Underdog Stories: Denmark

While Euros 2020 (or 2021) may be hailed as a revolutionary step in the tournament’s history but it isn’t the first time such a ‘revolution’ has happened in Euros. A throwback to 1992 will put more light on some ‘revolutionary’ steps in Tournament’s history- from becoming the first ever international tournament to allow player names on the back of team jersey to introducing the back-pass rule in the game. The tournament was also the last Euros to award 2 points for a win and have 2 groups of 4 from which 4 teams advanced to semi-finals. And of course, who can forget Denmark’s victory in that Euros, a team which wasn’t even supposed to take part in the finals.

Denmark’s victory in Euros 1992 had all the ingredients of a unforgetful footballing fairytale. It is the story of a team who didn’t qualify for the finals- who went onto win the thing, beating the World Champions- West Germany (now unified Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern Bloc), the French and European Champions- the Dutch; surely this would be a story that was woven into the tapestry of footballing folklore?

The Danish team had somewhat earned a reputation of playing ‘Beautiful football’ loosely based on the principles of ‘Totaal Voetbal’ or ‘Total Football’ but also using some hard core principles of English football- especially in defensive phase of the game. The Danes had a glorious 1980s- exceeding expectations by participating in World Cup, Euros and even Olympics- the highlight being a 3rd placed finish in 1984 Euros, held in France. The architect behind the resurgence of Danes was the German Sepp Piontek who led the team from 1979 to 1990. While Sepp looked at the attacking phase of the game, his assistant- Richard Moller Nielsen looked after the defensive aspect of their game. Both of them were different in terms of their coaching ideologies yet complemented each other very well. The cocksure team, including the likes of Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen and Preben Elkjaer swaggered and scythed their way through the opposition. It was this attack first, defend second mentality that proved to be their downfall though at what would be the peak of this squad’s cycle. The ageing squad finished bottom of the group in the Euros 1988 then failed to qualify for World Cup Italia 90. It felt like the end of an era.

When Sepp Piontek decided to step down from his duties, the Danish FA wanted to appoint another foreign coach who could continue the way the Nordic nation played the game. First choice Horst Wohler was unable to free himself from a club contract. Eventually, Richard Moller got the nod of national team manager, a decision which wasn’t respected by the squad, the national media and the fans- because of his inexperience at a big stage, ability to manage the ego of big names and most important- his pragmatic approach to the game which was exactly opposite to what everyone wanted.


(Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

The latter was the biggest hurdle to win over the players, media and fans. But Richard stuck to his approach of coaching- emphasizing on team cohesion and more defense-oriented game rather than a free-flowing game of football. Richard had his reasons to emphasize on the team cohesion based game- majority of the regulars for senior team played together for a long time, right from youth levels at international stage to playing together at club level. The core of the team played together for the Copenhagen giants- Brondby IF. One more reason for Richard to adopt this approach was also the influence of ‘English game’ on their neighbours Sweden- Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson’s work in Sweden completely revolutionized the Swedish game. Nielsen took inspiration from this hence went forward with this tactical approach. 


(The compact defensive structure of Danish National Team under Richard Moller Nielsen)

Their start to Euros 1992 qualification group was good- a 4-1 victory against another Nordic side- Faroe Islands but a lackadaisical display of football despite the score-line. This display started a war of words between Nielsen and the Laudrup brothers. A goalless draw against Northern Ireland and a home defeat to footballing powerhouse at that time- Yugoslavia resulted in a nationwide eruption. The Laudrup brothers decided to quit national football because of the entire change in tactical system which rendered their natural game useless. Calls for Nielsen’s sacking were ever increasing but with time, the remaining team eventually settled down and adapted to Nielsen’s setup- a good run of 5 consecutive victories in their qualification group including a historic win on the road against Yugoslavia but it was not enough. Yugolslavia finished first in the qualification group while Denmark missed out on finals of Euros 1992, finishing behind Yugolsavia at 2nd place. A summer break for the Danes was awaiting, a most probable sacking for Nielsen was on the cards. But then, an UN order changed the course of their footballing history. The war struck Balkans entered into a very ugly phase of the war and sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia by the UN- which resulted in the Balkan country’s participation in upcoming Euros null and void just 12 days before the start of Euros. Their place was given to the Danes. Nielsen had a Herculian task of preparing the squad for Euros in comparison to the other participating nations who had a head start of months when it came to training. After trying his best to reconcile with Laudrup brothers- only Brian decided to return back from this hiatus- becoming the last person to be named in the 20-man squad for Euros. Even after getting a last-minute lifeline, there was still another problem for Nielsen. Regular football season wasn’t finished in Denmark because of which many clubs didn’t release the players who were to take part in the Euros. Initially, only 7 players reported for training camp. Only after all club football was concluded in Denmark, did the remaining players join the training camp. Kim Vilfort, the 29-year old midfielder and captain of Brondby IF, joined the training camp after the others joined on a later date because of personal reasons.His 7-year old daughter- Line Vilfort was getting treatment for Leukemia and a last-minute respite came in the form of her improving health and his daughter’s insistence to take part in the Euros which prompted Kim to join the training camp.

The team travelled to Sweden with almost zero expectations, everyone including the players weren’t expecting to even get out of the group stage which consisted of host nation-Sweden, France led by Eric Cantona and Jean Pierre-Papin and Gary Lineker’s England. Only one man believed in absolute victory- Nielsen himself. And he eventually was able to instill this mentality in his tightly knit squad also. A hard-fought goalless draw against England provided a good start to the Danes. The Danes went into the next match against Host nation with some confidence but a narrow 1-0 loss to the Swedes put Denmark on the verge of elimination. Their last match? Against one of competition’s favourite-France. Everyone counted Denmark out. Danes didn’t just need a victory against the star-studded French team but they also needed the other match’s result to go their way.  But against all odds, Denmark did the unthinkable. Not only they defeated France 2-1 but the result of other match also went their way which meant that 2 of tournament’s favourite- France and England were eliminated. Denmark achieved this victory without their midfield cog- Kim Vilfort who had to leave the national team to go back to Copenhagen in order to stay close to his daughter, whose health was again deteriorating. His replacement- Henrik Larsen pulled the strings from midfield against France- also ending up on the scoresheet and the winner came through Lars Elstrup- who came on for Brian Laudrup, late into the ending stages of the match. This particular substitution changed the outlook of Richard in front of the squad who now bought the picture potrayed by Nielsen, especially Brian Laudrup who despite being substituted in the crunch moments of the match for Elstrup, held no qualms about it. Finally, buying in the team ethic-based approach of his manager.  The Danes despite being out of shape still achieved the unthinkable, that too without any rigourous training. The manager rather treated his squad to regular leisure activities of Mini Golf and eating out at McDonalds. The Nordic countries took their place in the semi finals. Their counter parts? The defending Euro champions- the mighty Dutch and the World Champions- Germany, who knocked out the Scots and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)- comprised of the countries who were once part of now defunct Soviet Nation.

With Kim Nilfort again joining his team mates, the Danes took to the field in Gothenburg against the Netherlands- spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Duo’s performances in last Euros brought the crown home for the first time in Oranje’s history. This time, they were out with the mission to defend their crown. But, they didn’t expect that Denmark will come all guns blazing on them, right from first minute. Henrik Larsen gave an early lead to the Danes. Their ultra-attacking approach in this fixture resulted in defensive vulnerability at the back but they had Peter Schmeichel to thank. He somehow kept the Dutch attack at bay but Dennis Bergkamp eventually struck gold at 23rd minute, equalizing the score. The Danish team then changed back to their more compact and defensive shape, welcoming a barrage of attacks from the Dutch. But, they counter-attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Just 8 minutes later, Denmark took the lead- again Henrik Larsen scored who then became the joint top scorer of the tournament. Denmark then used their pragmatic approach to see out the match. Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, Kim Christofte were having the game of their lives. But a fumble inside their own defensive half saw Frank Rijkaard to equalize the score. After dull extra time- given the fatigue got the better of both teams, the match went to penalties. The veteran Dutch keeper- Hans Van Breukelen tried his best to unsettle the underdogs but it all went in vain. The star striker- Marco Van Basten saw his penalty being saved by the ice giant- Peter Schmeichel. Peter mimicked the stance of their 1960 Olympic Silver medal winning Danish keeper- by sticking a chewing gum on the outer periphery of the goal post every time the opposition player came up to take the spot kick- trying to unsettle them. Van Basten eventually crumbled under this unsettling trick and his poor spot kick was saved by Schmeichel. Kim Christofte was charged with the final spot kick. A conversion meant that Denmark will go into the finals. Unfazed by Van Breukelen’s antics, he kept his cool and slotted home the winner. Denmark advanced to a historic final.

In other semi-final, Sweden gave the world champions a fight for their money but the Germans were able to defeat the hosts in a narrow 2-3 victory. The Danes faced the undaunting task of fighting the world champions. But what happened on 26th June, 1992 in Ullevi Stadion, Gothenburg will remain in the memories of not only the Danes but in the memories of every football romantic. Danes, who were the last to arrive to the party to which they were uninvited, were the ones to celebrate first.


Line ups for final of Euro 1992

Early waves of German attacks were repelled, Schmeichel turning shots away from Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Klinsmann. Temporary stands were being erected in Frankfurt ready for the victorious Die Mannschaft’s return to home soil. John Jensen though, had other ideas. Not known for his goal-scoring prowess, having previously struck the post earlier in the competition. Faxe as he was known to team mates arrived at the edge of the penalty area as Povlsen cut the ball back. He struck it first time and sent a bolt past Bodo Illgner to give Denmark the unlikeliest of leads after 18 minutes.

The Germans were shell shocked. Their confidence shattered. Meanwhile, Danes played with all their might in order to keep the Germans at bay who started to go all guns blazing in 2nd half. But at 78th minute, Kim Vilfort received the ball in German’s defensive end from a long goal kick of Peter Schmeichel. What he did after that will always be remembered by the Danes. A brilliant solo effort, which included wrong footing 2 German defenders and taking a shot from his weaker left foot- which ended up into the goal via the goal post. It was 2-0. A final nail in the coffin of German defense was delivered by the man who had decided to not go to Euros and stay back with his family, only for his little daughter’s insistence to play in the tournament. Denmark- European champions for the first time in their history and arguably the biggest underdog victory in history of the sport.

Half of the team was recalled from it’s vacation, half of the team had to cancel it and ended up pulling the biggest upset. And it wasn’t just luck. It was a team effort, not the effort of manager or certain individual players. It was a proper team performance. To many observers, they were essentially coming in to make up the numbers. Nobody expected Denmark to be able to compete. The tournament was won, one that the victorious team were not even part of 26 days earlier. The tournaments slogan was ‘Small is beautiful’, perhaps then aptly won by a nation of a mere 5 million people.


(Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

And this victory changed the course of Danish Football. Peter Schmeichel went on to win even more laurels with Manchester United, Henrik Larsen secured a big move to Arsenal. Brian Laudrup and Flemming Povlsen won domestic titles with AC Milan, Rangers and Borussia Dortmund respectively. While Michael Laudrup was not the part of this squad but his achievements at club level elevated the level of Danish football to new heights. Kim Vilfort’s performances at Euros attracted interest from major English, Italian and Spanish teams but he decided to stay with his beloved Brondby, whom he took to semi finals of UEFA Cup a year before and regular participation at European stage followed- thereby becoming a club legend and club’s record goal scorer in his 12 year stint with the Copenhagen club. He had to sadly see his daughter succumb to Leukemia just 6 weeks after his Man of the Match worthy performances in the final. As described by his former coach Morten Olsen, Kim had “an indomitable winning mentality” and he “always believed it could be done, no matter how bleak things looked.”  This attitude was surely never more apparent than in the midst of the triumph and trauma of his summer of 1992. This prompted him to become a vocal participant, raising awareness about Leukemia and Cancer and also taking ambassadorial for many organizations- raising awareness about Mental Health- which itself was a societal stigma at that time. Richard Moller Nielsen was finally able to woo the public and media who were against him. In 2014, Richard Moller Nielsen was posthumously entered into the Danish football hall of fame, after succumbing to a brain tumour earlier that year.

For Denmark, this wasn’t the last international tournament victory. The Danes went on to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 with majority of the core’e nucleus being the players who played together at Brondby IF-led by Kim Vilfort.  Kim retired from international football after the 1995 Confederations Cup victory and eventually hung his boots in 1998. Even after retirement, he stuck down to work for his childhood club, working with the youth teams as the head of scouting and recruitment, hoping to find the ‘next generation’ which can take the mantle from his generation and even do better than them. In the present day, his beloved team finally won the League after a 16 year wait and at the heart of this team was a 20 year old midfielder Jesper Lindstrom who was himself scouted by Kim many years ago.

When asked about the Euros victory, he always pointed out to the team spirit of that Danish side- “We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.” 


(Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

The generation of Richard Moller Nielsen has inspired the future generation of footballers in Denmark, who always look upto the cult heroes of 1992. What happened in Copenhagen a few days back was a testament to the spirit of Danish people, together no matter what the situation is and yesterday’s victory against Russsia against all odds put them into Knockout rounds of yet another Euros. And it was possible because of the team spirit and the backing of ‘the 12th man’, the fans. Telia Parken saw another chapter unfold. Even if Denmark doesn’t win their next match, their deeds in this Euros will be remembered forever.

god bedring, Christian


(Photo by Pool via REUTERS)