Major League Soccer’s Goalkeeper of the Year for 2012, Jimmy Nielsen has established himself as one of the best players in the League and a fan favorite in Kansas City. Yet while supporters are familiar with his achievements on the field and larger-than-life personality off it, few are aware of the remarkable story that led him to the Midwest. That story is now told in Nielsen’s new book, Welcome to the Blue Heaven, Don’t Bet Against the Goalkeeper from Ascend Books.
Compared from a young age to Denmark’s greatest ever goalkeeper – Peter Schmeichel – Nielsen was scouted by Manchester United and a host of other leading European clubs, but at the point when he should have been building a great career he was instead developing a ferocious gambling habit. In 1999 he was dropped from Denmark’s Under-21 team after missing curfew due to a lost night at the roulette table.
Nicknamed ‘Casino Jimmy’ by rival supporters, Nielsen continued to gamble – the stakes getting so high that he was able to win $500,000 on a single night at one casino, then throw more than half of that away at the same venue a day later. His losses finally caught up to him in 2004, when his inability to pay off a gambling debt helped put a major bookie out of business in his hometown.
Avoiding bankruptcy only with financial assistance from his soccer club and with the support of a family he feared would desert him, Nielsen gradually pieced his life back together. But in his playing career he remained unfulfilled. He had spent almost his entire career with Aalborg, the team he supported as a boy, starting a record 398 games and winning the Danish championship in 1999, but he dreamed of a fresh challenge.
That seemed at last to have arrived in 2007 when he was signed by the English club Leicester City. Instead he left after just six months and without playing a single game – frozen out by a coach who had never wanted to sign him in the first place. He returned to Denmark with a new team, Vejle, but never settled.
Were it not for a phone call from Kansas City in January 2010, that might have been the end of the story. Despite still performing to a high level, Nielsen was contemplating retirement when he was offered a contract by an American club that he didn’t even know existed. He said yes.
Nielsen could not even have pointed out Kansas City on a map at that stage but three years on he is the happiest he has ever been. Moving to America has not been without its challenges – from his daughter’s demand that their pet gerbil come with them, to having his face cut open by a bobblehead doll that was thrown at him by a fan during a game.
But the warmth of the Midwest, the unique passion of Sporting Kansas City’s fans and the standard of Major League Soccer – easily as high, in Nielsen’s opinion, as that in Denmark – have given him a new lease on life. Now Nielsen wants to share his story with the fans who have taken him to their hearts, and who have made him feel that he is, at last, at home in blue.
Nielsen’s story comes to life in his new book, “Welcome to the Blue Heaven, Don’t Bet Against the Goalkeeper,” by Jimmy Nielsen with Paolo Bandini from Ascend Books. Available now at retailers such as Rally House, Kansas Sampler, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million (suggested retail $24.95); online at amazon.com and as an ebook on Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad and other popular platforms.
Excerpts from Welcome to the Blue Heaven, Don’t Bet Against the Goalkeeper
From Chapter 1: The World’s Most Expensive Gerbil
“This was no ordinary pet. Otto was, without a doubt, the most expensive gerbil ever to have lived. We didn’t know it when we bought him. Back then, Otto cost the same as any other gerbil, about $50 when you include the cage, the water bottle and other basic supplies. But getting him to America? That took thousands of dollars.”
From Chapter 13: Gambling Gets Serious
“I was only there for an hour and I lost $350,000, more than half of what I had won the night before… I was very good at hiding how much I had won or lost, to the point that not even my closest gambling buddies knew the extent of my betting… I risked too much, took my loved ones for granted and made too many bad decisions to ever recount.”
From Chapter 18: A Phone Call From Out of the Blue
“The message said it was from an agent I’d never heard of, asking whether I might be interested in playing for Kansas City. I texted him back saying yes, and asking when I might hear more… My phone rang two minutes later. Over the next hour (Peter Vermes and I) shared one of the most exciting and motivational conversations of my entire life. He told me about the team, his vision for how it could get bigger, and how soccer was growing in America. He told me about Kansas City itself and what a great place it was to live…All I could think was…I want to play for this guy!”
SPECIAL BOOK DEBUT EVENTS:
Jimmy Nielsen will speak and sign books following the Sporting Kansas City versus Houston Dynamo game at 2:30 p.m. CT on Sunday, May 26 in the Shield Club at Sporting Park.
He will also be appearing at Rally House in North Kansas City on June 8th (Noon-1:30 p.m. CT), Naomi’s Hallmark in Overland Park on June 8th (4-5:30 p.m. CT), Nebraska Furniture Mart on Saturday, June 15 (12:30-2 p.m. CT) and Kansas Sampler in Overland Park on June 27th (6-7:30 p.m. CT).
Jimmy will discuss his life and career as chronicled in his new book in a public conversation with Paolo Bandini, sportswriter and co-author of the book, on Thursday, June 20 at the Plaza Branch of The Kansas City Public Library (4801 Main St., Kansas City, MO). This event and reception are free to the public, with the reception starting at 6 p.m. CT and the program at 6:30 p.m. CT. Seating is limited and RSVPs are encouraged by calling (816) 701-3407.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Jimmy Nielsen is the captain of Sporting Kansas City and the 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. He grew up in Denmark and spent 13 years playing for his hometown team, Aalborg BK – starting a club record 398 consecutive games and helping the club to win its second-ever national championship. During that time he was twice named as Danish Goalkeeper of the Year. After that he had brief spells with Leicester City in England and Vejle in Denmark before joining the Kansas City Wizards – as the team was then known – in 2010. He lives in Kansas City together with his wife and two daughters.
Paolo Bandini is a freelance sports writer and broadcaster, specializing in soccer and football. He spent six years on the full-time staff at the Guardian – one of Britain’s leading national newspapers – before deciding to branch out on his own, and has since worked for a variety of employers including ESPN, The Score, BBC radio and Talksport – as well as continuing to write for the Guardian. Paolo spent the 2012 NFL season covering the St Louis Rams for nfluk.com and has since relocated full-time to Missouri, where his wife is studying for her PhD.