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, playing for Sporting 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 US Midwest.
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 because of 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 and 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.
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 footballing 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.
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 at a high level, Nielsen was contemplating retirement when he was offered a contract by an American club 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 two 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 US Midwest, the unique passion of Sporting Kansas City's fans, and the standard of US soccer easily as high, in Nielsen's opinion, as that in Denmark have given him a new lease of 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.