Saturday, July 9, 2011
Revisiting the Euros: Denmark Win European Championships 1992
They weren't even supposed to be there. And yet, they somehow defied the laws of the game and won the European Championships. That's football for you.
Danish coach Richard Moler Nielson was on the brink of the sack following Denmark's failed attempt at qualification for the European Championships in 1992. Nielson became sick of seeing this Danish side play beautiful football but lacking sufficient results. He tried implementing his management skills on the team but it resulted in one of their most famed players quitting the international game, in protest of Nielson's playing style. That player was Michael Laudraup. What Nielson, his squad and the media didn't know at the time was that it would turn out to be for the greater good.
Denmark's qualification for the tournament was a mixed bag, to say the least. They began with a comfortable 2-0 victory over the Faroe Islands, followed by a draw with the Northern Irish, then a 2-1 defeat to eventual table-toppers Yugoslavia. The results sparked a drastic change to Nielson's Denmark with Michael and brother Brian Laudrup quitting the international scene and then star players like Jan Molby and Jan Heintxe were subsequently left out of the squad by Nielson due to 'disciplinary problems'. The Danes won all their remaining qualifiers but it wasn't enough as Yugoslavia topped the group thus qualifying for that summers European Championship.
The Yugoslavian team, led by captain Dejan Stankovic, traveled to Sweden to prepare for the tournament early in June. What they didn't know was that they'd soon be dealt an ultimate blow to their European Championship preparations as the civil war back in Yugoslavia had them inexplicably expelled from the competition. Stankovic was given the job of breaking the news to his teammates during a team meeting just ten days before the Championship 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 thattheir 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.”
What was Yugoslavia's loss was Denmark's gain as when Moler Nielson received the phone call asking Denmark to compete at the expense of Yuogslavia, he couldn't have been more ecstatic. He quickly shared the message throughout his team which had disbanded for their summer holidays. The Danes had been keeping a close eye on each installment on what was going on inside Yugoslavia and it was fair to say, some half-expected the Yugoslavian team to be banished from Sweden. Anyway, with only ten days to prepare the Danish side, led by Richard Moler Nielson, set off on a European journey with nobody really expecting them to make an impression.
The Group stage pitted them against outright favourites France, the much fancied England and host nation Sweden. England were heavy favourites against the Danes in the opening game and so when Moler Nielson'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 host nation 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. However, even though they lost Denmark still had a chance of qualifying from the group. All they had to do was bet France in the final group game. In the build-up to the final group game against France Moler Nielson decided to reward the team with a bout of mini-golf, just days before the France game. Oddly enough, the team bonding excercise worked wonders as Denmark defied the odds and caused another upset by beating and knocking out Championship favourites France. The 2-1 win meant that Denmark qualified for the semi-finals finishing under Sweden in group A. Denmark's semi-final qualification in second place meant that they'd be entertaining the winner of Group B, who were the heavily fancied Netherlands.
The odds on the Dutch progressing heavily outweighed that of the Danes, but Moler Nielson'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 Nielson, the coach felt that his players had served themselves justice at getting this far and treated them to a one-off fast food feast. They reentered the bus chuffed that the gaffer had granted them their proposal and beknownsted to them they were to return the favour just days later when they took to the pitch against the Dutch.
Denmark had a shock lead barely five minutes in. Brian Laurdup whizzed down the right flank and crossed it for Henrik Larsen who headed home after the cross evaded Netherlands keeper Hans van Breuklen. The Danes were off to a flier and it was fair to say, had ousted the Dutch in so many 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 that goal didn't stop Denmark from continuing their impeccable 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 that they could go on to win this tie. They just had to keep focus and complete the job in-hand. Unfortunately, they couldn't hold on and the Dutch rallied through an 86th minute goal coming from Frank Rijkaard, stabbing home from a corner. Denmark headed for extra-time virtually unsure of their fate as they had to play on with one injured man because they had already used up their substitute limit.
Despite the Dutch's superiority, the game was taken to penalties after a pulsating extra-time bout and the Netherlands were first up. Ronald 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 ever-so remarkable Peter Shmeichel and it was advantage Denmark. Povlsen's subsequent penalty hit the back of the net. The remaining six penalties were all safely dispatched and thanks to Kim Christofe, Denmark knocked out the holders and progressed to final to do battle with the current World Cup champions Germany.
The Danes once again got their necks in-front as John Jensen got them off to a flier with a thunderbolt from the edge of the 18-yard box. The Germany team began to dominate and had it not been for a spirited performance from Danish keeper Peter Schmeichel Denmark would have surely gone behind. Save after save after magnificent save, the Danes were lucky to head into the break with that slim 1-0 lead. The second-half was more of the same as the Germany team 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. And when Bruno Galler blew up for full-time, various members of the Denmark team trotted over to congratulate Schmeichel on his man-of-the-match performance. It was a fairytale ending to a fairytale story for the Danes after winning a tournament they hadn't even qualified for in the first place and Moler Nielson had saved his job, for the time being anyway.