There are many sports fairytales. In cricket, India’s sojourn in 1983 was one such example. In the first two World Cups of 1975 and 1979, India had just won one match against East Africa (a team which was formed only for that first World Cup to make the numbers and never appeared in the World Cup again). But in 1983, India astonished the cricket world by lifting the third edition of the World Cup. In their victorious march, India twice beat the then invincible West Indies (once in the final), who had never lost a World Cup match in their two victorious campaigns of 1975 and 1979.
In hockey, in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the newly independent Zimbabwe’s women team was not one of the original teams. However, quite a few countries withdrew in protest over the host country, the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Zimbabwe was one of the replacements. The Zimbabwean girls saw Astroturf for the first time in their life upon their arrival in Moscow but that surprise was nothing compared to what they actually did on that turf. Zimbabwe eventually became the first winners of women’s Olympic hockey. Moreover, it was Zimbabwe’s first ever Olympic medal of any hue.
Before the Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games of 1980, the Soviets had won every Winter Olympics ice hockey tournament since 1960. They were well-seasoned and had been playing together for many years. In contrast, the Americans were a team of college students. In February that year, the two teams met for an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden in order to practice for the upcoming competition. The Soviet Union won handily, 10-3. No one gave USA any chance against USSR in the Olympics. The USA v USSR game, called the ‘Miracle on Ice’ in the United States, is the best-remembered international ice hockey game in the Olympics. It was USA’s penultimate game of the tournament’s round-robin medal round. That day, USA won 4-3 and then won their last game against Finland coming from behind to take the gold medal (they never won the ice hockey gold again).
Remembering Denmark’s fairytale outing in the 1992 UEFA European Football Championship
But the Cinderella story of Denmark at the 1992 UEFA European Football Championship surpasses all the fairytales.
The Euro championship is arguably the toughest soccer tournament in the world. Experts regard it as even tougher than the World Cup.
In the World Cup, because of the quota system, there are always weaker teams. For instance, no African team has ever reached the semis and just once an Asian side made it to the semis, the hosts South Korea in 2002. In Euro, one-sided games are rare. In viewership, it ranks behind only the Olympics and the Football World Cup.
In 2004, Greece which in its only previous appearance, in 1980, had not won a single game went on to lift the cup.
But all this pales before Denmark’s remarkable odyssey in 1992. The Danes initially failed to qualify, as they trailed Yugoslavia in their qualifying group. However, due to international sanctions, resulting from the Yugoslavia wars, the country was barred from the tournament, and Denmark entered as the second-placed team in its group. They had just two weeks to prepare. Some of the players were not even in the country at that time. A few of them were holidaying on the Mediterranean beaches and their captain, Lars Olsen drove straight from Turkey (where he was playing for the Turkish club Trabzonspor) to Denmark once he received the news of his country’s reinstatement.
In the modern era, preparations for such a mega team event encompasses a lot of details. It is not merely to be physically fit. It also entails mental readiness and cohesion as well as deep insight into the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses through video analysis, etc. Two weeks was no time for this.
Then there were other problems. The coach, Richard Moller-Nielsen, who succeeded the German, Sepp Piontek in 1990, had a tough act to follow. Though he didn’t bag any trophies but Piontek’s ‘dynamite’ team was generally regarded as the best in the country’s history.
Denmark reached the semi-finals of the Euro 84 and in their first ever appearance in the World Cup in 1986 they reached the second round. Piontek’s strategy was offensive based. By contrast, Nielsen adopted safety first and was more defense-oriented. This didn’t go well with some players especially the legendary Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian. Things got to such a stage that both refused selection during the qualification campaign. Whereas Brian chose to return in the spring of 1992, Michael (who in 2003 was declared as the most outstanding player of Denmark in the last 50 years) stuck to his guns. So the team was without its most potent attacking weapon.
The Danish public was naturally pleased to see their side in the big event. Still, some people were not happy with the way their country ‘managed’ to qualify and were of the opinion that sports and politics should be kept apart. The boring defensive style adopted by the national side under Nielsen also didn’t enthuse people and generally the mood was not very optimistic.
It was against this backdrop of uncertainty that Denmark entered the UEFA Euro 1992. And matters were not helped by a really tough group. In the very first game, they encountered England, the semi-finalists of the last World Cup. Their spirits rose after a very creditable draw. The reaction back home, “OK, not so bad!”
Next, they encountered fellow Scandinavians, Sweden. The hosts of a big show always come with great hopes and preparation, and Sweden were no exception. They were an attacking side for whom Tomas Brolin, Martin Dahlin and Kennet Andersson were averaging almost a goal a game (in the early part of their career). The Danes acquitted themselves well but eventually lost by 0-1. The Danish public regarded it as a “respectable performance”.
Hence the stage was set for the final group game against France. The equation for Denmark was simple: win or go home. France were no longer the same force as that of their 1980s glory days when they not only won the Euro 1984 but also reached the semis of both the 1982 and the 1986 World Cups. Still, they needed only a draw to progress so the Danes started as the underdogs. They showed good team work and took an early lead as their captain Olsen finished a well carved out move.
Surprisingly, the French began to panic and rough play followed. All this led to as many as five yellow cards (three to France and two to Denmark) in the first half alone. Then at the hour mark, the French equalised with a goal coming out of the blue. Seeing their big chance slip away might have unnerved ordinary mortals but this Danish team was something special. They kept their cool and with just 12 minutes to go, substitute Elstrup put in a cross from the right. France were out and for the Danes the unexpected adventure continued.
Now, for the first time, the people back home realised “We can do anything!” In fact, they went hysterical. Everything changed overnight. Special arrangements were made, big screens were put up at main centres of the towns and barbeque parties outside bars.
In their last two previous semi appearances in the Euro 1964 and 1984, the Danes had failed to progress further so the incentive this time could not have been higher. Their opponents were mighty Netherlands, the defending champions. The Dutch were still smarting from their failure in the last World Cup where despite being one of the favourites they could not progress beyond the group stages. It was also the last time when their golden trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Van Basten appeared together on the big stage. Hence a titanic battle was expected and that is how it turned out to be.
Denmark again started in a stormy fashion and scored in the fifth minute when Brian Laudrup’s pinpoint cross had been headed in at close range by Henrik Larsen. The lead didn’t last long as the Dutch regrouped and in the 23rd minute, that great predator Dennis Bergkamp chipped in a delicate shot in the bottom corner after being set up by Rijkaard. Instead of lying down, the Danes were back in front within 10 minutes as Larson shot his second goal of the game.
Thereafter, the Danes mostly controlled the game almost until the end and it seemed that eventually they would break the hoodoo and reach a major final for the first time in their history.
There was another twist in the story. With just four minutes to go, Rijkaard scored from close in following Gullit’s back-header to take the game into extra time. Needless to say, the Danes were shell-shocked to see their greatest chance slipping away. They displayed remarkable character to hold out in the extra half an hour with Peter Schmeichel denying Bryan Roy from close range with a superb save and the match went into penalty shootouts.
Ironically, Van Basten, the top scorer of the previous Euro, saw his low spot kick brilliantly saved by Schmeichel. And his was the only miss as the Danes won the shoot-out 5-4 to reach their first ever final.
Back in Denmark, the frenzy cut across all the people who attired in Danish colours of red and white and flocked the streets waving their national flag. The jubilant fans were even allowed to ride police vans.
The opponents in the final were the current World Champions, Germany, big neighbours of tiny Denmark. Germany began as if they meant to steamroll the surprise tournament finalists, forcing Schmeichel to save from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald before Denmark emerged from behind the barricades to score their shock first goal in the 18th minute.
Kim Vilfort won a tussle with Andreas Brehme to send Flemming Povlsen clear with a back heel, and the ball was laid back for John Jensen to smash it high into the net from the edge of the area. Remarkably, it was only the second goal Jensen had scored in his first 48 internationals (it later took him 98 matches to score his first for Arsenal FC).
Denmark’s name was clearly on the Henri Delaunay Cup. The Germans continued with their quest but Schmeichel had the game of his lifetime. Schmeichel might have won a pack load of titles with Manchester United but Euro 1992 was his finest hour. Especially in the final the Germans had more chances but the 6ft 4inch giant Dane, who was named World’s goalkeeper of the year in 1992 as well as 1993, proved to be a solid rock.
To make the issue beyond doubt, in the 78th minute, Vilfort brought the ball under control before shooting low past Bodo Illgner’s left hand to double the lead. To complete the fairytale, Vilfort missed the semi-finals as he had gone to Denmark to visit his seriously ill daughter, who was suffering from leukemia.
Denmark had shocked the continent and startled the soccer followers of the world.
Immediately after the final, the city centre of Copenhagen was crowded with people making it impossible even to walk through for a few miles. As soon as the plane carrying the newly-crowned Euro Champions entered Danish air space, two F-16 fighters of the Royal Danish Air Force positioned themselves on its right and left sides and led it to the Copenhagen Airport. At the airport, the players boarded on an open-top bus. Huge crowds meant that the bus took several hours to travel from the airport to the city centre. They were received by the city mayor, and treated with traditional Danish dessert rådhuspandekager. It was indeed the finest hour for sports in the country.
Perhaps even a fiction writer could not have come up with such a script.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 26th, 2016