The Panenka starts a new series of articles chronicling some of the best games ever witnessed at the European Championships.
The first of the series takes us to Gothenburg in 1992 where the tournament finale created one of sport’s most unlikely underdog stories. 1990 World Champions Germany met Denmark after the Danes found themselves competing at the summer tournament due to some very unusual circumstances.
Twenty-four years ago this summer, Denmark were given just over a week’s notice to get a squad prepared for the Euro ’92. A month later, after a 2-0 victory over Germany thanks to goals from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort they were European champions.
Denmark’s inclusion in the tournament held in Sweden was due to the already qualified competitors Yugoslavia having to drop out of the competition due to the country falling into a state of civil war. That makes this story unique, unlikely and definitely something that is never to be repeated again.
The Danes had missed out on qualification to the tournament in Sweden after finishing below Yugoslavia in their qualifying group. When order collapsed in the Balkan crisis, Denmark were dropped into a Euro 92 group containing hosts Sweden, France and England.
Germany meanwhile entered the tournament as strong and unstoppable favorites after lifting the World Cup in Rome two years before. Their squad had remained largely in tact from Italia 90 boasting an array of talent including Effenburg, Sammer, Moller, Klinsmann, Riedle and Voller. Only former coach Franz Beckenbauer and Oliver Bierhoff the notable absentees.
While things were relatively rosy for the World Champions it was quite the opposite for Denmark. During qualification and the two years previous, rifts grew inside the Danish dressing room between coach Richard Moller Nielsen and his players. In 1990 key players such as Jan Molby, Jan Heintze, as well as brothers Michael and Brian Laudrup, were all axed from the national team for varying degrees of ill-discipline and tactical disagreements. Of these players only Brian Laudrup reconciled to appear in the Final in 1992 against Germany. Its written into folklore that Michael Laudrup rated his own country’s chances at Euro 92 so low that he refused to return from holiday when Denmark’s last minute inclusion was announced.
Upon finding out they were due to perform at the European Championships the Danish FA dragged its squad members away from their respected vacations and hastily arranged a friendly against the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). CIS were a temporary and provisional national team for the former-USSR who had already booked a place at the tournament before the group of nations dissolved.
Against a backdrop of political context such as CIS competing despite not being a nation, Yugoslavia having to pullout because they might not be a nation for much longer and Germany, competing as World Champions and a newly unified nation, the tournament got underway.
In the group stage which at the time consisted of only two groups with the top two proceeding to the semi-finals, Denmark snuck through to the knockouts with a draw, a defeat and a victory. In the final group game Richard Moller Nielsen’s men completed an unlikely 2-1 victory with goals from Henrik Larsen and Lars Elstrup against France to secure a semi-final against reigning champions Holland.
The Holland semi-final saw the Danes show their promise. Denmark had led twice over normal time only to be denied by an 86th minute Rijkaard equalizer. The two teams battled valiantly to take the game to penalties after extra-time had remained 2-2.
In the shootout the Dutch hero of 1988, Marco van Basten, had his spot kick saved by Peter Schmeichel. It was the only missed penalty and defender Kim Christofte eventually sealed Denmark’s berth into the final with the decisive penalty.
Germany’s route to the final had not been without incident either. In their opening game the were held 1-1 with CIS, before beating Scotland 2-0. In Berti Vogts’ men’s final group game they were embarrassed 3-1 Holland. Still, the draw and the win was enough to see Germany through to the semi-final where they would meet hosts Sweden.
Vogts took over as coach from Beckenbauer after the 1990 World Cup and saw things go a little bit more to plan against the Swedes in the semi-final. The Germans ran out 3-2 winners. A late Kim Anderson strike did put the hosts just one goal away from taking the tie in to extra time but the World Champions held on to secure their place as red hot favorites in the final against Denmark.
In the final Denmark stunned the watching world when John Jensen drove in after 18 minutes. Goals were a rarity for the midfielder but this was no ordinary tournament. Kim Vilfort completed the fairytale by adding a second late in the game. The Germans tried to hit back but an inspired Schmeichel kept out everything that was thrown at him.
As expected Germany dominated the opening exchanges of the final. Schmeichel though, who had signed for Manchester United the previous year, was the hero for the Danes as he saved from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald early in the tie.
Against the run of play John Jensen put Denamrk ahead after 18 minutes. He had only scored one goal in his first 48 internationals but grabbed his second with a spectacular strike from the right-hand corner of the area. Jensen’s scoring record was such a poor one that Arsenal fans, the club Jensen signed for directly after the tournament, printed t-shirts to commemorate his only goal for the London club against QPR which state “I was there when John Jensen scored!”
Germany reeled after conceding but came straight back. Schmeichel again this time denied Klinsmann before denying Effenburg to keep Denmark’s clean sheet intact.
There was no let-up after the interval either. Kent Nielsen cleared off the line with Karl-Heinz Riedle poised to bury Klinsmann’s cross. Riedle striker might have scored himself moments later but another reaction save from Schmeichel tipped his bullet header over. At this point it seemed only a matter of time before Germany would level the tie and in doing so break the Danish resolve to go on and win the game.
That however, was not to be the case. In the 78th minute Kim Vilfort popped up to all but clinch the game and the trophy for Denmark. Vilfort, who had screwed his side’s only other chance of the second half wide, brought the ball under control before turning inside to fire in a low shot to settle the contest.
It was a touching end to the fairy tale. Particularly for Vilfort who had twice left the Danish camp and missed a group match to visit his ailing seven-year-old daughter who was suffering from leukemia.
Years later, while speaking to the BBC, Vilfort pointed to the strong bond in the squad as to why they had triumphed against expectations. “Ten of the players we had in the squad either played for or had previously played for Brondby. A year before the Euros, Brondby had got to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup – that was a big thing for a Danish club,” he said.
Adding: “We had fantastic spirit. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.”
As Denmark rejoiced Richard Møller Nielsen recalled, “I should have put in a new kitchen but then we were called away to play in Sweden.” And we are glad he had his priorities right because, unlike Michael Laudrup, he and his Denmark team played a major role in one of the greatest games of the European Championships.