Over the years, there have been a number of upsets in the European Championships. The first major example is Czechoslovakia’s triumph in 1976 when the Panenka penalty was born in Yugoslavia. Many years later, Greece claimed an unexpected title in Lisbon against the Portuguese hosts. But perhaps the biggest upset happened between these two tournaments when the Danish national team were victorious in 1992.
International tournament football is often heavily politicised. The world watched on as a storm was cooked up surrounding the World Cup in Russia. The next 2022 tournament in Qatar is even more under the microscope. Far from being a new phenomenon, however, this has always been the case.
At the 1992 European Championship in Sweden, there was a bubbling political subtext. On Boxing Day 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union began. The Berlin Wall fell a month prior and, in truth, the old order’s days had been numbered for many moons. Though they were hardly the most pressing of concerns for the people of Europe, there were sporting ramifications.
The Soviet Union had a pretty illustrious footballing past, though, at the World Cup, they had perhaps underperformed. They had qualified for seven tournaments out of a possible nine, failing to make it out of the qualifying group in 1978 and not turning up for the decisive play-off match with Chile in 1974. This was due to concerns about the venue in Santiago, where 40,000 political prisoners were held by the Pinochet regime just weeks earlier, many of them being executed.
At the finals of the tournament, they’d made it to the quarter-finals on three occasions. But it was at the European Championships that they shone. They won the very first edition of the continental tournament in 1960, then finished as runners-up in two of the next three editions. Sandwiched between them was a 4th place finish in 1968. In fact, the Soviet Union were defeated finalists in the 1988 competition held in Germany, the edition before Sweden in ’92, losing to the Netherlands whom they had already beaten in the group stage of that competition.
At the European Championships, therefore, the Soviet Union were represented by the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). In a time of intense unrest in Europe, the Yugoslav Wars were an indirect consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This series of conflicts between Balkan states led directly to Denmark winning the European Championships in 1992.
Rightly or wrongly, the civil war led to Yugoslavia’s disqualification from the tournament. Like the Soviets, the Yugoslavs had a decent footballing pedigree, finishing as runners-up in the European Championships twice and reaching the last eight of the World Cup on three occasions. Their disqualification on political grounds, which came after they had qualified at a canter, was therefore incredibly dramatic.
Denmark, who finished second in Group 4 behind Yugoslavia, automatically took their place. The rest, as they say, is history.
When looking at the Danish squad for Euro 1992, one name jumps off the page: Peter Schmeichel. A 28-year-old at the time with 47 international caps, the iconic shot-stopper had signed for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the season which preceded the Championships in Sweden. He had played almost all of United’s 41 league games that campaign and set himself apart as one of the great goalkeepers. His famous “starfish silhouette” would become part of Premier League folklore and the Dane would go on to win 15 trophies in England.
United had won the League Cup in 1991-92 but had missed out on the First Division title to arch-rivals Leeds United. Schmeichel, who had grown accustomed to winning regular silverware in his home country with Brøndby before his transfer to England, clearly wanted more. And at Euro ’92, he got his wish.
He was selected by manager Richard Møller Nielsen, a relatively inexperienced boss. He spent the entirety of his playing career with Odense BK in his home country and was capped twice by Denmark before he hung up his boots in 1962.
Nielsen immediately moved into management, first taking charge of Brobyvaerk IF, an amateur team, between ’62 and ’64. He would manage in the lower leagues for the next two decades before an opportunity with Denmark’s Under-21 side presented itself.
He oversaw the youngsters for over a decade before graduating to being Sepp Piontek’s assistant with the national team in 1987. In a strange career move, he briefly took charge of the Danish national futsal team before becoming Denmark’s first-team coach in 1990.
Nielsen qualified them for a major tournament at his first attempt in ’92. But after the remarkable triumph in Sweden, his career declined. Under his stewardship, Denmark failed to qualify for the World Cup in the United States in 1994. They made it to Euro 96 but failed to progress beyond the group stage. He left the Danish hot seat not long after and saw out the rest of his career managing Finland, Israel and finally Kolding FC.
There are a few other notable names on the roster. Henrik Andersen was playing for FC Köln at the time and had recently won the UEFA Cup with Anderlecht. John Sivebæk is a name which might be familiar to fans in England and France. He represented Manchester United for a solitary campaign in 1986-87 before spending five years in France with Saint-Etienne and AS Monaco.
Flemming Povlsen played for Real Madrid 1986, though he would never make the grade with the Spanish giants and later moved to play for Borussia Dortmund, winning the Bundesliga with them in 1994-95. John Jensen – or “Faxe” as he was known – played for Arsenal 99 times between 1992 and 1996 and won 69 caps for his country.
Besides Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup is perhaps the most distinguished name on the list. At the time of the European Championships in 1992, Laudrup was playing for Bayern Munich. After the tournament had finished, he moved to Italy to play for Fiorentina and then AC Milan where he would win the Champions League in 1994. After that, he turned out for Rangers for a number of years, before brief stints with Chelsea, Copenhagen and Ajax.
His brother, Michael Laudrup, is conspicuous only by his absence. One of the finest players in Europe at the time, Michael played for Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid in a distinguished career which saw him win 15 trophies, including a European Cup with Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in 1992. Before the tournament in Sweden, which Denmark had initially failed to qualify for, Laudrup had fallen out with manager Nielsen and made himself unavailable for selection. It’s a decision that must haunt him till this day.
Michael Laudrup would later return to international duty but would come nowhere near achieving the same level of success that his teammates had in ’92.
The tournament: game by game
On the face of it, Denmark’s results were relatively unremarkable in 1992. In total, they won just two matches in normal time. However, the fact that they managed to secure safe passage to the knockout stages from a group containing England, France and hosts Sweden is a triumph in itself.
In the knockout stages, they squeaked past one of the great Dutch teams on penalties before what was a relatively convincing victory over Germany in the final. Henrik Larsen finished as the tournament’s joint-leading goalscorer with three goals, but bizarrely just two Danish players made it into the UEFA Team of the Tournament: Schmeichel and Laudrup.
England 0-0 Denmark, 11/06/92, Malmö Stadion
In the opening match, Denmark played an England team who had reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Italy two years earlier. Since then, the English FA had appointed Graham Taylor as Bobby Robson’s successor, Robson having left to coach PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. Taylor’s appointment was an unmitigated disaster as he was unable to progress from the group stage at Euro ’92 before failing to qualify for the World Cup two years later.
But England were still a team with a great deal of firepower and some household names to call on: Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Alan Smith up front and the likes of Martin Keown, David Platt and Paul Merson behind them. Denmark held them to a 0-0 draw in Malmö, having the better of the chances and hitting the post through Christensen with just a few minutes left before the final whistle.
Sweden 1-0 Denmark, 14/06/92, Råsunda Stadium
“I cannot explain how disappointed we were”: Peter Schmeichel’s words looking back on his side’s defeat to hosts, Sweden. He was beaten by Thomas Brolin who stabbed home after a swift Sweden counter-attack with half an hour left to play. The team who would go on to win the tournament did not score in their opening two games, picking up just one point in the process. The result was made all the more disappointing by the fact that it came against their Scandinavian rivals.
For Nielsen’s side to make it through to the knockout stages, they would need fortune to smile on them once again. Going into the final matchday, Sweden were topping the group with three points, bearing in mind that it was two points for a win in ’92 – the last tournament where this was the case. France were in second position on two points, narrowly edging out England by virtue of goals scored. And, at the bottom of the group were Denmark, with a solitary point.
France 1-2 Denmark, 17/06/92, Malmö Stadion
When the time came, Denmark knew what they had to do. Only victory against the France team of Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin would be enough. They also had to hope that Sweden could at least hold England to a draw.
Things didn’t start well as, four minutes into England’s match, which kicked off at the same time as Denmark’s, David Platt gave England the lead. As it stood, Denmark were to be knocked out and finish bottom of the group. A few minutes later things began to look up though. Henrik Larsen fired the Danes into the lead with a sweet half volley. At half time, the scores were 1-0 in both games. Denmark were level on points with Sweden, but their inferior goals scored meant they were heading home.
But six minutes into the second half, Jan Eriksson gave Sweden and equaliser against England. This meant Denmark and the Three Lions were dead even; had it stayed that way, lots would had to have been drawn to see which team would progress.
But it didn’t. France equalised through Jean-Pierre Papin on 60 minutes, a low drive beating Schmeichel at his far post after the keeper had made a series of superb stops throughout the game. Now France occupied the all-important second-place spot. It was turning out to be an evening of high drama. It would continue.
With 12 minutes remaining, Lars Elstrup fired Denmark into a glorious lead – a close-range finish from a low cross. A few minutes later and Denmark had a cushion, Sweden sensationally took the lead against England and sent the country into euphoria. As the final whistle shrilled, the group standings were finalised. Sweden went through as group winners as France and England crashed out in third and fourth respectively.
In the end, the table looked like it was upside down – everyone had expected the French and the English to breeze through to the knockout stages. But the Scandinavians had the last laugh.
Netherlands 2-2 Denmark (4-5p), 22/06/92, Ullevi
From the other group, the Netherlands and Germany had qualified, knocking out Scotland and the CIS in the process. The Netherlands beat Scotland 1-0 in their opening match, drew 0-0 with the CIS then beat Germany 3-1 in their final game. This meant they had the best record at the tournament; there was no doubt they had the best squad.
In this era, the Netherlands were a tour de force. Playing Total Football, Rinus Michel’s side won the European Championships in 1988. They had some of the best players in the world, and PSV and Ajax were among the strongest club sides in the game. For lowly Denmark to beat a team including, amongst others, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit, Frank de Boer, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard was a tall order. But, somehow, they managed it.
In what was a superb contest, the Danish edged past the Dutch on penalties after a 2-2 draw. The first of the goals came after less than five minutes in what was a dream start for the Danes. Laudrup’s cross from the by-line found the head of Larsen at the back post, and the Lyngby forward scored his second goal of the tournament.
The Dutch had started very slowly, perhaps the victims of their own overconfidence. After the goal, they rallied and began to string some good moves together. This culminated in Dennis Bergkamp’s equaliser some 20 minutes later. His strike was not as clean as people were used to seeing from the Ajax man, but it somehow got through Schmeichel in what was one of the ‘keeper’s only mistakes of the tournament. The goalkeeper would later redeem himself in the shootout.
But, just ten minutes later, Denmark were back in front. Again, it was Larsen who got the goal, a laser-guided strike from the 18 yards. By this point, the match had grown into something of a battle. Laudrup and Andersen were both forced off with injuries; the latter’s was particularly gruesome as he split his kneecap in two. While the Danish could compete with the Dutch physically, they were struggling to cope with their speed and technical ability.
They held on for what seemed like an eternity but, with four minutes left of the 90, Frank Rijkaard grabbed a deserved equaliser. The goal came from a corner; Rob Witschge tossed the ball in from the right-hand side where Ruud Gullit met it with the flick-on and Rijkaard swept home.
In extra-time, the Danish were hanging on, camped in their own half, their best players knackered from playing four games in such a short period of time, hoping and praying that the Dutch would not be able to find a way through. Bryan Roy went close on two occasions, although the biggest chance fell at the feet of captain Ruud Gullit. However, Schmeichel got a glove to it, and Christensen heroically cleared off the line.
The penalty shootout was straightforward. Denmark scored all five of theirs. The Netherlands had one saved. Dennis Bergkamp saw a decent penalty saved by Schmeichel diving to his left. It was left to Kim Christofte to score the winning penalty, and he did it in style. With a one-step run-up, the Brøndby defender rolled the ball past the Dutch goalkeeper and sent the travelling Danish contingent into raptures.
Denmark 2-0 Germany, 26/06/92, Ullevi Stadium
The final, it transpired, was much more straightforward for the Danes. Germany had beaten Sweden 3-2 in the other semi but succumbed to a frustrating Denmark side 2-0.
John Jensen got the first goal inside 20 minutes, a piledriver from the right corner of the box. Germany had chances between the opener and the decisive goal with twelve minutes to play but to no avail. Schmeichel made a couple of excellent saves as it became clearer and clearer that it was not going to be Germany’s day.
Vilfort scored the second, and the game was over. He chopped inside Thomas Helmer and fizzed a shot past the keeper. Just like that, Denmark had sprung one of the biggest shocks in international football history. The team that didn’t even qualify lifted the trophy in Gothenburg.