x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Stale Solbakken likes nothing more than to stir it up

FC Copenhagen's Norwegian coach is larger-than-life and cares little for reputations.

Stale Solbakken, left, has been known to ruffle the feathers of the opposition.
Stale Solbakken, left, has been known to ruffle the feathers of the opposition.

Stale Solbakken collects anecdotes like other football coaches collect pre-match pennants. His press conferences are seldom bland, his statements often provocative.

The Norwegian, who tonight stands on the verge of taking Denmark's FC Copenhagen, into the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time, is a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, characteristics that are easily put down to the fact he came very close as a young man to losing his life altogether.

Solbakken had just turned 33 when, in training with Copenhagen, he collapsed. The club doctor, attended to him quickly but could find no pulse. By the time medics had got Solbakken's heart to beat again, he had been technically dead for over a minute.

Solbakken, now 42, promptly retired from playing, knowing he had a coronary vulnerability. He could look back on a successful career: 58 caps for his country, and adventures with various clubs across northern Europe.

One of them had been Wimbledon (now the MK Dons), then of the English Premier League, a team with a reputation for direct football, forceful challenges and one or two bad manners. Solbakken, with his big personality and self-confidence, seemed a good fit for Wimbledon's so-called "Crazy Gang" in the late 1990s.

But his career there would be brief. The story goes that as Joe Kinnear, the then manager, gave a team talk, illustrating his points with diagrams on a blackboard, Solbakken got up from his seat and marked in the position he thought he should be occupying at the relevant moment in a game. Kinnear took that as a sign of insurrection, and Solbakken was no longer welcome, deemed a little too bolshy even for the Crazy Gang.

As a coach, he can be equally uppity. Copenhagen's impressive rise to second position in Champions League Group D has featured two heated meetings with Barcelona, who lead the Danes by one point.

After the draw between them on match day four, Solbakken and Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach, were involved in an altercation.

The game itself had been bruising and competitive, but Guardiola's anger, he later said, had to do with Solbakken's claim that Jose Pinto, the Barca goalkeeper, should be punished for a previous incident.

Pinto had been at the centre of a controversy during Barcelona's 2-0 win at Camp Nou because he whistled as Cesar Santin broke free in a counter-attack.

The Danish club's striker thought the referee had whistled for offside and stopped. Pinto had apparently meant the deception; he was suspended for two games, but Solbakken said he thought the ban should have been for longer, which was what annoyed Guardiola.

Ahead of tonight's meeting with Rubin Kazan, locals will also recall some apparently dismissive comments before the September meeting between Rubin and Copenhagen, which the Danes won 1-0.

Solbakken said his reported observations that the Russian side were limited had been badly translated. But with Solbakken, there always remains the suspicion that he likes to stir up enmities.

Domestically, Copenhagen have been dominant under Solbakken, champions for the last two seasons. Their colourful coach will soon be moving on. In 2012 he is to take over the Norway national side. His arrival in international football promises to ruffle more feathers.

sports@thenational.ae

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