Danish goalkeeper who played for Aalborg, Millwall and Leicester retires after helping Kansas City win MLS Cup in a penalty shootout despite two broken ribs
Jimmy Nielsen shed a tear. Quite a few of them, in fact. The Danish goalkeeper claims not to be one for crying, telling me once that he could count on one hand the number of times in his life that he had wept. But he let the emotions take hold at Union Station on Monday night, as he announced his retirement to thousands of fans at Sporting Kansas City’s MLS Cup victory celebration.
“This is a very, very happy moment, and a very, very proud moment. Not only for me, but for the organisation, and the whole city and everyone [else]. And I don’t want to be a party killer or anything, but as we all know , all good things come to an end, and so does my career. Today, tonight, I’m going to announce my retirement from professional soccer.”
For a moment the crowd protested, a collective “Nooooo!” interspersed with sporadic shouts of “one more year!” But quickly they pulled together to give their outgoing captain the ovation that he deserved. They, like Nielsen, knew there could be no better way for him to bow out – as an MLS Cup winner, after saving two penalties in the shoot-out that decided the final, despite having played with two broken ribs.
This was just the second league title of Nielsen’s career, following the Danish Superliga title that he won with his hometown club, Aalborg, in 1999. Back then it all seemed so easy. Contemplating the possibility of an MLS Cup victory during an interview with the Guardian before Saturdays’ final, he said:
"When I won my first championship, I was 21 years old. I thought that would be one out of many.”
Nielsen made a few such false assumptions about his career as a young man. Introduced to the media on his first day at Aalborg as “the next Peter Schmeichel”, he was guilty at a certain point of believing his own hype. By that point he had already endured one unhappy spell in England, signing a lucrative contract with Millwall at 16 years old, only to become desperately homesick and leave a year later, but he still believed his future lay outside Denmark, in one of Europe’s biggest leagues.
At different times he was linked to leading clubs in England, Germany and Spain, but those transfers never materialised. During our interviews for his recent autobiography, Welcome to the Blue Heaven, Nielsen recalled a game that he played for Denmark’s Under-21 team against England in 1999.
He had heard beforehand that Manchester United’s manager, Alex Ferguson, was coming to see him play. The real Peter Schmeichel had just left the club, and the timing all felt too good to be true. But Denmark lost 4-1 that day, with Nielsen playing, in his own words, “awful, really awful”. The opportunity slipped away.
Instead, Nielsen would stay at Aalborg for another eight years, reaching three cup finals but never winning. There followed a brief stay at Leicester in 2007, before Nielsen returned to Denmark with Vejle. But after the club was relegated in 2010, he clashed with the new management team and was considering retirement before a call arrived out of the blue from Kansas City.
Nielsen had no idea where that even was at the time, but agreed to join regardless. Even before the MLS Cup win, he had no hesitation in calling it one of the best decisions he had made in his life. He was, and continues to be, blown away by both the reception that he and his family received in the city, as well as the speed with which he has seen the soccer community grow in the US.
Nevertheless, many will ask how his career might have gone differently were it not for the ferocious gambling habit he developed in his younger years. Nicknamed ‘Casino Jimmy’ by the Danish press after skipping curfew to go play roulette while on international duty with the Under-21 team, Nielsen would go on to become a hardened gambling addict.
Together with his Aalborg team-mate, David Nielsen (no relation), he built up such big debts with one bookie in Denmark, that it wound up going out of business. Jimmy did eventually repay what he owed, but nearly drove his own family to bankruptcy. There were certainly tears on the day when he had to inform his wife, Jannie, that he had blown their life savings, and driven them more than a quarter of a million dollars into the red.
She stuck by him, though, even as they were forced to sell their family home and almost everything else that they owned. It is the support of Jannie, and his two daughters, Mille and Isabella, that Nielsen says gives him confidence that the next step in his life and career will also be a good one. He would like to move into coaching, and ideally in Kansas City – but he remains open-minded on that point.
“If I retire after this season, I’m not Ronaldo or Messi, I’ve not made that kind of money, I need a job,” he told me shortly before MLS Cup. “I need to follow wherever the job opportunities are, and see what I think is best for my development as a coach, too. See where I can get some good responsibility and be a part of a good program. That could be from academy to professional, to college. I’m pretty open for everything.
“This here [Kansas City] feels like home to me now. My family is settled and I want to put it that way. [But] If there is no job for me in Kansas City when I retire and I have to move, then we’ll do that. We’ve been happy everywhere we’ve been as a family. We can live and make it work anywhere.”
That much he has proven over a 19-year career. Even so, there will be many others in Kansas City who hope that he will stay exactly where he is.