Euro 1992 commemorated a new era of international football for the European continent, as the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century marked the end of the existence of several football superpowers. Above all, it was the national teams of West Germany and Soviet Union who were no longer on the European football map at that point, and who were followed by the two-time runner-up nation that unintentionally played a major role in the Euro 1992 fairy tale.
Yugoslavia was the country involved in one of the most bizarre scenarios of a major international football tournament. The nation, which twice reached the finals of the European Championship in 1960 and 1968, was the scene of a series of political upheavals and conflicts in the early 1990s, and although initially they made it to the 1992 tournament in Sweden, a series of unresolved issues led to the country’s breakup shortly before the tournament.
Consequently, Yugoslavia were banned from participating to Euro 92, which meant that the second-placed team in their qualifying group got the ticket to the final tournament.
Here began one of football’s greatest fairy tales. Denmark, a team that was not even supposed to be there, had to pack their bags a week before the tournament was scheduled to start and head off to neighboring Sweden. It was only Denmark’s fourth appearance at the European Championships, having reached the Semi-Finals in 1984 and failing to progress beyond the group stage at the following tournament in 1988. The initial perception was that their participation in Euro ’92 was nothing but the procedure of filling up the quota, as no football expert gave the Danish team a chance to rewrite football history.
The tournament itself continued the same format established 12 years earlier, with eight nations competing in two groups of four, with the top two sides of each group progressing to the Semi-Finals stage. However, this was the last time the format was used as the number of participating teams would double in the following tournament four years later.
Furthermore, this was also the last European Championship to award only two points to the winning team, and the last before the introduction of the back-pass rule, of which Denmark were one of the main culprits.
The whole story of the Danish fairy tale can seem a bit exaggerated at times, as the football community portrayed them as some kind of rag-tag bunch who were not good enough to be in the tournament in the first place. The fact that Denmark were lucky enough to be at Euro ’92 has some truth to it; however, it was a team that was no slouch and contained a number of high caliber players with experience both at club and international level. At the end of the day, they finished only one point behind Yugoslavia in their qualifying group and even managed to beat them in the reverse fixture in Belgrade.
Typical of a team from the north, the Danes did not possess the flair of the South American teams and were much more pragmatic and defensive in their style of play. And no one could blame them, as Brian Laudrup – the Bayern Munich forward at the time – was one of the very few players in this Danish team who offered some kind of attacking dynamism and pure individual skill.
Peter Schmeichel was the second biggest star name in the squad, having signed with Manchester United a year before the tournament. Overall, it was a team of hard working individuals drilled on a pragmatic system that worked well as a unit.
Denmark were drawn in the group of death alongside 1990 World Cup Semi-Finalists England, Euro ’84 winners France and the host nation Sweden. The Danes’ chances of progressing in the tournament were already viewed negatively before the ball was even kicked, but their first two performances only added spice to the whole issue. At that point, it seemed completely impossible that this Danish side could pull off one of the greatest miracles in the history of international football.
In their first group game, Denmark faced England, who went into the tournament with high hopes of finally ending an almost 30-year title drought, and managed to salvage a point with an uninspiring 0-0 draw. Although a point against the Three Lions may not seem a complete disaster at first glance, another non-existent attacking performance against hosts Sweden effectively spelled the end of their European Championship dreams. Denmark went scoreless for a second successive game and suffered their first defeat of the tournament thanks to Per Brolin’s goal, leaving them bottom of the group going into their final match.
Fortunately for the Danes, the other group results were in their favor, meaning they still had a chance to qualify to the next stage. Both France and England had drawn their first two games and were only one point better than the Danes, with Sweden topping the group with one win and one draw. Simply put, Denmark had to win their final group game against France and hope for a helping hand from their Scandinavian neighbors Sweden.
Despite taking an early lead against Les Bleus, it did not seem like the stars were aligning for Denmark as the score was tied 1-1 with just 12 minutes to go. It seemed inevitable that France would eventually go on to win the game despite missing some great chances to take a 2-1 lead. However, what happened next was the beginning of Denmark’s road to Euro ’92 glory. Substitute Lars Elstrup picked up a cross from Fleming Povlsen and nodded the ball into the net from ten yards out. It all happened within a few minutes, as Sweden also took the lead in the match against England shortly afterwards, securing first place in the group, while Denmark finished second.
Meanwhile, in the other group, previous tournament winners Netherlands had also encountered some struggles in their pursuit of becoming the first nation to defend the European Championship crown. The Oranje were grouped together with Scotland, Germany and CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States that followed the breaking up of the USSR), and opened their Euro ’92 campaign with a win over the Scots, albeit unconvincingly, before having to settle for a draw in their second match against CIS.
Consequently, Rinus Michels’ men needed a positive result in their last fixture against Gemany to secure a place in the Semi-Finals. After disappointing performances in the first two group games, the expectations were lower for the Dutch, but the Oranje finally lived up to the hype against arch-rivals Germany, winning 3-1.
After the moral victory against their arch-rivals Germany, the Semi-Final against Denmark seemed to be just a formality for the Oranje, at least that is what the Dutch thought. There was little doubt in the Netherlands’ camp that they would beat the Scandinavians and go through to the Final in the second consecutive tournament. However, the complacency of the Dutch only further motivated the Danes, who had nothing to lose, heading into this tie as clear underdogs.
Too much confidence was exactly what the Oranje showcased in the Semi-Final in Gothenburg. Denmark took a surprise lead with a goal from Henrik Larsen, but the Dutch responded quickly, with Dennis Bergkamp leveling the score 15 minutes later. Nonetheless, the Danes hit back and Larsen scored his second of the night before the break to make it 2-1. Frank Rijkaard equalized again in the final minutes after a corner from Richard Witschge, sending the game into extra time.
Neither side managed a goal in a magnificent 30 minutes of extra time, largely due to a phenomenal performance from Schmeichel, who kept the Dutch at bay with a number of brilliant saves. The game eventually proceeded to penalties, which was recorded as another memorable moment in the European Championship history. The Dutch hero of Euro 1988, Marco Van Basten, stepped up to take the second penalty for the Oranje, but the Milan star’s attempt was saved by the magnificent Schmeichel.
Moments later, Kim Christofte was in line to take the decisive penalty for the Danes. The Brondby defender made no mistake, sending Hans Van Breukelen the wrong way and securing Denmark’s first appearance in a major tournament Final. On the other hand, the Dutch could not believe what had just happened, as they were knocked out of the tournament by the team that were not even supposed to be there.
One football giant replaced another on Denmark’s path to the unthinkable. Two-time winners Germany were the last hurdle the Danes had to overcome, with the whole of Europe betting on a Die Mannschaft victory. Logically, it seemed impossible that this Danish team could pull of another major shock, but football is not always about logic, is it?
One would expect the Germans to have learned their lesson from the Oranje’s uninspired performance in the Semi-Final, but coach Berti Vogts’ men seemed to have completely bypassed the warning signal. Despite having to play 30 minutes of additional time against the Dutch, the Danes looked full of energy for the Final, even though they had almost no time to prepare for the tournament.
Denmark’s star player of the tournament, Schmeichel, put in another phenomenal performance as he was able to frustrate the Germans time and time again with his outstanding saves. The Manchester United shot-stopper led his team from the front, with the Danes’ counter-attacking game catching Die Mannschaft off guard. John Jensen opened the scoring before the break, while Kim Vilfort wrapped up the game in the 78th minute to secure Denmark’s first ever European Championship title.
Playing every game without pressure, as no one expected anything from this Danish side, helped them immensely. Even though they were far from one of the most entertaining teams in the tournament, a combination of good organization and incredible team spirit led Denmark to their greatest ever achievement. To quote midfielder Kim Vilfort: “We did not have the best players, but we had the best team.”
Read the previous episodes of our History of the UEFA Euro:
1960, The Humble Beginnings
1964, Spain’s Forgotten Glory
1968, A Year of Firsts and Lasts
1972, Dream Debut for West Germany
1976, The Year of The Panenka
1980, The Belgium Challenge
1984, Platini’s Edition to Remember
1988, Van Basten and the Dutch Conquest