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Danish coach accuses Chinese of spying at 2007 Women's World Cup

A bizarre series of incidents during last year's Women's World Cup in China is raising questions about the security of visiting delegations in China at the upcoming Olympics.

In the days before their World Cup opener against host China last September, members of the Danish women's soccer team say they faced ongoing harassment that culminated in the discovery of two men attempting to secretly videotape a team meeting at their hotel through a two-way mirror.

Breaking an 11-month silence about the incidents, Danish coach Kenneth Heiner-MØller told SI.com that he discovered the two intruders behind the mirror as he prepared to hold an important team tactical meeting in a conference room at the Howard Johnson hotel in Wuhan on the day before the game.

"I'm always going in half an hour before [the players arrive] because I have to set up everything," Heiner-MØller said in his first public comments about the affair since the World Cup. "But everything was ready, so I just walked a little bit around this rather large room. I went back to the mirrors and wanted to look just because I was curious, not because I expected to see anything. But I got really shocked because there were two guys staring inside my eyes. They were very still, just sitting and looking back at me. I don't think they thought I could see them.

"I thought that this could be a thriller movie," he continued. "I thought I was alone just checking the mirrors, and somebody's looking back at you? So I was a little bit shocked.

"Then the [Danish] assistant coach came, and I said, 'There are some guys here. Can you go behind and try to get them out?' And he went behind and found the door and knocked, and nothing happened. So we started to look again inside the mirrors and knocked on the mirror and shouted in English, 'Come out, please!'

"Now they started to talk a lot and [use the] telephone and started taking down their cameras because there were two video cameras on the other side of the mirror. But they wouldn't unlock the door."

Danish soccer federation press officer Pia Schou Nielsen says the Danish delegation called the hotel manager, local police and representatives of FIFA, soccer's governing body.

"After half an hour we succeeded in opening the door," Schou Nielsen says of the scene. The two men "were taken to the police station," the press officer says.

By that time, Heiner-MØller says, he had left the door and returned to the conference room to start the team meeting. He decided not to tell his players about the incident until after the game to avoid distracting the team.

But the players sensed a few hours before the game that something was amiss. Instead of holding the pre-game tactical meeting in the conference room, the Danish coaches set out chairs on the hotel floor next to the elevator bank.

"I was thinking, 'What is going on?'" recalls midfielder Anne Dot Eggers Nielsen. "But we didn't ask because of course we didn't know what had happened with the spying."

Yet the hoopla at the HoJo was only the most brazen of several incidents that the Danish team had encountered in the days leading up to their game against China. When the Danes held their first practice session in Wuhan, they noticed that the grass on their training field hadn't been cut.

"Otherwise it was a pretty good stadium," says Eggers Nielsen, who was a seven-year veteran on the team. "But then at every practice there was something wrong."

Eggers Nielsen says the team arrived one day to discover that a meter-wide hole had been dug in the middle of their training field. At another practice the Danes were serenaded by a brass band that made it difficult for the team to communicate. On another occasion the field's sprinklers turned on unexpectedly, halting practice.

But those bits of gamesmanship paled in comparison to the New England Patriots-style videotaping of the Danish team's lone closed practice before the China game.

"There was this guy in a building close to the field with a camera," Eggers Nielsen says. "We saw him in the middle of the training. The [Danish] staff told FIFA officials that he was there, and they got him out of the building. Then later we discovered one more. But they never did anything about him."

"We were working on corner kicks and so forth," recalls Eggers Nielsen, who says she and her teammates stopped their training session and flashed their middle-fingers at the man behind the camera. "They provoked us, and maybe that's what they were trying to do. Did they want us to see them or not? It's difficult to say."

The World Cup game itself between Denmark and China was a memorable affair. In front of more than 50,000 roaring home fans at Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, China scored the first two goals and then watched Denmark tie the game 2-2 in the final minutes before the Chinese hit the game-winner to win 3-2. China's victory ended up making the difference in its qualification for the quarterfinals and Denmark's first-round elimination.

After the game Heiner-MØller refused to shake hands with China coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors. In the postgame press conference Heiner-MØller refused to explain why, adding, "We have made an official complaint to FIFA about things that happened prior to the match."

Heiner-MØller now says that he spoke with Domanski-Lyfors about the incidents after the game. Neither he nor Eggers Nielsen think that Domanski-Lyfors or her assistant coach on the Chinese team, Pia Sundhage, had anything to do with the dirty tricks or surveillance before the game. "I think Marika is a good coach," Heiner-MØller says. "I like her personally and also professionally. So there was nothing between her and me at all."

Sundhage, who like Domanski-Lyfors is Swedish, is now the head coach of the U.S. women's soccer team. When I asked Sundhage about the incidents, she said she had no part in the harassment and surveillance involving the Danish team last year.

"We didn't know anything," Sundhage told me, "and when I say we, I mean the head coach [Domanski-Lyfors] and me as the assistant coach. Coming from Sweden, we know Denmark very well. We played against them, we watched them, so it wouldn't have been necessary to do any cheating in order to see how they play.

"After awhile we found out there were rumors about Chinese leaders having done this and that. Honestly, we just shook our heads and didn't know what was going on."

Eleven months later, members of the Danish team still don't know the identities of the two men who were caught behind the mirror at their hotel in Wuhan. "After the tournament we contacted FIFA and had a lot of questions about how this was at all possible in a World Cup," says Schou Nielsen, the Danish press officer. "FIFA took it onto the Chinese authorities and the local organizing committee, who are in contact with the [Chinese] police and the hotel. In November we got a letter from FIFA, which again apologized. They were told by police that it wasn't sports-related."

To the Danish players' surprise, the men who run the Danish soccer federation decided not to pursue the matter further. "FIFA and our federation agreed it wasn't a sporting matter," says Eggers Nielsen, who has retired from the national team. "I can't understand how they can say that, because it's pretty obvious that's why they were there. I think that FIFA didn't want to do anything about it because of the Chinese, and our federation didn't want to do anything about it because of FIFA. I guess they're afraid of FIFA, and because it was a women's team it didn't matter."

In May and June, Eggers Nielsen sent letters of protest from some of the Danish team members to the Ethics Commission of the International Olympic Committee. The goal, she says, was to launch an inquiry into what happened in China last year. But the IOC replied that it would not pursue a case over which FIFA had jurisdiction.

FIFA, for its part, considers the case closed.

"FIFA has great respect for every team's need for privacy during its events," FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot wrote to SI.com in an e-mail. "We were therefore very troubled when we learned of the disruption of a Danish team's private meeting last year at the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup. FIFA deemed to have used all appropriate means available to a sports federation to deal with this case as intensively as possible and therefore considers this regrettable incident as closed."

Zhu Wenxiu, a media official for the Chinese Football Association, denied the allegations to Agence France-Presse after the China-Denmark game last year. "We heard about this but after an investigation it was found there was no such incident," he said.

For his part, Heiner-MØller continues coaching the Danish team, which didn't qualify for the upcoming Olympic soccer tournament. "One thing I learned from being in China is that I am not going to accuse anybody of anything," he says. "These guys at our closed practice session, maybe they were from a TV company? Maybe they think I am a fantastic coach and want to see how you are going to make your set-pieces, because that's what you are doing in closed sessions?"

Does Heiner-MØller have any advice for visiting delegations at the Olympics?

"I wouldn't tell anybody that they should look over their shoulder or anything like that, but I think that in every preparation, if you're going to the Olympics in the U.S. or London or China, you have to find out which kind of challenges do you meet in these countries," he says. "I hope the Chinese Olympic committee and football federation have learned from this, and in the future will make sure this doesn't happen again. It doesn't matter if it was a TV crew or somebody from the hotel or whoever it was. Because I don't think that's the way that anybody should be treated at a World Cup or an Olympics."

Heiner-MØller says he has tried to move on from a forgettable Women's World Cup. He was suspended for Denmark's last two games of the first round after FIFA ruled that he had come into contact with the fourth official while trying to exhort his team in the final minutes of the loss to China.

Nearly a year later, I asked Heiner-MØller if he had received any personal apologies from World Cup organizers after he discovered the two camera-toting intruders behind the one-way mirror.

"No. Not at all," he said. "I got a suspension."

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