by JAKE NUTTING
If you’ve spotted a Danish flag hanging from one of the apartment buildings next to Al Lang while walking around downtown St. Petersburg over the last two weeks and have wondered who it belongs to, the answer is Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Martin Vingaard.
After finishing second in a challenging group with France, Peru and Australia in this year’s World Cup in Russia, Denmark is onto the Round of 16 for the first time since 2002.
“It’s huge for us, and it’s very important for me being in the locker room and not getting bullied,” Vingaard joked.
Vingaard isn’t the only Rowdies player with a rooting interest in this year’s World Cup enjoying the results so far. Joe Cole and Tamika Mkandawire’s England, Sebastian Guenzatti’s Uruguay, Ivan Magalhães and Leo Fernandes’ Brazil, Akira Fitzgerald’s Japan, and Matias Reynares’ Argentina have all survived the group stage and moved on to the knockout phase.
While Denmark was playing Tuesday’s group stage closer against France to decide if it would move on to the next round, Vingaard was traveling with his Rowdies teammates for a midweek match against the Charlotte Independence. Denmark got the job done by holding France’s dynamic attack to a scoreless draw, while the Rowdies pulled out a 2-2 draw the following day, with Vingaard helping to set up a 90th-minute equalizer.
“We were on the bus traveling to the airport during the first half and then we were in the airport for the second half, so I actually saw the result right before we took off. So it was a good feeling being on that flight. A lot of players in our locker room have made it to the knock out phase, so that’s a lot of fun.”
Despite Denmark’s success in getting out of the group stage, not everyone is ecstatic about the way the country has performed at the tournament. Vingaard says the team is drawing some criticism in the country for a lack of offensive productivity and failing to blow some teams away.
“For me, it’s all about getting the result and getting the job done,” Vingaard said. “You can’t criticize too much a team that actually gets the results. As a player, that’s all that matters. Peru leaves the World Cup maybe as the best team in the group. But they’re not in the knockout phase, and I would rather be in the knockout phase by getting the job done. For me, it’s not important that we go out and play beautiful football and we don’t get the result.”
Waiting for Denmark in Sunday’s knockout match is a Croatia side that rolled through the group stage with three wins, outscoring the opposition 7-1.
“I think before the World Cup started, everybody would’ve had Croatia over Argentina. I heard the coaches say they’ve been studying Croatia really, really well. They say they’d rather play them because they know them so well. Hopefully a European team suits us better than a South American team. They look very strong, but I think we have a chance if we can do our defensive work even better than we did against France.”
Getting some offensive contributions from Christian Eriksen might also help Denmark’s cause. Eriksen played a key role in getting the Danes to the World Cup by netting eight goals during qualification, including a hat trick in the decisive second playoff leg against Ireland.
“Hopefully Ericson can play at another level than what he’s done in the first three games. What he did in qualification, he was outstanding, and hopefully he can play with no pressure and take more risks. I think that’s what we need if we want to create more chances.”
Denmark doesn’t have a long history in the World Cup. The country’s first trip to the tournament was in 1986 — a year after Vingaard was born — but it missed out on the next two tournaments. Denmark’s return to the World Cup in 1998, though, resulted in an impressive run to the Quarterfinals where it went toe-to-toe with Brazil before falling 3-2.
That Denmark team left an impression on 13-year-old Vingaard, who was already dead set on playing professional soccer.
“I remember it clearly. We were on vacation, our family, we were camping, Vingaard recalled. “We stayed together with a bunch of Danes and all watched the Round of 16 against Nigeria. I remember when we won that game, probably one of the best games that the national team has played in a World Cup. That’s the first World Cup where I can actually remember a lot of things. I knew all the goal scorers, all the players and where they played, all those things.
“Watching your national team go into the biggest tournament and play against the biggest players, like Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, of course it was a big inspiration for me to see if I could make it all the way to the national team and to the World Cup.”
Just a couple years after the 1998 World Cup, Vingaard was entrenched in Denmark’s youth national team program. However, His senior team debut didn’t come until he was 23, following a breakout season with Esbjerg fB in the Danish SuperLiga in 2008.
The delay didn’t dampen his excitement one bit. After debuting in a friendly against the Netherlands, he notched a goal against Poland a few days later to cap off the surreal week.
“It was the biggest thrill and something I had dreamed for my entire football career and my entire life,” he said. “My daddy was a soccer player too, and he almost made it to the national team. When I got the call it was unbelievable. I remember like it was yesterday. When the coach called on me to enter the field… so many emotions. It was a big game for me, and then I scored my first goal four or five days later. So it was a good week for me. It was a good step for me and it’s how I learned how to play on big stages.”
Vingaard came close to representing Denmark in a World Cup. He was on the country’s preliminary roster ahead of the 2010 tournament, but just missed out making the cut for the 23-man final roster. He continued to excel as a regular for both FC Copenhagen and FC Nordsjælland in the country’s top division, winning four league titles and two Danish Cups.
Now Vingaard is using this World Cup to pass on his passion for the sport and Danish pride on to his children.
“My oldest is four and a half and he’s a soccer player too, so he’s starting to understand a little bit more of the game,” he said. “When Denmark plays, I try to explain to him that it’s very important that Denmark wins because we are Danish. Give him the feeling that it means something, because I feel that’s important, because when your country plays, that’s when everybody needs to stick together.
“My daughter is a little bit younger, so she’s more, ‘Ok, Daddy is happy, I’m happy,'” he laughs.
Three generations of Vingaard’s family will actually all be under one roof on Sunday to watch Denmark’s match, as his parents will be in town visiting. They’ll all have their fingers crossed for more of the magic that inspired kids like Vingaard during the 1998 World Cup.
“Hopefully this could be one of those days you always remember because you watch with your parents and your children… It’s really going to be a good game for us to watch together. We will all wear our Danish national jerseys and we will all root for Denmark, that’s for sure.”