Former Canada coach keeping close eye on potential Denmark matchup at Women’s World Cup

MELBOURNE, Australia — Kenneth Heiner-Moller’s loyalties will be severely tested if his native Denmark ends up meeting Canada in the round of 16 at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Heiner-Moller is technical director of the Danish Football Association (DBU). And he coached Canada at the 1999 tournament in France.

“Ever since the (tournament) draw I’ve been looking at that (potential matchup) and saying ‘Whoa. That’s going to be a tough one,”’ Heiner-Moller told The Canadian Press from his home in Denmark.

Both Canada and Denmark still have work to do to get to the knockout round at the 32-team tournament in Australia and New Zealand. The top two teams in each of the eight groups move on, with both Canada and Denmark currently precariously positioned in second in their pools.

The seventh-ranked Canadians (1-0-1) need to defeat or draw No. 10 Australia (1-1-0) in their final Group B game Monday at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. Canada could also advance with a loss, providing No. 40 Nigeria is beaten by No. 22 Ireland and a tiebreaker ends up favouring the Canadians.

No. 13 Denmark (1-0-1) is currently second to No. 4 England (2-0-0) in Group D. The Danes can advance with a win over No. 53 Haiti on Tuesday in Perth, unless England lose to No. 14 China — a result that would bring tiebreakers into play.

If both Group D finales finish in draws, tiebreakers will be required between Denmark and China.

The team that finishes atop Group B (currently Nigeria) plays the Group D runner-up in the round of 16 while the second-place team in Group B meets No. 1 in Group D.

Heiner-Moller took over as Canada coach in January 2018, succeeding John Herdman, who left the women’s team to take over the Canadian men. He had served as Herdman’s assistant at the 2016 Rio Olympics, helping the Canadian women win bronze.

A combination of the pandemic, Tokyo Olympics postponement and the job opening in Denmark prompted the hard decision to quit Canada in the summer of 2020.

“It’s beyond words how hard how difficult the decision is,” Heiner-Moller said at the time. “Obviously this wasn’t the plan. The plan was going to the Olympics, have that gold medal around our necks and then say ‘You know what, congratulations team, I’m off to the next task.’

“Then this COVID thing hit.”

The 52-year-old Dane whose first name is pronounced Kenn-ett, left with a record of 20-10-5 as head coach and the Canadian women ranked eighth in the world. They were fifth when he took over, having risen up the rankings in the wake of the Rio medal.

In stepping down, Heiner-Moller was prophetic when he said he was leaving a Canadian team that was well prepared for the Olympics.

Reminded of the comment three years later, Heiner-Moller credits others for the Olympic triumph.

“That Olympic gold medal, I don’t think had anything to do with me,” he said. “I appreciated being part of the journey, I definitely wanted to be there at the Olympics. But (credit goes) to Bev (Priestman) and the rest of the coaching staff.

“Seeing them wearing that gold medal, I still have goosebumps. I just felt a lot of joy with the players. Because it’s something that John, before me, and myself have said — ‘I don’t think you know how good you are. I don’t think you know that you know you can actually win this.’

“Seeing them with that gold medal, they deserved it. They’re so dedicated and skilful players. And all of a sudden, they had the gold to actually prove how good they are. Even though I was not there, I had such joy back here in Denmark.”

Initially, his new role was head of coach education for the Danish association. But now as technical director, Heiner-Moller is in charge of all the national youth teams, continues to lead coaching education and oversee high performance.

“I’m trying to connect these three departments … It’s a busy (job) but I’m enjoying it,” he said.

A midfielder and forward, Heiner-Moller turned pro when he was 17 and played in Denmark and abroad. He spent two seasons with Hungary’s Ferencvarosi, winning the league once and the Hungarian Cup twice.

He finished off his career in Denmark, retiring early after a serious leg injury. He was 33 when he started his coaching career on crutches, coaching an under-19 men’s teams before taking charge of the Brondby IF women’s squad.

After a year, he left coaching to pursue psychology studies before working in a sports school. Six months later, the Danish federation asked him to take over the national women’s team.

Heiner-Moller coached the Danish women from 2006 to 2013, taking them to the 2007 World Cup. His last match in charge was at Euro 2013 when the Danes lost in the semifinals via penalty shootout to a Norwegian team led by former Canada coach Even Pellerud.

After stepping down as coach, Heiner-Moller took a job with the Danish equivalent to Own The Podium, as a high-performance manager tasked with helping the country’s coaches get better.

After Herdman became Canada coach, he asked Heiner-Moller to join his staff for the 2015 World Cup. The Dane declined, reluctant to leave his high-performance role. But Herdman got a different answer when he asked again a year later. Heiner-Moller had done some TV commentary and could see the potential in the Canadian team.

He got a leave from his job to help Herdman at the Olympics and then, with the blessing of his wife and two kids, made the Canadian assistant coaching job permanent.

In taking over the top job from Herdman, Heiner-Moller offered a distinct change in style.

The charismatic Herdman is a bundle of motivational energy. Heiner-Moller’s easy smile and calm demeanour covered a steely interior.

Under Heiner-Moller, Canada qualified for the 2019 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics. The women exited the World Cup disappointingly in the round of 16 after a 1-0 loss to Sweden.

Captain Christine Sinclair became the world’s leading goal-scorer on Heiner-Moller’s watch, notching goals No. 184 and 185 to pass retired American Abby Wambach in an 11-0 win over an outmatched St. Kitts and Nevis in January 2020 at the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in south Texas.

Heiner-Moller and his family, who make Fredensborg, just north of Copenhagen, just came back from a three-week vacation in Vancouver. It marked his first trip back to Canada since stepping down as coach.

“We didn’t get a drop of (rain), which is very dissimilar to what we know of Vancouver when we stayed there,” said Heiner Moller. “It was great. We took advantage of everything Vancouver has to offer. We had a few days in the Canadian Rockies as well. It was just great to be back in that amazing nature.”

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