Schmeichel, Larsen, and a John Jensen stunner: Euro ’92 had it all. writes Ryan Baldi.
There are famous stories of underdog triumphs littered throughout football’s major-tournament history, but few have at their centre a team who failed to qualify for the competition they went on to win.
The current structure of the European Championships, with its 24-team format, opens wide the possibility for unfancied nations to make it to the big stage and pit themselves against the continent’s football elite. Back in 1992, however, only eight teams qualified for the tournament finals. Denmark were not one of them.
The Danes had finished second in their qualification group, behind Yugoslavia. In the days before the competition began, most of the Danish players were on holiday, enjoying the off-season and thinking ahead to the 1992-93 campaign. Then the call came.
Yugoslavia, at the time in the grip of a brutal civil war, were expelled due to the hostiles ongoing in the country. Denmark were first in line to take their place and, with mere days until the first game was due to kick off, were instructed to assemble a squad and get themselves to Sweden.
“We couldn’t fail because there were no expectations,” midfielder Kim Vilfort told BBC Sport in 2012. “If we lost 5-0 three times then that would not have mattered.”
Denmark’s hopes of avoiding such embarrassment would have been boosted had they been able to count on the services of the most gifted player in the country’s history. Classy midfielder Michael Laudrup had just guided Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team to a La Liga and European Cup double and was considered to be among a handful of the world’s best players.
Michael Laudrup’s fantastic goal. Denmark vs Uruguay at Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico 1986 pic.twitter.com/rtxC4FVAZU
— José Díaz-Briseño (@diazbriseno) June 14, 2020
But a fallout with coach Richard Moller Nielsen had led to Laudrup – along with his brother Brian and Liverpool playmaker Jan Molby – quitting international football. While the younger Laudrup brother was convinced to reverse his decision, Michael remained resolute. He took the summer of 1992 off, only returning to Denmark duty in August the following year.
Without their most creative players and with a defence-minded coach at the helm, Denmark were not the free-wheeling, eye-catching side of Laudrup, Allan Simonsen and Preben Elkjaer that had captivated and entertained at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Under Nielsen, Denmark would be dogged, rigid and difficult to break down at Euro ’92, with Brian Laudrup their only attacker with true flair and adventure.
Denmark were dropped into a group with England, France and hosts Sweden. And initially it seemed that they, understandably given the circumstances, would struggle to impact the tournament. They drew 0-0 with England in their opening fixture before losing 1-0 to Sweden.
That point against the English did at least give them a ray of hope heading into the final group game, though. Beat France and they would be through – owing to the short format – to the semi-finals. Henrik Larsen – not of Celtic and Barcelona fame – gave the Danes an early lead, only for Jean-Pierre Papin, soon to join AC Milan for a world-record fee, to equalize on the hour. But with 12 minutes to play, striker Lars Elstrup scored the decisive goal. Denmark, incredibly, were through to the last four.
Denmark EURO 1992 pic.twitter.com/fJoFsteyOs
— Stickerpedia (@Stickerpedia1) July 9, 2020
Larsen scored twice against reigning European champions Holland in the semi, enough to earn him the tournament’s Golden Boot, but twice Denmark were pegged back, first by Dennis Bergkamp and then, with just four minutes to play, by Frank Rijkaard.
An extra-time stalemate meant a place in the final, where world champions Germany awaited, would be decided by penalties. Denmark scored all five of their spot kicks. Peter Schmeichel – who’d signed for Manchester United just a year earlier – saved from Marco van Basten, giving the underdogs a 4-5 shootout victory.
Andreas Brehme, Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann all lined up for an intimidating Germany side in the showpiece game. But it was Denmark who struck first, a rasping 18-yard strike into the top corner from John Jensen, who would sign for Arsenal off the back of his performances in Sweden.
As the Germans turned up the pressure, Schmeichel was called upon to make a string of saves. Then, in the 78th minute, Vilfort broke forward and rolled a daisy-cutting left-footed shot in off Bodo Illgner’s near post. Germany were beaten and Denmark, who hadn’t even qualified for the tournament, were champions of Europe.
“We had fantastic spirit,” Vilfort reflected. “The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us.
“We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.”