There are two hours until kick-off between Copenhagen vs Manchester United and The Athletic is talking with ‘David’ inside the Parken Stadium.
The turnstiles are about to open and 2,500 away fans will fill their allocation (many United fans have also travelled to the Danish capital without tickets), while the Copenhagen fans enter their concourse areas, which are covered with graffiti and fan art. Tonight is a big night and the home fans have funded choreographed displays.
“We were pissed off about what happened in Manchester, we didn’t deserve to lose,” says David. “Tonight the fans will give everything to make sure we can win.”
David is not his real name, which he’d rather not give. He was a founder member of the Sektion 12 ultras and gives us an insight into how Copenhagen and their massive ultra group work together closely, while respecting their culture and independence.
“We know football is a commercial world,” he says. “But there must be respect for the fans, for our stadium, our colours and our culture. Here, we have four distinct stands. Behind one goal are 9,000 ultras in Sektion 12. There’s a 5,000-strong waiting list to get in there. They’re split over two levels and there are sub-sections with Sektion 12, which was founded by the ‘Urban Crew’ (another Copenhagen fan group). There are ‘Urban boys’, ‘Urban Juniors’ and so on.
“At the front, we have the ‘capo’, a man with a megaphone to start songs. The ‘capo’ is chosen by others. You need to have the right profile, to be the right age with the right energy. Most are around 30, but it’s not something that changes every year. The last three capos were in their roles for 10, six and seven years. Being an ultra is a way of life, you travel home and away. I think the current capo has been to the last 40 European away games.”
Copenhagen’s bouncing support was praised at Old Trafford for their noise and colour, and for their huge Sir Bobby Charlton banner, but David said it could have been even better.
“We could only give ‘basic’ support,” says David. “Drums and our usual flags were banned at Old Trafford. We had to fight to get small banners allowed inside the stadium. And no pyro.
“But the atmosphere (in the home sections) at Old Trafford was poor. There was a little group to our left, that’s it. A long time ago, English fan culture was looked up to. Not now. United was bad, Manchester City even worse.”
He adds: “I sense a huge distance between the English clubs and their fans. The clubs think they have the answers, old men trying to tell young passionate fans what to do. It’s best to bring the fans on the inside, to give them influence in a club, that’s where you gain the fans of the future.
“You don’t have to work for fans in the Premier League. Your stadiums are sold out anyway. And they’re slowly killing the fan culture, yet a stadium should be where you can be passionate, where you can show your feelings and pride in your club.”
So how did Copenhagen do it? “There was a huge change here 10 years ago. The club brought people in from the fan environment, people who understood fans, were respected by fans and who could work closely with fans. The club listened to the fans because we both had the same goal — to win.
“We’re Danish-owned, not just by rich people from around the world or companies. Our songs are as much about the city we live in and we’re proud of as our football team. We’re very proud of our identity.”
There can be tensions between the club and its fans, though, and there are lots of unwritten rules. Pyrotechnics are illegal and fines or sanctions can be issued. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a fine. Hooliganism is small-scale but exists. The ultras are hardcore fans who run their own merchandise, parties and away trips and have their own financial structure. A lot wear black, but are encouraged to come as they want. “Just bring passion,” says David. “And no yellow. That’s the worst colour.” It’s the colour of Copenhagen’s main rivals, Brondby.
The talk with The Athletic is wrapping up. “And finally, we have an idea. We need something from you,” says David. “We respect the travelling fans, the people who make the effort to support their team. And we want one young Manchester United to be a mascot for tonight’s game. The fan has to be aged between six and eight. If that person exists and wants to lead the United team out with Bruno Fernandes, then we want to find that person.”
It’s a good idea, but difficult. The United end is full of beered-up adults, many of whom want to spend as much time drinking as possible and arrive late. Calls are made. Manchester United have made efforts to engage with fans too and one club employeem Lenny, is in the away end. He knows it will be difficult but goes to the turnstiles. We join him, on the lookout for a potentially lucky child.
“Bingo,” messages Lenny. “He’s six. Proper reds. With his parents.” The Athletic and David make our way to the turnstiles where six-year-old Leo is waiting with Mum and Dad. Leo looks nervous.
“I don’t think he knows what the word ‘mascot’ means,” says his mum, Siobhan. We go into the away section. It’s raffish and boisterous. David, wearing a Copenhagen jacket, stands on a seat in the middle of a section of rowdy United fans and asks for their attention. Some are too drunk to comprehend what’s happening and sing, “You Scouse bastard!” at him. Others think it’s a great idea that a young red will lead the team out.
We’re soon under the stand, where Leo meets 21 Danish kids who are also mascots. Leo sees the other children and relaxes as he’s put into a kit and told that he’s going to walk onto the pitch with Fernandes. Leo smiles. His favourite player is Antony, but how many kids lead United out?
“I only thought these things happened to rich kids,” says Siobhan.
The kids are prepped with the protocol. The Danish kids look cool, like they do it every week.
Leo is given an instruction: “Tell Bruno that United have to win.” He nods.
We’re now in the tunnel, the mascots lined up. The match officials come first. They look big, fit, healthy. Then the players, first Copenhagen, then United. They’re all giants, pumped with health and adrenalin. This is not how journalists normally see them post-match, with their constrained ‘Yeah, no’ answers.
Each player has a mascot. Rasmus Hojlund has a proper conversation with his in Danish. Bruno is friendly with Leo and talks to him. Then they walk onto the pitch, where Sektion 12 supporters have covered almost their entire end with a re-enactment of their winning goal against United in 2006.
Above it are the words “Your Theatre of Nightmares”. As the game starts, 20 flares are lit at the top of the Sektion 12. It looks magnificent. And it proves to be true. While local boy Hojlund scores twice in the first 28 minutes, prompting travelling fans to throw empty plastic beer containers in the air (unlike in England, you can drink beer while watching the game in Denmark), several bouncing off the net in front of the United end.
Marcus Rashford’s red card changes everything. Copenhagen are level at half-time. The stadium roars, most of the songs in Danish, but several in English. United perform well with 10 and Fernandes’ penalty right in front of Sektion 12 silences them. Leo must have brought him luck.
Then defeat, United’s ninth in 17 games, is snatched from the jaws of victory. A terrible night for United, a fine one for Copenhagen and their many ultras.
Chaos and calamity: How Manchester United twice threw away the same game
(Top photo by Maja Hitij via Getty Images)