A cleaner in an old people’s home made sure he was not scheduled to work on 12 June 1984. There was no way this football fanatic wasn’t going to have his eyes fixated to a television set for the opening match of the UEFA European Championship between his native Denmark and France.
Les Bleus won the match and the tournament, but while the 20-year-old was a tad disappointed with the former outcome, he wasn’t at all despondent with the latter. For while he had fantasised about the remote possibility of Denmark upsetting the celestial, Michel Platini-illuminated carousel over 90 minutes in Paris, the prospect of
Denmark becoming continental kings was too unrealistic for even a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.
Yet Denmark did, improbably, become European champions; and that cleaner did, implausibly, play the leading role in their 1992 conquest. His name was Peter Schmeichel. He was a goalkeeper renowned for employing his hulking frame to perfection in one-on-one situations, having rapid reflexes that belied that physique, saving pivotal spot-kicks, scoring the odd goal and using his bear-like roar to command his team-mates.
And Schmeichel’s extraordinary goalkeeping was not exclusive to international level. Indeed, between 1987 and 2000, he won a remarkable nine leagues titles in Denmark, England and Portugal, and played a starring role in Manchester United’s 1998/99 UEFA Champions League triumph.
“Schmeichel was possibly the greatest keeper of all time,” said his Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson. “He was capable of truly mind-blowing saves – his reflexes were magnificent for such a big man. And he used his size to great effect. Nobody could make themselves big like he did, and I don’t know how many times I saw striker bottle it when Schmeichel charged off his line at them.
“The greatest players for me, they’re always attackers, the ones who make something happen out of nothing. The Peles, Maradonas, Cruyffs of the past. Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney of today. But Schmeichel was a rare exception of a keeper who was as influential as the best players of his era.”
The path to earning that status was an arduous one, and mopping floors in an old people’s home was just one of many jobs Schmeichel held as he struggled to establish himself as a professional footballer. He also worked in a textile factory, a flooring firm and for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature while appearing for Gladsaxe-Hero and Hvidovre, before getting his big break in early 1987: a move to the previous year’s Danish top flight runners-up, Brondby.
In his first term at the club, Schmeichel conceded just over half the number of goals the club had leaked the previous year to help them finish nine points clear at the top. The Gladsaxe native spent four full seasons at BIF, helping them become domestic champions in three of those, but he made the most prominent headlines in his time there during the 1990/91 UEFA Cup.
Schmeichel, indeed, kept clean sheets in seven of nine matches against Eintracht Frankfurt, Ferencvaros, Bayer Leverkusen, Torpedo Moscow and Roma – and emerged as the star of the penalty shoot-out against the Russians – as Brondby unexpectedly stormed on to the cusp of the final, before a 2-1 defeat in the Italian capital extinguished their charge.
It was a match witnessed by a wowed Ferguson, who paid £505,000 to take Schmeichel to Manchester United before the start of 1991/92 and duly installed him as his first choice between the sticks. The Red Devils were fresh from finishing sixth in the English top tier, but ran home in second, and with the division’s best defensive record, in Schmeichel’s maiden campaign before becoming English champions for the first time in 26 years in 1992/93 – a feat indebted to a whopping 22 clean sheets from their goalkeeper.
Schmeichel proved fundamental to United doing the Premier League and FA Cup double in 1993/94 and 1995/96, while they also won the championship again in 1996/97. Into his mid-30s, Schmiechel decided his body could no longer cope with the rigours of representing such a gargantuan club, and announced that 1998/99 would be his last campaign at ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. It proved to be a season of dreams for Schmeichel.
Indeed, he saved a last-gasp Denis Bergkamp penalty to send United’s FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal into extra-time, where a Ryan Giggs wonder goal snatched Ferguson’s troops a final meeting against Newcastle United, which they won 2-0; he produced a phenomenal display on the final day of the Premier League to inspire the Red Devils to a 2-1 reserve of Tottenham Hotspur, which ensured they pipped the Gunners to the title by just a point; and, in his last appearance for the club, he captained them to a 2-1 comeback defeat of Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final to complete an illustrious treble.
Schmiechel duly joined Sporting and propelled the Lisbon giants to their first Portuguese Liga crown in 18 years, before concluding his club career with short spells at Aston Villa and Manchester City.
Stunning in Sweden
By then he had called time on his international career – one that began as a 23-year-old in May 1987. When Troels Rasmussen disappointed in Denmark’s EURO 1988 opener – a 3-2 defeat by Spain – the Brondby man assumed the gloves for their remaining two Group A games. Unfortunately, both ended in 2-0 losses to Germany and Italy, and more misery ensued when the Danes finished behind Yugoslavia in EURO 1992 qualifying.
When the Central Europeans were banned from competing, however, the southernmost Nordic nation replaced them in the finals. Richard Moller Nielsen’s side were nevertheless the rank outsiders, but they made a positive start with a goalless draw against England before losing 1-0 to hosts Sweden second time out. The result left the Scandinavians bottom of Group A, but, aided by masterful Schmeichel saves from Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin, they beat France 2-1 to reach the semi-finals. There, Schmeichel turned in another outstanding display as Denmark drew 2-2 with a formidable Netherlands side, before he crucially saved a Marco van Basten penalty to propel his team to a 5-4 victory in the shoot-out.
“I’d always looked forward to penalties,” he later recalled. “I was always really confident. I thought to myself, ‘It’s impossible for me to lose this.’ When I saw [Van Basten] stepping up, I decided which way to dive and I went with conviction. That’s the way I always tried to save penalties, and it served me well.”
But if Denmark had raised eyebrows by reaching the final, they would need to drop jaws to win it. For in their way were Germany, the reigning world champions whose side comprised the likes of Andreas Brehme, Matthias Sammer, Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Hassler, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Jurgen Klinsmann.
Undeterred by their opponents’ celebrity, the underdogs took an 18th-minute lead through John Jensen and, with Schmeichel looking invincible throughout, sealed an unlikely 2-0 victory through Kim Vilfort’s late strike.
Denmark failed to qualify for the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ and fell at the first hurdle at EURO 1996, but Schmeichel did help the team into the quarter-finals at France 1998, where they lost 3-2 to Brazil.
He played his 129th and last international against Slovenia in 2001. Naturally, he kept a clean sheet – something he had done, staggeringly, in 42 per cent of his appearances for Manchester United. But Schmeichel will be remembered as far more than being the greatest goalie in the history of De Rod-Hvide and the Red Devils.
Indeed, in a 2001 Reuters poll, he beat Lev Yashin and Gordon Banks to be named the finest keeper in football history.