Danish football was in depression in May 1992. The golden generation of the previous decade, who lost to Spain on penalties in the UEFA EURO 1984 semi-finals and beat West Germany 2-0 and Uruguay 6-1 at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, was now a distant memory. Much fresher in the mind was the 4-0 thrashing by arch-rivals Sweden the previous year – their worst defeat in the fixture since 1959 – and their failure to qualify for Italy 1990 and EURO 1992.
Just ten days before the latter tournament was due to kick off, however, the Danes were handed a lifeline. UEFA were forced to ban Yugoslavia from participating due to the ongoing conflict in the socialist state, and their place was afforded to Richard Moller Nielsen’s side, who had been their runners-ups in qualifying.
Naturally, having failed to qualify and devoid of time to prepare, Denmark began EURO 1992 as the rank outsiders, but after a goalless draw with England and a 1-0 loss to Sweden, they upset France 2-1 to seize second spot in Group 1 and a semi-final date with the Netherlands. Thereafter, a Henrik Larsen brace and a magnificent performance from goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel earned the Scandinavians a 2-2 draw after extra time, before the blond No1 saved Marco van Basten’s penalty to help the underdogs eliminate the defending champions in the ensuing shoot-out.
Denmark were one step away from the most unlikely triumph in European Championship history, but what a towering hurdle awaited them 20 years ago this Tuesday. Germany were appearing in their tenth major final and Denmark their first, while Die Nationalelf were the reigning world champions and boasted the likes of Andreas Brehme, Matthias Sammer, Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Hassler, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Jurgen Klinsmann.
And it took just seconds for Effenberg to send Stefan Reuter clean through on goal, only for Schmeichel to produce a superb save to deny the right-back. Germany continued to have the better of the early exchanges, but on 18 minutes they surprisingly fell behind. Kim Vilfort’s sliding tackle robbed Brehme of possession and the ball broke to Flemming Povlsen down the right wing. The Borussia Dortmund striker cleverly cut it back for John Jensen, who thumped it into the roof of the net from just inside the area.
Berti Vogts’ team laid siege to the Danish goal thereafter, but Schmeichel made a series of outstanding saves and one breathtaking single-handed catch when a right-wing cross appeared destined for a German head. Then, with 12 minutes remaining and firmly against the run of play, the Danes put the result beyond doubt. Vilfort somehow squeezed in between Brehme and Thomas Helmer to get to the ball, before cutting inside and unleashing a firm, low drive that went in off the post to seal a 2-0 success.
“Denmark didn’t have the best players, coaches, doctors or physios, and we had the least preparation for the tournament,” reflected Moller Nielsen. “But football is a team sport, and together we had the best unit. The Netherlands and Germany, they were full of world-class players, but they played for themselves. All of my players gave it everything for the united cause.
“There were about 200,000 to 300,000 people to greet us at the City Hall Square when we got back to Copenhagen, and the atmosphere was unbelievable. What we achieved made it a wonderful time to be a Dane.”