Sporting Kansas City's Jimmy Nielsen takes a gamble on a new tell-all autobiography | THE WORD
THE WORD is MLSsoccer.com's weekly long-form series. This week, writer Steve Brisendine looks at one of the most candid figures in Major League Soccer in Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who discusses his new tell-all biography and the gambling addiction that nearly derailed his career.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jimmy Nielsen has been over this before, with anyone who asks. He heard the questions when he signed here, and he answered them.
Yes, he had a gambling problem. No, he doesn't now. It's in the past.
Nielsen has made good on those answers. And for better than half a decade, he was content to let the stories of his failures fade deeper into memory and the newspaper archives. This wasn't him any more.
Oh, he owned those headlines and the stories underneath them. The public suspension from his Under-21 national team. The “Casino Jimmy” nickname that still sticks to him in his native Denmark. The furor when he bet on his own club in the national soccer pool. The debts that brought the full extent of his addiction to light in his soccer-mad home.
And he owned the pain of having to confess that addiction to his loved ones and his club in the hours before everyone else learned about it, too.
“Those were the most stressful hours, the most painful hours of my life,” Nielsen says now. “You don't want to see the people you love get hurt. I love my parents. I love my wife. I love my kids, my friends, everything.You don't want to see them hurt because of you. At that moment, there was no sneaking around.”
Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen covers his gambling addiction at length in his new book, and says now that "I thought I had it under control, but I didn't. I was always looking for the next big win." (USA Today Sports)
He endured that moment, though, and he finally made his third attempt at rehab stick. And he put it all into a book seven years ago, moved to the middle of America four years after that, and left that part of his life on the other side of the Atlantic – until now.
Why bring it all up again, to a whole new group of people who likely didn't know just what he'd done on those adrenalin-fueled binges? More importantly, why do it now, while he's still playing, and give 18 groups of opposing fans a bookful of potential taunts, chants and assorted other abuse?
That's just the way Sporting Kansas City's goalkeeper and captain – and now the co-author of a new memoir, Welcome to the Blue Heaven: Don't Bet Against the Goalkeeper – likes to play things.
Back in his betting days, the roulette wheel and the sports books were his vices of choice. But to borrow a metaphor from the card table, where he liked to pass time with teammates (and perhaps win $20,000 along the way), he just can't resist going all in and believing that something good is going to happen.
This is a guy, after all, who pulled his jersey up over his eyes while he waited to face a shootout penalty in a US Open Cup final. He's the one who clowned and cursed and taunted Seattle's Eddie Johnson into firing the Sounders' last attempt over the crossbar and then rushed up the pitch to celebrate Kansas City's first silverware since 2004.
After something like that, trotting out some old news one more time doesn't seem like such a stretch. Besides, it's not as though he had anything left to hide.
“All those things happened in the past. I'm over it,” Nielsen says. “But still, it made me who I am today and people wanted to know me a little better. This is a great opportunity to get to know me better. Everything has not been perfect all the time. Maybe it looks like to people who don't know me that we have a perfect life, but we had to work damn hard to make it work.”
Welcome to the Blue Heaven, co-written with journalist Paolo Bandini, tells Jimmy Nielsen's story in English for the first time.
The book, which came out last week, recounts Nielsen's onfield ups and downs as well as dealing with his gambling addiction. But it is not merely a reworking and updating of his 2006 Danish-language 1000 på rød (“1000 on Red,” a reference to his preference for roulette), Nielsen wanted to take a fresh run at his life story – or stories, perhaps.
“Many times during the last year, I had questions about the book back in Denmark, if you could get it translated,” Nielsen says. “But I [said], 'I've done my book. That's it.' But more and more people were asking, what it was about and if we could get it translated, and I played with the idea about a new one. I didn't want to just translate it.”
One thing carried over, though. In Welcome to the Blue Heaven, Nielsen matter-of-factly lays out the course of his addiction, which began with underage bets made with a fake ID in his hometown of Aalborg and ended after everyone in that town – where he was his club's captain and a local hero – was made privy to the fact that he was a hair short of broke.
He tells of gambling alone in London at age 17, when he was stuck on the bench behind Kasey Keller at Millwall, living on his own and with too much time on his hands. He recounts a disastrous first trip to Las Vegas with his wife, Jannie, when he was only 20, and later of sneaking over from Denmark with some friends to gamble there without telling his wife where he was going.
There were often tens of thousands – and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars – won and lost in a single day or night. And while there is a happy ending and a good number of high points interspersed throughout, Nielsen never hides the fact that life was not always as good as it is now.
Nielsen's house of cards collapsed shortly after he and Aalborg BK teammate David Nielsen (no relation) couldn't immediately pay the debts they had racked up with their local bookie, causing the bookie to shut down because he couldn't pay the government agency which regulates gambling in Denmark. Jimmy Nielsen paid his portion off three days after the story broke, allowing the bookie to reopen his shop, but it closed again after his cohort didn't settle his even larger portion.
Nielsen spent the bulk of his career with Danish side Aalborg BK (above) before coming to MLS in 2010, and the Danish media still refer to him as "Casino Jimmy" despite his success in the U.S. (Action Images)
Nielsen had two relapses after that episode, and only the threat of his marriage breaking up sufficed to get him into his final – and successful – rehab.
"I don't think, when I look back, that it was necessary that I took it as far as I did," he says. "I could have, if I wanted to, quit earlier. I didn't want to. I was not ready. I thought I had it under control, but I didn't. I was always looking for the next big win."
But when those big scores came in, either at a table or via a bet on the national football pool (including some bets involving his own team, which was legal but still caused a public stir), they didn't hang around long.
Nielsen's money didn't buy cars, houses or big boy toys. It bought the rush of waiting for the ball to drop into a slot, or the white-knuckle ride of stoppage time in the last match he needed to complete a parley.
One time he won the equivalent of half a million dollars in a Danish casino, but he had to come back the next day to collect because the casino didn't have enough cash on hand. Nielsen then lost back about $350,000 before finally mustering the willpower to drag himself away from the roulette table.
Next to that, the story of how he got his "Casino Jimmy" nickname – staying out past curfew to gamble while with the Danish U-21s, for which he was given a high-profile suspension shortly before aging out of eligibility for the squad – seems almost tame.
The tag, however, stuck. Even though Nielsen hasn't been inside a casino in years – and has been dubbed "The White Puma" as long as he's had the other nickname – he hasn't been able to shake it in the Danish media, even when the stories are about his successes in MLS since joining the then-Wizards in 2010.
"In the papers back home, it's 'Casino Jimmy did this, Casino Jimmy did that,'" he says.
What about when he led MLS last season with 15 shutouts, one shy of Tony Meola's league record, and was named the Goalkeeper of the Year as well as an All-Star and a member of the Best XI?
"'Casino Jimmy is the Goalkeeper of the Year,'" he said with a smile. "It's just the way it is. That's how it's always going to be."
Here in the United States, however, he has found a far different media environment.
Here, soccer doesn't rule the American sports realm. Despite their successes – including that 2012 US Open Cup title – and their fanatical home following, Sporting still find themselves battling for market attention with the Chiefs and the Royals, plus Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri football and basketball.
Furthermore, the increasing coverage the team does receive, Nielsen says, is relatively positive, even after he revealed the personal issues that set off the Danish press nearly a decade ago.
"Everybody there, the media included, just focuses on the negative stuff," he says. "That is the mentality in Denmark, time after time after time. That, I think, is the biggest difference."
He adds: "I cannot speak for all of America; I can only speak for the place I lived for three years. "They're supportive, extremely open and extremely helpful. There is room for being a little different, too. They will accept you and they will support you. You don't have to be best friends, but you've got their support. And I was not scared at any moment about people's reaction here. Even if they get angry at me, I can live with that."
But at the time he was trying to give up gambling after the 2004 revelations, Nielsen says, that dirt-digging Danish attitude wasn't entirely a bad thing.
Nielsen has been embraced by fans in Kansas City since his arrival, and has paid it back in full. "We have to remember, without those guys," he says, "we are not what we are today." (USA Today Sports)
"Everybody was keeping an eye on you. They knew what you were doing," he says. "When I would go out in my city, people would have half an eye on me and half an eye on their party. Now, everybody had their eyes on me when I was around a bookie. I never walked into a bookie – of course I walked past, because they're on every corner. Everybody knew, so I couldn't sneak in here or sneak in there or do anything over there. It still took me a long time to get over it, but it was good that it came out public."
Conversely, Nielsen says, the supportive atmosphere he found since coming to MLS made it easier to revisit the past he thought he had put away for good, and to dust off the old stories and tell them once more, in a new language for a new group of readers.
And for anyone who has spent much time around him, it is hard not to hear the book in Nielsen's voice. Bandini succeeds in making the memoir read as though Nielsen is telling stories over lunch, or at his locker after a match.
"I wanted it to be an easy read," Nielsen says. "I told Paolo, 'It has to sound like me, only with less bad language.'"
Even so, sometimes the stories don't seem like they belong to him. Or to be precise, they don't belong to the Jimmy Nielsen he is today.
"When I read the book, it feels like I'm reading about another person," he says. "It doesn't feel like it's me. It was eight years ago that I quit gambling. So it's a little strange to read that stuff. It's not hard to read, not at all. It's just weird."
The title came to Nielsen early in the creative process. It's an obvious play on the "WELCOME TO THE BLUE HELL" sign that hangs at the north end of Sporting Park, above the raucous Cauldron – home to Sporting's most vocal supporters. But it's more than that, too.
It's a thank-you to those fans, who embraced a Scandinavian stranger from the outset. And the goalkeeper, who grew up supporting the Aalborg club with which he won a Danish title, hasn't forgotten the feeling of being a hometown kid getting a few minutes with one of his heroes.
“I like the fans,” he says. “We have to remember, without those guys, we are not what we are today. Without those fans, we're nothing. We can only be something if we have that support behind us. And I think it's very, very important to pay those guys back. It doesn't take anything from me to go out here and stop and talk for a minute to a guy who wants to talk soccer. Nothing. If you give a little bit of yourself, you get a lot back.”
And while Nielsen stresses that he has no magic approach to quitting any addiction, he wouldn't object if the book helps someone struggling with a gambling problem – or helps to head one off in the first place.
“Maybe guys who are not necessarily on my level with gambling, maybe a stage lower or two or three, maybe they'll read this and say, 'I've got to be careful,'" he says. " Maybe they can stop and say, 'Hmm. Maybe it's too much gambling for me this week. I've got to watch out. I've got to watch out for this.'”
And what about any opposing fans who might try to use the book's revelations to jeer him from behind the goal?
Let them, he says. Even the most rabid fan won't be able to say something he hasn't already heard in Danish. Also, he might just turn off the noise entirely.
"I have a technique, and it's pretty impressive, and my wife hates me for it," he says. "I can shut down and not hear anything. I can do that at a stadium, too. I have not met a lot of guys who can do that. If I don't want to hear Seattle's supporters, I can switch off. If I don't want to hear my wife yelling at me, I can switch off. It's not very often I do it. I like a good atmosphere at the stadium. Maybe I hear them saying some bad things at me, I can live with it."
After all, it's nothing he hasn't been through before.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com