by Gaurav Dhar
Prior to Uruguay’s encounter with Denmark at Mexico ‘86, coach Omar Borrás had already condemned their group – which also comprised West Germany and Scotland – as “El Grupo de la Muerte” or “The Group of Death”. Nowadays the term is thrown around all too regularly, often being attached to any conglomeration of recognisable international names, but when Borrás employed it it was more than fitting. Eventually three of the four teams progressed to the knockout rounds, but in that group each team epitomized a style of play so distinctive in relation to the others that one could not help but feel that the teams wouldn’t be able to survive in the presence of one another: such complete competitors simply could not coexist.
Indeed, that proved true as the Danes crushed the Uruguayans in a match which was very much a clash of opposites. Denmark fielded a mouthwatering attacking line-up of Lerby, Elkjær, Laudrup and Arnesen, and by running out 6-1 victors the Danes achieved a result which thrilled everyone who had the pleasure of witnessing it. As Michael Caine narrates in Hero, the match “created a wave of Danish popularity” as they comprehensively defeated a Uruguayan team noted for taking “the foul to new heights of expertise”. Denmark’s six goals could not have come more easily, with one seeing Laudrup seemingly evade the entire Uruguayan defence on a whim. Uruguay also did themselves no favours by gathering an early red card, and the match seems to have embedded itself into the collective consciousness by virtue of the lore surrounding both teams.
The Danish national team, fondly called “Danish Dynamite”, was a new source of pride for a nation which had little sporting pedigree. Danish football lacked full professional status there until 1979, and without the pressure of avoiding defeat teams were allowed to express themselves as they chose. This gave rise to an easy-going approach towards their football which also echoed certain aspects of the Danish lifestyle. Winning mattered less than enjoying yourself on the pitch, and that sentiment did not fade even as Denmark were gifted their greatest generation of footballers, one of the finest the world has seen.
They retained their image as underdogs and underachievers, and instead of focusing on results the Danes sought to score goals in extraordinary fashion, often eschewing more pragmatic options on the pitch. Even facing inferior teams the Danes played football as though there was a consistent need to prove their ingenuity and style. Their play seemed to affirm that even as football became an increasingly commercialised sport, for them it would never become an obligation or a chore.
This mindset was one that national team coach Sepp Piontek would have to temper if Denmark were to achieve international glory. “Danes don’t like the word ‘discipline’. Nobody bosses us around. We’re no good anyway,” Piontek rued. Piontek was exactly the sort of hard-nosed German coach Denmark needed. He constructed a boot camp before the ’86 World Cup where the players were engaged regularly in all aspects of preparation: tactical meetings, practice with the ball, and fitness training. Still Piontek retained a consideration for the Danish player’s habits, allowing occasional nights out as he encouraged kinship amongst the team. Morten Olsen recalls that Piontek “came with a lot of German discipline but also knew he had Danish players – they also need some of their own responsibility, and he found a good balance between discipline and freedom.” Piontek knew that the only way to harness the Danes’ rebellious nature was to have them take certain lessons by their own volition rather than by having those imposed upon them. After a tragic loss against Spain in the Euro ’84 semis, for the first time Denmark was left with a stinging disappointment they sought to rid.
Similarly, Uruguay was a nation with much to prove leading in to the World Cup, but unlike the Danes their impetus derived from the weight of a nation’s expectations on their shoulders. As legendary Uruguayan coach Ondino Viera once proclaimed, “Other countries have their history. Uruguay has its football”. Football and history are not so separate in the minds of most Uruguayans. They proudly won the first World Cup in 1930 and, even after boycotting the early European World Cups, would again claim the title in an upset against Brazil in 1950. It was hard-edged victories like those which came to signify a certain irrepressibility in their play.
Still, the Uruguay side of 1986 was far from a glittering reflection of the rich footballing heritage from which it was hewn. Not qualifying for the ’78 and ’82 tournaments was unpalatable for the public, and they began their ’86 qualifying campaign in an unpromising fashion. The team philosophy was perverted so that it no longer carried the same spirit of resilience but rather one of ruthless, underhanded play. At the same time they lived under the delusion of still being rightful champions, and it only further fostered the antagonizing persona they came to hold. Failure on the biggest stage was not an option for Uruguay, and the fans failed to notice even when their team offered genuinely promising performances if they ended with defeat. The modest emergence of a generation of attacking players like Francescoli and da Silva only increased unrealistic expectations, rather than being taken as a sign of steady progress.
When Uruguay delayed their first match in the Cup by asking the referee to have West German defender Thomas Berthold’s cast on his right arm “looked at”, it was typical. With a tenacious showing which bordered on brutal, they secured a 1-1 draw. After their 6-1 drubbing against Denmark they redoubled their defensive efforts, and an increasingly cynical trace in their play would come to fully dominate in their final group match against Scotland.
Uruguay only needed a draw to progress, and in full knowledge of that fact they fully committed to disrupting Scotland’s attack. Sergio Batista nailed Gordon Strachan after an early throw-in, but the red card the referee produced may have been the worst thing to happen to the match. Instead of the card calming the match, Uruguay delved farther into the dark arts: shirt pulling, hair tugging and spitting were all on atrocious display. Ultimately they achieved the 0-0 draw they desired and Scotland coach Alex Ferguson damned the Uruguayan players going as far as to say, “It’s not just a part of football, it’s the whole bloody attitude of the nation. You can see that attitude there. They have no respect for other people’s dignity. It’s a disgrace what they did. Their behaviour turns the game into a complete farce.”
If the Uruguayans were now the bane of international football, the Danes were assuredly the saviours. The confidence from their 6-1 victory allowed them to defeat West Germany 2-0 in their final group match earning them a tie against Spain in the last sixteen. Jesper Olsen earned Denmark a penalty in the 33rd minute through which they led 1-0, but Denmark would ultimately lose to Spain 5-1 in what has been described by journalist Rob Smyth as “football’s saddest, maddest thrashing”. Smyth diagnoses that “Denmark completely lost their discipline. A nominal 3-5-2 formation was more like a 3-1-6.” The Danes were grounded after a superb group showing in the worst possible manner.
In honesty, Denmark’s 6-1 victory against Uruguay was something of a false dawn. The match captivated the world through its sheer peculiarity, but the score line resulted from the incidental meeting of two very different football teams. It should never have been taken as evidence that Denmark could cruise onwards through the World Cup, and an early lead against Spain only confirmed their corresponding hamartia. The 6-1 result was enchanting to the public as it exaggerated notions of a morally superior way of playing football, but it was never taken in the proper, objective eye it should have been. Uruguay also did not benefit from the paranoid approach they adopted after their heavy loss, and abruptly they exited to eventual champions Argentina in the first knock-out round.
What is certain is that the match exemplified the two contrasting mentalities of the teams. Only Denmark’s blithe, optimistic attitude could open up combinations and channels that other teams had never even considered, and Uruguay’s stuttered response reflected the challenges facing a nation which hadn’t been able to understand its own history and build from it. 6-1. It was a truly astonishing and revealing result, only it revealed what the audience failed to see.