Elimated, Recalled, Winners!

A football fairytale: Denmark '92 Football Team

Sometimes when there isn’t much expectation on you, it may be a positive thing. It leaves room for you to put pressure on yourself without having to deal with that of others. The glory that comes at the end of completing the activity in question can still leave you with a high as sweet as an expected victory. Before we get too philosophical, let’s remember the 1992 UEFA European Football Championship, in which Denmark, against all expectations, won the football tournament despite failing to qualify.

Okay, on its own, that doesn’t make any sense so let’s look at the situation before the Championship began. Denmark was placed in Group 4 of the qualification stage with Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Austria and the Faroe Islands. Qualifying for the Championship was not a smooth one for the team at all. They drew in their game against Northern Ireland and then lost at home to Yugoslavia. This and some misunderstanding between their coach, Richard Moller Nielsen and Denmark’s star player, Michael Laudrup, led Laudrup and his brother, Brian, to quit the team. The Laudrup brothers were not happy with Nielsen’s management style and felt he was holding the team back. 

Despite this seeming worsening of the situation, the team went on to win their five remaining games. At the time, there were just eight places available for the Championships and only the winners of the groups moved on to join the hosts in the tournament. Denmark, despite their efforts, didn’t qualify as they finished as runners-up in the group behind Yugoslavia. In summary, they lost once, drew once and won six matches. Their earlier misfortunes seemed to have caused them to lose their chance of going to the Championship, which was to hold in Sweden. 

With just ten days to go, a lifeline was handed to Denmark. They were invited to take Yugoslavia’s place. In a state of civil war, Yugoslavia was not allowed to participate in the tournament by UEFA. They were sent home from Sweden and also later prevented from taking part in the 1994 World Cup. The Danes had
already moved on to focusing on other friendly matches when this invitation came, and now they had just over a week to get themselves ready. To most people, they were just being included to make up the numbers, which was somewhat true.

The team refocused for the Championship and went in without much pressure on them. They had nothing to lose, really, when you think about it. Naturally, they were expected to be forgotten after a few matches. They drew in their first match against England and were defeated by hosts Sweden in their second. Their next game was to be played against France, who was one of the favourites of the tournament. France had the brilliance of Eric Cantona leading them. The Danes also had to play without Kim Villefort, their solid attacking midfielder who had returned to Denmark after the opening matches to be with his seven-year-old daughter, who was ill with Leukaemia. Many expected that they would exit the competition at this point. Danish commentators had closed off their game against Sweden with statements affirming that their campaign was pretty much over.

In just eight minutes after kick-off in their match against France, Henrik Larsen scored a goal for the Danes. That was the only goal before halftime. This changed the self-belief of the team. Maybe, just maybe, they could control and win the game. In the second half, the team went for it. The French, who were expected to win, were now under pressure, and they did get an equaliser from Jean Pierre Papin. Brian Laudrup, who had initially quit the Danish team in qualification had returned to the team. His brother Michael however, did not return. Nielsen had started the game with Laudrup but then substituted in Lars Elstrup.

A late goal by Elstrup got the Danes up 2-1 ahead of France, and they hung on for the win. Heavyweights France and England had not won any of their previous matches. Denmark was through to the semifinals, the underdogs had sneaked in.

The Netherlands was going to be the next trouble for Denmark. Villefort, who had previously gone back home to Denmark, returned to Sweden and was brought in for the game against the Netherlands. Denmark
took the lead with Larsen scoring another early goal. The Dutch responded with a goal from Dennis Bergkamp. Five minutes after Bergkamp’s goal, Larsen got the lead again for Denmark. Villefort, Larsen, and John Jensen fought hard to protect Denmark’s defence as they came under pressure from the Dutch, who were not ready to lose. Just as the Danes began to dream of winning and progressing to the Final, the Dutch equalised at the 86th minute with a goal from Frank Rijkaard. The Dutch forced the match into extra time, which saw no goals scored. This now meant one thing, a penalty shoot-out.

Players never really know whether their penalty shots would go in or not, and this is where a solid goalkeeper can shine. The legendary Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel came to the forefront. Schmeichel saved the shot by Marco Van Basten and there was that flicker of hope for Denmark. All the other shots went into the goal for both sides, and Denmark found themselves in the final; this was their first time reaching the European Championship final. What fan could have guessed it before? This match against The Netherlands was definitely one of the best ones for the Danish national team.

Germany had beaten the hosts, Sweden, in a 3-2 showdown in their semifinal and was expected to dominate the final. West Germany had won the FIFA World Cup in 1990, and now the Danes had to face a solid united German team. 

Through all of this, the Danes had survived without Michael Laudrup, who was undoubtedly the biggest Danish football icon of the time. 

Did they really have a chance against the reigning world champions without their star player? Members of the team also had injury niggles at the time; the odds were definitely against them. Villefort, their star midfielder, went back to Denmark after their semifinal match to be with his daughter in hospital and had
no intention to return for the final. The seven-year-old Line Vilfort insisted that her father returns to Sweden to play in the final against Germany. Against his intentions, he fulfilled her wish. Villefort returned the evening of the 25th of June 1992, the day before the final. The little line would later pass away weeks after the match.

Germany dominated the game most of the first half, and it seemed that good luck had befriended the Danes, saving them from conceding goals. In a one-on-one with Schmeichel, Stefan Reuter of Germany had an excellent chance to put Denmark in complete disarray. Schmeichel, who was on the ground, managed to raise his hand and deflect the shot from Reuter. Schmeichel made other impressive saves including saves from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Guido Buchwald and Jurgen Klinsmann during the match.

At the 18th minute, John Jensen sent a shot into the top corner of the German goalpost and unexpectedly the Danes were up 1-0. This was Jensen’s second goal in 49 internationals, and it came at a very crucial time for Denmark. The Germans still dominated early in the second half, but they could hardly send any shots past the Danish defence or Schmeichel. With about twelve more minutes to go, Claus Christiansen sent a header from the halfway line. Milford received the pass, ran to the edge of the penalty area and broke away from two German defenders before shooting the ball. It hit the post but still rolled in past the goal line towards the net. Denmark was now up 2-0. Villefort’s teammates piled on top of him in celebration, and this time there was to be no comeback from their opponents. This goal gave meaning to all the saves by Schmeichel and the work of the team’s defenders. The Germans were stunned. Denmark had done the unexpected; they were Euro Champions.

It probably helped the Danish side that they did not have the huge weight of expectation on them before the tournament given their late inclusion. It also must have helped that the team had players who were well gelled together. Ten of the players who made the national team had played for Brondby so knew each other for a while. Each player seemed to know what his role was. While they may not have been traditionally strong like the German team, they were a talented side and would probably have qualified automatically if they were in another group and didn’t have the internal management related tensions they had at the time. The team played a defensive game for the final, but they did it well, with good fortune and Schmeichel on their side. 

Brian Laudrup in interviews later praised their coach Nielsen for being able to mentally trick them into believing they could win. Nielsen had been the coach for the Danish U21 side for over a decade before being employed to handle the senior team. He had worked with many of the Danish players when they passed through that age group so was a safe choice for Denmark, albeit not their initial first choice for the role. He was a coach who paid attention to details and kept a close eye on not just his players but players of the opposing teams. It has been reported that he cancelled a training session after the semifinal and instead took the team to play mini-golf. Well, as weird as that may seem, it certainly didn’t spoil their game.

The efforts of the Danish team in Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium sent Danish fans crazy back home. The players on their return were greeted with admiration. Danish fans will always look back in pride at what their national side accomplished that year. The fact that they didn’t initially qualify makes it all the more special, an unexpected triumph. 


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