by Dylan O’Neill
Danish coach Richard Moller Nielsen was on the brink of the sack following Denmark’s failed attempt at qualification for the European Championships in 1992. Nielsen had become sick of seeing his Danish side play beautiful football but lack positive results. He tried implementing his unique managerial approach with the team, but it resulted in one of their most vaunted players – Michael Laudrup – quitting the international game in protest at Nielsen’s playing style. What Nielsen, his squad, and the media didn’t know at the time was that it was an event which would turn out to be for the greater good.
Denmark’s attempt to qualify for the tournament was a mixed bag to say the least. They began with a comfortable 2-0 victory over the Faroe Islands, that being followed by a draw with the Northern Irish and then a 2-1 defeat to eventual table-toppers Yugoslavia. The results sparked a drastic change to Nielsen’s Denmark, with Laudrup quitting the international scene and star players like Jan Molby and Jan Heintze subsequently being left out of the squad due to ‘disciplinary issues’. The Danes won all their remaining qualifiers, but it wasn’t enough as Yugoslavia topped the group thus qualifying for that summer’s European Championships.
The Yugoslavian team, led by captain Dragan Stojković, travelled to Sweden to prepare for the tournament in early June. What they didn’t know was that they’d soon be dealt the ultimate blow to their European Championship aspirations as the civil war back in Yugoslavia saw them expelled – somewhat inexplicably – from the competition. Stojković was given the job of breaking the news to his teammates during a team meeting held just ten days before the tournament commenced.
“It was the worst day of my life, and the worst thing is that I couldn’t explain to the players why,” he said. “This is sport, not politics, and the two should never go together. There were terrible things going on in my country and I am deeply ashamed of them. But when I looked at these players, I looked at the way that their faces cracked when I told them this news, I wanted to know why UEFA had let things go this far. If they were going to throw us out of the competition, why didn’t they tell us before? We had been training, we were already at the hotel in Sweden, and now we had to go home. We had to go back to reality. And still, nobody would tell me why.”
Yugoslavia’s loss became Denmark’s gain when Moller Nielsen received the phone call asking Denmark to compete at the expense of Yugoslavia. He quickly shared the message with his team which had disbanded for their summer holidays. The Danes had been keeping a close eye on the news from Yugoslavia and some had half-expected the team to be banished from Sweden. Anyhow, with only ten days to prepare his Danish side, Moller Nielsen and his team embarked on their European journey with no one expecting them to make an serious impression.
The group stage pitted them against the outright favourites France, much-fancied England and the hosts, Sweden. England were heavy favourites against the Danes in the opening game, and so when Moller Nielsen’s men held the English to a 0-0 stalemate, they had already caused an upset and had one unexpected point to their names. After the triumph in Malmo, Denmark then travelled to Solna to take on Sweden. It was a far more entertaining game than the Danes’ previous encounter, but the pendulum swung when Sweden took the lead through a Tomas Brolin strike midway through the second half which was enough to see the Swedes take all three points. Even though they lost, Denmark still had a chance of qualifying from the group – all they had to do was beat France in the final group game.
In the build-up to the game Moller Nielsen decided to reward the team with a bout of mini-golf. Oddly enough, the team bonding exercise worked wonders as Denmark defied the odds and caused another upset by beating and knocking out the French. The 2-1 win meant that Denmark qualified for the semi-finals, finishing below Sweden in Group A. Denmark’s qualification meant that they’d be entertaining the winner of Group B, who were a particularly sublime Dutch side.
The odds on the Dutch progressing heavily outweighed those of the Danes, but Moller Nielsen’s men knew that they had surpassed expectations and anything extra was an achievement in itself at this point. So when Lars Elstrup had caught sight of a Burger King and posed the question to Nielsen, the coach felt that his players had done themselves proud by getting this far and treated them to a one-off fast food feast. They re-entered the bus surprised and delighted that the manager had granted them their wish and, unbeknownst to them, they were to return the favour just days later when they took to the pitch against Holland.
Denmark took a shock lead barely five minutes in as Brian Laudrup whizzed down the right flank and crossed for Henrik Larsen who headed home as the ball evaded goalkeeper Hans van Breuklen. The Danes were off to a flier and had ousted the Dutch in all departments until the equaliser came. Dennis Bergkamp got his name on the score sheet with a strike from just outside the box midway through the first-half, but the goal didn’t stop Denmark from continuing their marvellous Euro journey.
Larsen stole a second goal courtesy of a rare Ronald Koeman mistake, and there was now a strong belief surging through the team, a belief that they could go on to win the tie. They just had to keep focussed and complete the job in hand. Unfortunately they couldn’t hold on, and the Dutch rallied through an 86th minute Frank Rijkaard goal. Denmark headed for extra-time unsure of their fate as they had to play on with an injured man because they had already used up their allocation of substitutes.
Despite the late superiority of the Dutch, the game was taken to penalties after a pulsating extra-time bout. Koeman dispatched his penalty, then Larsen levelled things up with a fine spot-kick tucked away into the bottom corner. Marco van Basten then stepped up for the Dutch. His attempted penalty was palmed away by the remarkable Peter Schmeichel, and it was advantage Denmark. Flemming Povlsen’s subsequent penalty hit the back of the net as the remaining six penalties were all safely dispatched and, thanks to Kim Christofe, Denmark knocked out the holders and progressed to the final to do battle with the reigning World Champions Germany.
The Danes once again got their noses in-front as John Jensen got them off to a flier with a thunderbolt from the edge of the 18-yard box. Germany then began to dominate, and had it not been for a spirited performance from Schmeichel Denmark would have surely gone behind. Save after magnificent save, the Danes were lucky to head into the break with a slim 1-0 lead. The second-half produced more of the same as Germany huffed and puffed its way past the Danish defence, only to be denied by the imperious Schmeichel every single time.
Then it happened; Denmark struck the crucial blow. On 78 minutes Kim Vilfort stole between two German defenders and aimed a left-footed shot in off the post, leaving the Danes virtually assured of European triumph. When Bruno Galler blew up for full-time various members of the Danish team ran to congratulate Schmeichel on his man-of-the-match performance. It was a fairy-tale ending to a fairy-tale story for the Danes after winning a tournament they hadn’t even qualified for in the first place and Moller Nielsen had saved his job, at least for the time being.