It remains one of the biggest shocks in sporting history, a moment that defined the unpredictable beauty of tournament football. 29 years ago, Denmark’s footballers cut short their summer holiday to embarked on a European Championships for which they’d initially failed to qualify and returned home as champions.
Denmark were not exactly an unheralded football nation in 1992. Eight years earlier they’d qualified for Euro ’84 ahead of England and acquitted themselves well at the finals. The moment Denmark truly arrived on the international scene came two years later at the Mexico World Cup. Denmark in their striking Hummel shirts lit up the group phase with their dazzling attacking football featuring the likes of Preben Elkjaer, Michael Laudrup and Jesper Olsen. They beat Scotland, put six past Uruguay and downed eventual runners up West Germany 2-0 to advance to the knock out phase. However, just when it seemed the Danes were unstoppable, the Danish fire was extinguished by Emilio Butragueno and Spaim; coming from behind to trounce Denmark 5-1 in round two.
Denmark didn’t win the ’86 World Cup but impressed everyone with their stylish play, yet two years later the tank was running dry on Denmark’s first great generation. Laudraup aside, the ’86 team was a veteran group and although they qualified for Euro ’88, they failed to make an impact at the finals. Worse soon followed when Denmark narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1990 World Cup, it was clear Denmark’s new generation lacked the flair of their ’80s predecessors.
Denmark were drawn in Group four of Euro’92 qualifying, with Yugoslavia their chief rivals to reach the finals. Yugoslavia’s talented team were pulled from Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup winners of 1991. The ties between the two both ended in surprise away wins, but crucially Denmark dropped a point in a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland. Yugoslavia held their nerve, winning the group by a single point in November 1991 and Denmark were out, but then events far beyond the reach of football changed everything.
Tragedy in Europe
The map of Europe was in flux in the early 1990s, the collapse of communism and fall of the Berlin Wall brought profound and mostly peaceful change to a continent previously locked into a Cold War divide. One country that proved the tragic exception was Yugoslavia. A brief war broke out in Slovenia in the summer of 1991, then Croatia began a war of independence from the Yugoslav federation. More followed in early 1992 as Bosnia & Herzegovina was thrown into a bloody civil war and the besieged city of Sarajevo became the center of the world’s attention. The war quickly escalated and tragedy unfolded in the center of Europe.
Understandably few in the former Yugoslavia were thinking about football, but on the 31st of May, 1992, European Football’s governing body made the only decision they could, with the war in the Balkans escalating UEFA expelled Yugoslavia from Euro ’92 a mere ten days before the tournament was due to start. With no time to arrange a playoff UEFA’s only option was to bring back the runners up from Yugoslavia’s group; Denmark.
Off the beach and into Sweden
Nobody was more surprised by Denmark’s sudden inclusion at Euro ’92 than the Danish players. Manager Richard Moller-Nielsen hastily assembled his 20 man squad, but with the club season already over the entire squad had disappeared for their summer holidays. Upon selection the Danish players had a week to prepare before making the short boat trip to Sweden to play the finals.
The likes of Elkjaer and Olsen were long gone, and a falling out with Nielsen had seen star turns Michael & Brian Laudrup quit international football in 1990. Only seven of the squad played their club football away from their homeland and few were seen as star players. One of those making his name abroad was goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, coming off an impressive first season with Manchester United. Veteran pair Jon Sivebaek and Lars Olsen brought experience to the defence whilst left-back Henrik Andersen was doing well in the Bundesliga with FC Koln. John Jensen provided a solid shield from midfield and striker Flemming Povlsen whilst never prolific did have a reasonable scoring record for his country. Crucially Nielsen managed to bring Brian Laudrup back into the fold to bring flair to the attack.
No Joke, But Little Hope
When the squad assembled in Copenhagen just a week before the finals, the players gathered on the training pitch with Nielsen in the centre and the manager told them they were going to Sweden to win the tournament, understandably the players laughed. Still the work began and Nielsen drilled his side into one that was at least tough to beat.
Denmark opened their campaign on June 11th against England. England were hot favourites and had made the last four of Italia ’90, however their ’92 incarnation was a prosaic side shorn of the creative talents of the injured Paul Gascoigne and John Barnes. The Danes didn’t take long to pinpoint England’s weakest link; stand-in right back Keith Curle who was given a torrid time. Still, England had the better of the first half and majority of the chances, but it was the Danes who went closest when John Jensen found himself clear but drilled his shot at the post. It finished in a 0-0 stalemate but the Danes showed they were not simply in Sweden to make up the numbers.
Three days later came a Scandinavian derby with hosts Sweden. Denmark played well and did create chances but just weren’t clinical, Jensen showing his usual goal-scoring prowess by blasting high over the bar from the edge of the box. At the other end the Danes struggled to cope with Sweden’s quicksilver front pair of Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin, and it was Dahlin who’s cross eventually fell to Brolin to stroke in the only goal of the game. Danish TV pundits immediately declared it was the end of the line for Denmark who now sat bottom of the group without a single goal to their name.
Do or Die
Although bottom of the group, Denmark could still progress to the semi-finals if they won their last game against pre-tournament favourites France. Under the stewardship of their greatest ever player in Michel Platini, the French hadn’t lost a game in two years. The team was anchored by future World Cup heroes Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps whilst the front pair consisted of the mercurial Eric Cantona and Marseille goal machine Jean-Pierre Papin, the then Ballon d’Or holder.
Jon Sivebaek, then playing his club football at Monaco claimed some French players asked him to take it easy on them because France had a semi-final to prepare for! Whether or not its true, the Danes were clearly ready for battle as they stepped out in Malmo. Denmark were incisive and Henrik Larsen blasted in the opening goal in the 8th minute, as the first half progressed the Danes dominated and were unfortunate to go in only one up at halftime. In the second half France awoke from their slumber and a clever backheel from Jean-Philippe Durand fell to Papin on the hour, the striker lashed home an angled drive to equalise.
France pushed hard for the winner and produced a flurry of chances, but Schmeichel was keeping them at bay. Nielsen decided to make a change and brought on striker Lars Elstrup. With 12 minutes to go, Denmark broke away and Flemming Povlsen’s cross found Elstrup who poked home for 2-1. France continued to hammer at the door but to no avail, incredibly Denmark were through to the semi-finals.
Denmark were already the story of the tournament, but still nobody gave them a prayer when they faced defending champions Holland in Gothenburg. The Dutch still had the fabled Milan triplets of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, free kick specialist Ronald Koeman had just bagged Barcelona’s winner in the European Cup Final and there was a budding new superstar in the outrageously gifted Ajax forward Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutch had cruised through the group unbeaten and in the process even trounced World Cup holders Germany 3-1.
The David vs Goliath clash would prove one of the best matches in tournament history and just as they did against France, Denmark made a lightning start. Laudrup got free down the right and pinged in a perfect cross for Larsen to head home from close range 1-0 after five minutes. The Dutch soon countered, Bergkamp proving a thorn in Denmark’s side and he blasted home an equaliser on 23 minutes. Yet again, Denmark responded to adversity and a loose clearance from Bergkamp fell to Larsen, who smashed home from the edge of the box for 2-1 on 33 minutes.
Holland were stunned but came out fighting in the second half with Gullit twice going close. Just after the hour mark disaster struck the Danes (quite literally) when key defender Henrik Andersen collided with Van Basten, suffering a serious knee injury that ended his tournament. The Danes had their chances but couldn’t finish Holland off and just four minutes from time Rijkaard got free in the box and smashed in the equaliser and the game went to extra time.
Holland with the wind in their sails dominated extra time, laying siege to the Danish goal. Each time the Dutch just missed or found Schmeichel immovable with Gullit and Bryan Roy having straight forward chances saved by the giant ‘keeper. The Danes survived to send the match to penalties. Holland stepped up first and took the shoot-out lead, whilst goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen got close to Denmark’s first penalty. Round two and the unthinkable happened, the great Van Basten shot for the corner and Schmeichel pawed it away, advantage Denmark. Van Breukelen got close again but the Danish kicks kept going in and with the final kick defender Kim Christofte smashed it down the middle and Denmark were in the final.
People were beginning to believe in the fairy tale, but a formidable obstacle still stood in the way, World Cup holders Germany. Despite a poor start Germany had hit form in the tournament and already ended the host nation’s dreams in a 3-2 semi-final win over Sweden. The Germans had played their semi a day early and finished in normal time. Many predicted the Danes’ fitness after such a short build up and the epic semi-final would falter. Germany had been there and done it in a World Cup the Danes hadn’t even qualified for, and the Danes would be without key defender Andersen.
Torben Piechnik was brought in to replace Andersen and the Danes kicked off the final. In the early exchanges Germany sweeper Matthias Sammer was pulling the strings, setting up Stefan Reuter who went close. At the other end Jensen began with customary shot into row j. Germany were on top but in the 18th minute a clever pullback to the edge of the German box found Jensen, who smashed a rocket to the near post to beat Bodo Illgner. Jurgen Klinsmann was proving a handful and thought he’d got the equaliser with a vicious strike across the goal that Schmeichel barely kept out, Denmark reached halftime 1-0 up.
In the second half Germany were quickly into their stride, Klinsmann forcing a brilliant tip over the bar from Schmeichel. Germany piled up the chances, Karl Heinz Riedle in particular going close, the equaliser appeared to be just a matter of time. Then in the 78th minute Kim Vilfort wrong footed two German defenders to get off a hopeful shot, it beat Illgner, bounced off the post and trickled in 2-0 and the impossible was reality, Denmark were European Champions.
Denmark’s achievement of winning a major tournament, having failed to qualify and having almost no preparation will never be repeated. They weren’t fortunate with draw either, in turn knocking out the favourites, the holders and then then World Champions. It was a real life Rocky story of an underdog representing a small country taking on the best and winning, even the Germany fans in the stadium couldn’t help but applaud. However, let’s leave the last word on the Miracle of ’92 to legendary BBC commentator John Motson, who as the Henri Delaunay trophy was hoisted into the Gothenburg night proclaimed “It’s delightful, it’s different, IT’S DENMARK!”