In 2011, Peter Christiansen opened his inbox to find he had been sent an aeroplane ticket to Australia. The ticket would not only fly him from Denmark to the other side of the world but also signal a new chapter in his career, forge a new development pathway for Australian football and, eventually, see Socceroos captain Mat Ryan make his Champions League debut.
“My eyes were opened during that two-week trip. I went everywhere,” Christiansen tells Guardian Australia before this week’s make-or-break World Cup clash between the Socceroos and Denmark. “Central Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne; I met Ange [Postecoglou], Peter Cklamovski [Postecoglou’s long-time assistant and now head coach at Montedio Yamagata].
“So I met people there; of course, Arnie [Socceroos coach Graham Arnold]) and Clarky [Socceroos fitness coach Andrew Clark], and had the chance to go and watch a lot of training… trying to understand how people were from that part of the world, and just listening, learning, and it was a really good feeling going back.”
Christiansen, who won three Danish Superliga titles as a player with FC Copenhagen, has become one of the most influential individuals in Danish football over the past decade, and is simply known as “PC”. Now back at FC Copenhagen as sporting director, Christiansen’s rise has also seen Denmark become a popular destination for Australian footballers.
When Christiansen made his first trip Down Under, just two Australians were playing in the Danish Superliga. Since then, Superliga clubs have completed 19 transfers involving Australians. Christiansen has been central to seven of those deals, while he also added Clark – the Socceroos’ fitness guru – to FC Copenhagen’s staff earlier this year.
“I think the talent [in Australia], in general, is underestimated, with us Europeans looking at it. I think there’s a lot of talent down there,” Christiansen says.
Back in 2011, Christiansen was head scout at Randers FC, which was looking to cement itself in the Superliga. Access to “niche markets” such as Australia, in Christiansen’s words, gave him “an edge” over bigger clubs.
Most significantly, he spent time at Central Coast Mariners in 2011 where Arnold had assembled an impressive array of young talent, including Ryan, Mustafa Amini and Bernie Ibini. While interested, Christiansen was unable to make any immediate signings, but would eventually secure Amini in 2015.
“So that basically kicked it off,” says Christiansen, who has signed Australians at all three clubs he has worked at – Randers, AGF and FC Copenhagen. “I’ve not had a bad [experience] with regards to a player or staff member from Australia.”
The wait to sign Ryan would be much longer, but Christiansen finally landed the Socceroos goalkeeper on a two-year deal in August this year. the transfer saw Ryan play in the Champions League group stage for the first time in his career.
“He played a massive part in us [FC Copenhagen] qualifying for the Champions League,” Christiansen says. “The two playoff games we had against Trabzonspor, he was absolutely outstanding, coming up big in a couple of occasions in both games. So he’s definitely been a top performer for us.”
For Christiansen, the lure of Australia was access to an undervalued market of young talent, comprising “very professional players, hard-working, good talent, good mindset, intelligent”.
Meanwhile, Australian footballers have benefitted from a new pathway to Europe. Following the Socceroos’ so-called “golden generation” of Kewell, Viduka et al, few Australians have had opportunities to play in Europe’s top leagues. Denmark has provided a culture strikingly similar to home, clubs where English is the primary working language, and a shop window for bigger leagues.
The Danish pathway has broadened over the years with other clubs – in particular, FC Midtjylland – providing some competition for Christiansen. Last season, Socceroos fullback Joel King joined Odense Boldklub from Sydney FC. Awer Mabil, who has twice come off the bench so far this World Cup, is the poster boy of the Australia-Denmark talent trail. Mabil spent seven years in Midtjylland’s setup, including three stints on loan, winning the Danish Cup and the Superliga, and playing in the Champions League and Europa League. He now plays for Cadiz in La Liga.
As the Socceroos prepare to face Denmark at Al Janoub Stadium on Wednesday (Thursday morning AEDT), Christiansen is convinced that the performances of Mabil, King and others with a Danish connection at this World Cup will be critical to maintaining current pathways and blazing new trails to Europe.
“I think the Aussie national team has a big responsibility to do well because it’s also the future of a lot of young players that are at stake,” he says. “If the Socceroos do well at the World Cup, I think that Australian football will gain more recognition in Europe.”
Regardless, Christiansen plans to keep monitoring the Australian market, which he otherwise might never have discovered if not for that unexpected aeroplane ticket sent by an insistent football agent by the name of Buddy Farah, who has also represented many of the players Christiansen has signed from Australia.
“I was always trying to find a reason not to go because of my calendar. I was that busy, so, in the end, he just sent me a ticket,” Christiansen says. “And then I thought, ‘OK, now I’m going’.”