leaving after a poor second season in which the team finished 10th.

Bayern also poached another Nordic performer from league rivals in 1999 by plucking Swedish defender Patrik Andersson from Gladbach, where he had played for six years. His most significant contribution (and only goal for the club) has entered Bayern folklore. In the last minute of the 2000/2001 championship, his set-piece strike rippled the Hamburg net, breaking royal blue hearts by directly stealing the title from the already-celebrating Schalke squad.


 Patrik Andersson wins the title for Bayern München in dramatic fashion.

Scandinavian footballers may also be induced to leave their home leagues due to lack of appropriate remuneration. Though German wages, possibly excepting those at Bayern, are not competitive against English or Spanish ones, Scandinavian players appear to regard the trade-off in terms of quality of life worthwhile. Younger players, too, appear less concerned about picking up big contracts immediately, perhaps due to the comparative affluence of many Scandinavians. This factor, of course, chimes perfectly with Germany’s increasing reputation as a good place to be a young player; perhaps it will attract yet more talent from Northern Europe as a result. The fact that youngsters grow up watching foreign football – Ibrahimović, of course, dreamed as a young player of playing in Italy – doubtless eases their integration. And the Bundesliga, of course our area of particular interest, has seen plenty of this diffusion of talent, throughout history and in more recent years. Ostensibly, Scandinavian players’ attraction to German football is for geographical and cultural reasons; it could well be, too, that the higher tempo, relative physicality and discipline evident within German league football is easy for Scandinavians to adapt to. In short, conditions are improving for the direct export of Scandinavian stars to German football, something that promises to be exciting for both parties.

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Matt Mackenzie

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