In the game of the father
On a beautiful midsummer evening in 1991, Peter Schmeichel was sitting in the Brøndby IF clubhouse celebrating the club’s fifth Danish league title, which had been won that same afternoon. Outside the clubhouse, a couple of invited fans and club volunteers were making their way in to the party, when the then 4-year-old Kasper Schmeichel stood in front of the entrance with a determined face and said, “You can’t come in here!” “Yes, we’re allowed,” one of them answered and gently ushered Kasper back to his mother and went in.
The party continued until the small hours, and a few weeks later Peter Schmeichel continued his successful career at Manchester United. Some 25 years later, Kasper would again be standing in the way – this time in the way of all manner of Premier League strikers, as he and Leicester City sensationally became champions of England.
As a child in the Copenhagen suburb of Høje Gladsaxe, Peter grew up in a “musical home, and in a neighborhood where there were always a million kids and someone to run around and play football with.” His music conservatory-trained, Polish-born father Tolek had immigrated to Denmark around 1960.
“My father was a war child and his father had been killed as a soldier at the start of the war, which naturally affected my father,” Peter says.
“He felt life could be hard, but that you have to fight and never give up. That was something I learnt very quickly.”
This raw mental strength, allied to a strong physique and unique goalkeeping talent, was something the young Peter first revealed at his neighborhood club Gladsaxe-Hero, then for Hvidovre IF, before arriving at Copenhagen’s leading soccer club Brøndby IF at the end of 1986.
He had become a father for the first time – to Kasper, a couple of months earlier, at the age of 22.
“I was young, but it worked out,” says Schmeichel, who became a father for the second time to daughter Cecilie a few years later.
“The most important thing for a top athlete is to stick to a pretty fixed pattern and that you have peace and stability in your life. The best way to achieve this is to start a family.”
“Plus, it’s been fantastic that your kids are able to experience your career.”
Which in Peter Schmeichel’s case has meant experiencing five English championship titles and a Champions League trophy with Manchester United and the European Championship with Denmark.
In the 1990s, the young Danish father was one of the pillars of Manchester United’s new golden age. On the other hand, he was less hands-on as a football dad, compared to most other dads with football-mad children.
“I’ve always loved football, but when I drove home from training, I put it at the back of my mind until the next day’s training or match,” he says.
“Plus, it was about eating the right things, resting properly and not taking any unnecessary risks, which also meant that I pretty much never played football out in the garden with Kasper.”
Peter did, however, keep an eye on what was going on outside the window when Kasper came home from school, dressed in his Manchester United kit – usually with a goalkeeper’s top – and racing outside to play football with Alex, son of United defender Steve Bruce, who lived next door.
When Kasper followed his dad to training, he often stood behind the goal and ran to fetch wayward shots that had missed the goal. He also went to every single match at the famous Old Trafford.
“I was a total fan, loved football and had a burning obsession with the game, but I also had many other interests,” says Kasper, whose ambition to become a top goalkeeper himself would slowly but surely be realized.
“For me, being around Manchester United as a kid was just normal, but now as I get older and play Premier League football myself, I can really see how unique and amazing this was. It was also an advantage for me to have watched top level football and goalkeeping from really close up, and seen how you should live your life as a professional and what it took.”
He also had to put up with the downside of being “Peter Schmeichel’s son.”
Peter could see that Kasper had talent, but he only became seriously convinced over the Christmas holiday in 2001. After a spell in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon, where Kasper played for a youth team at Estoril FC, Peter signed his penultimate contract at Aston Villa in Birmingham, while Kasper enrolled in a sports college in Denmark. The whole family gathered for Christmas together in England, but Peter was expected to go in for training ahead of a match on Boxing Day. As a long-time professional, Peter had days when he couldn’t face training and on Christmas Eve he offered his son the chance to take his place.
“He had a bit of a funny tummy, but we didn’t think it was anything serious,” Peter says.
“During the training session, our top striker Angel was free one-on-one a couple of times, and Kasper waited to make a move and got whacked in the stomach twice. Afterwards, several teammates came over and praised him for his efforts.”
Back home, however, at Christmas dinner, Kasper had to lie down on the sofa with a cover over him, and after the club doctor was called he was rushed to the hospital to have his appendix taken out.
“It was tough for Kasper, especially on Christmas Eve. Even so, he had actually trained with Aston Villa’s Premier League team that day, who at the time were fourth in the league, taken several shots to the stomach and battled on! And when we brought him home from the hospital the next day, he immediately started a snowball fight with his little sister.”
“That was the time I really sensed that he had a special mentality and toughness that you don’t always see in young people,” Peter says.
Back in Denmark, the recently operated-on Kasper was soon back in action.
“I was told not to play football for six weeks, but after three I started again a bit and after four weeks I was back in full swing,” Kasper says.
“But it was also an important time for me, I had to choose what direction I should take and my coach got me thinking that maybe football could be a possibility.”
“One of the things he spoke a lot about was learning ability. When you’re standing alone on the college pitch and throwing yourself around, imagine being in a stadium with spectators around you. And that was cool, as I had always used my imagination, trying to recreate situations and saves that I had seen in big matches.”
Kasper now wanted to be a top goalkeeper.
He came closer to the big stage in summer 2002, when he had trials with the youth team at Peter’s old club, Brøndby IF. The team coach was his father’s old buddy from Brøndby IF and from the national team, Lars Olsen.
“Peter called me and asked if Kasper could come and train with us, so I could see how good he was. I said yes, even though we had two other good keepers in the group. Kasper was still pretty young, but very aggressive and buzzing, energetic, an enthusiastic trainer and with a special radiance about him,” Olsen remembers.
“Peter’s now grown a gray goatee, but otherwise, they’re similar in many ways, apart from Kasper being 5-6cm shorter. As such, he could have developed into a position other than in goal, but he has become an excellent keeper.”
“It must have been hard going for a young guy, however, to put up with all the comparisons with his father, who in the 1990s was the world’s best goalkeeper. So all the more reason to praise him for being able to forge his own career,” his old coach says.
He didn’t stay long at Brøndby IF, however. Manchester City offered Kasper a trial, which led to a youth contract while he completed his last year of school in England.
Kasper’s keeper career now started in earnest – along with a battle to find a stable club and his own identity. Between 2002 and 2011 Kasper played for eight different British clubs before he became the first choice keeper at his present club, Leicester City. Growing up around a top class football club might have been an advantage for him – less so though, his surname.
“I probably would have had a longer career in the Premier League if I had had some other name. People have thought that every door had opened for me, but it has been the opposite in fact,” Kasper says.
“Today, I’m a married man of 31 with two children, but people still see me as a young goalie and the son of...”
“So, I’ve had many hurdles and prejudices to overcome, and I still hear people say, ‘Good save, but your dad would have caught the ball.’”
Even so, Kasper has managed to build a successful career. And his father is his most loyal fan. Peter clearly remembers his son’s Premier League debut for Manchester City at West Ham in August 2007.
“I was very, very nervous as I could see my little 19-year old kid in goal in the stadium, a place I also found difficult to play at, and where we once failed to win the league with Manchester United,” Peter says.
“The first 10 minutes went by and Kasper had made four or five big saves and a few good interventions. I thought to myself, this could work out for him and so I relaxed and started to enjoy the game. And I’ve had that feeling ever since. I am very tense when he plays, and I watch all his matches live or on TV, and have every confidence in Kasper’s ability. I think he’s fantastic.”
However, nothing has been as fantastic for Peter Schmeichel as that spring afternoon in 2016, when Kasper and Leicester City sensationally won the English Premier League.
“I won the Premier League five times myself, but the feeling I had when he won it was twice as good. It meant much, much more to me,” he says.
This summer, Kasper Schmeichel will play in his first World Cup Finals.
“I’ve experienced many things in my career and played at every level, but the World Cup was something that was missing and it’s the biggest stage you can play on as a footballer,” he says.
“When the national team plays these World Cup matches the entire country will come to a standstill for 90 minutes. It brings everyone together and it will be great if we can produce something as special as Denmark winning the European Championship in 1992 or beating Nigeria 4–1 to reach the quarter finals in 1998.”
Schmeichel Senior played in both, and has some good advice for his son and his teammates.
“You should first and foremost prepare yourself properly so you are as strong and fit as you possibly can be when the tournament starts.”
“And you should enjoy being at the World Cup and not be ashamed of feeling nervous and anxious. As Kasper himself says, it is the biggest stage, and if you can avoid feeling scared, it’s an insanely cool experience,” Peter says.
Kasper Schmeichel’s can-do spirit hasn’t diminished since the remarkable experience with Leicester City in the 2015–2016 season. When asked who were the favorites for the World Cup and Denmark’s chances, he replies, “If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said that only four or five teams could win the World Cup. But since then, I’ve learned that anything can happen in football. Nothing’s impossible.”
Schmeichel Junior, this time at least, had the last word.
Published: April 30, 2018