As featured on NewsNow: Football news

Exclusive: Copenhagen youth boss Smith-Nielsen on matching Man Utd, Bayern Munich; losing Osula to Sheffield Utd

It doesn't go unnoticed when a rank outsider like FC Copenhagen (FCC) hammer their way through a Champions League-group containing teams like Bayern Munich and Manchester United. The U19-team from the Danish Champions did just that when taking first place in the UEFA Youth League (UYL) after winning four and losing just once before Christmas.

"Yeah, if I've been a little hard to reach it's because we're in great demand at the moment," says Sune Smith-Nielsen, Director of Development at FCC, when meeting us in an office at the Copenhagen headquarters.

"Only five years ago there were the occasional guests, now we could entertain each week and it's clubs, coaches and federations from all over the world," he continues and while it makes someone like him increasingly busy, and Tribalfootball can confirm, he has been hard to reach, he is also only too aware what kind of relations it suddenly creates when the U19 from FCC wins a Champions League-group.

"It opens new doors and there are also places we'd like to visit," says Sune Smith-Nielsen who was placed in charge of developing talents 15 years ago, starting off with coaches like Brian Riemer and Johan Lange. With the former now managing Belgian giants Anderlecht and the latter having only recently transferred from Aston Villa to Tottenham, it is clear FCC not only develops players.

Winning their group with 13 points from 18 possible and taking four points off Manchester United along the way, the season ranks highly in the annals among international youth results at FCC, who sees a direct effect in their players when taking part in the UYL compared to when not qualifying. There is an actual difference in how many players go on to have a professional career.


"It is a considerable contribution to the overall education we offer a player. We work with a term called optimal matching that we'd like to offer players, and they get that when playing the UYL. Playing in front of 18.000 people in the quarterfinals in a big stadium in Nantes with a huge amount of pressure is the optimal matching our players get.

"They are challenged on tempo, they are challenged physically, tactically, in every parameter we can possibly imagine, so we are extremely happy when our U19s get to play in the UYL. It is a fantastic tournament for us," Sune Smith-Nielsen states although it ended in heartbreak in the quarterfinal.

Leading Nantes 3-1 after half an hour, a red card proved costly as the team went on to lose on penalties with Nantes having levelled the score. But rather than simply taking it on the chin, Smith-Nielsen and his team see it as an opportunity to grow.

"Everything is about developing these players and in that sense the game in Nantes is a gift. There were so many things to evaluate and work on. These players had an experience which will they will carry in their mental backpack the rest of their career.

"When they take part in a penalty shoot-out the next time, they have already faced such a challenge. We can also look at how to defend in situations like that, playing 10 against 11, it offers all kinds of opportunities for evaluation," Smith-Nielsen stresses. But what does the club itself take away from such a successful European run?

"We get a confirmation that ours and Danish talent development as such is at a European level. Danish talent development really has lifted itself to a good international level."

Speaking of international level, Kobbie Mainoo made his England debut in a friendly against Brazil, having caught a lot of attention after his stunning performances for Manchester United. Only a few months ago, the FCC U19 faced the midfielder in the UYL. What does that do for the FCC youngsters?

"Well, these players experience this quite often. They play internationals against other youth-teams with some already big names among them. And their own teammate Victor Froholdt started against Manchester City at the Etihad. That way these players elevate to role-models.

"Then it is our job to challenge them, coach and develop them, not least with feedback. Some players forget it is about always developing your skills each every day. Even the older players need to always evolve, or they'll see talented youngsters taking their place," says Smith-Nielsen, while also underlining this is not a particularly skilled group of youngsters currently at the club.

"This is simply the level," he says without batting an eyelid.


While the whole world is technically a playground, when it comes to scouting talents, the club likes to keep things a little closer to home regarding young players.

"We like players from the Nordic countries which are just outside our door, so to speak, and of course we like players from Copenhagen. It has a certain effect on the brand to see a player from Copenhagen enter the first team. Our fans like it and it also puts Copenhagen on the map as a city," Sune Smith-Nielsen explains.

To help getting new talents like Rasmus Højlund in, FC Copenhagen are cooperating with over 60 smaller clubs in Denmark in a system where youth players are able to receive guidance and training from coaches employed by FC Copenhagen.

William Osula from Sheffield United is another example of a talent who once kicked a football in the FCC youth department, but also one that got away a little too early.

"We always knew he had massive potential, and we would have loved to keep working with him, but it was a family decision to move. It was a shame but essentially out of our hands," Smith Nielsen says with a shrug of the shoulders.

With a first place and a subsequent quarterfinal in the UEFA Youth League and a second place in their group for the seniors, resulting in a Round of 16 tie against Manchester City there has been a lot to celebrate for FC Copenhagen so far this season internationally. Nevertheless, Sune Smith-Nielsen is also fully aware of the small margins one often operates as a football-club.

"Our first team qualifies for the Champions League group stage by winning a penalty shoot-out down in Prague. If we lose that, we might have ended up in the Conference League, our youth team wouldn't have qualified for UEFA Youth League and neither team would have beat Manchester United this season."

Good thing they didn't miss any of the four penalties in Prague.

Video of the day:

About the author

Jacob Hansen


Subscribe and go ad-free

For only $10 a year

  1. Go Ad-Free
  2. Faster site experience
  3. Support great writing
  4. Subscribe now
Launch Offer: 2 months free

Subscribe and go ad-free

For only $10 a year

Subscribe now
Launch Offer: 2 months free