Denmark’s triumph in 1992 at the UEFA European Championships still ranks as one of the greatest shocks in international football, as the Scandinavians went from late entrants to surprise champions.
Brian Laudrup, one half of the now-iconic Laudrup brothers, was a key figure in Richard Moller Nielsen’s side and, having helped Denmark to victory in the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995, was part of their best-ever performance at a FIFA World Cup™ at France 1998.
Now a TV pundit back home with Kanal 5, the attacking midfielder took time out to chat with FIFA.com, reflecting on Denmark's most successful period in football history during the 1990s where he played a starring role.
FIFA.com: Looking back over Denmark’s recent football history, do you feel the 1992 victory has given you a presence on the international scene over the last 25 years?
Brian Laudrup: That’s for sure. The 1984 European Championships was a turning point in Danish football. I wouldn’t call us a laughing stock up until then, we had a lot of talented players but when they came home it was more celebrating than really playing football. It was a small country mentality. Sometimes we would beat the bigger teams, while others we lost to some of the smaller teams, but when [German coach] Sepp Piontek came in he changed the mentality and had a very good group of players. They put Denmark on the map, that was the dynamite team playing in ’84, ’86 at the World Cup, they were absolutely sensational. They really changed the way I think people looked at Denmark and Danish football.
And 1992 continued that winning mentality into the next generation?
Exactly. We were really struggling to live up to that team, but having said that, we surprised everybody, including ourselves, in 1992. We carried that into 1998, when we played a very good World Cup in France and after that a new era came along, with a whole new crop of players coming forward.
What do you feel was key to that surprise success?
My brother [Michael] wasn’t around in 1992, which I think some people forget. After we won we had a lot of people saying ‘you were lucky’ and that we didn’t have the team for it, but the secret behind that success was that we had known each other as players and human beings for so, so long. A number of players had been at Brondby for a number of years, then after that we played at the Olympics and a lot of the players were in the U-21s as well, so we knew each other very, very well and that was the secret to our success.
If you look at the teams we beat on our way, the EURO now has 24 teams but then you had two groups of four, so you couldn’t lose a game if you wanted to make it to the semi-finals. You only had to be up for it for five games, but you had to perform in all five. The good thing about it being a small tournament like that is that we weren’t prepared for it, we weren’t fit enough [Editor’s note: having been late entrants following Yugoslavia’s disqualification], and if it had been today we wouldn’t have won it. Back then it was better opponents, but fewer games.
It’s not something I think about in everyday life, but in interviews it all comes back to you... you will never forget these moments and that’s what football is all about.
You followed up that triumph with another trophy at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1995 too.
For a lot of us, playing at EURO 1992 was our first international tournament – obviously very successfully – so for us playing some of these great teams like Argentina, Mexico, made it a very interesting tournament for us. Nielsen said it was going to be harder to win than EURO ’92 because they were completely different teams, so he put a lot of energy into that competition. He really wanted to show it wasn’t just about luck in 1992.
I remember that I had played the year before with [Gabriel] Batistuta and he was there with a very talented Argentina side. Somehow we managed to beat them 2-0 to win the final. People were really celebrating back home, it was like winning a mini-World Cup and was a very proud moment for us, even though we understood that it was not the World Cup! In his time Richard Nielsen created maybe more history than those who came before or after him – all credit to him.
What is often forgotten is that you missed out on two World Cups either side of that 1992 triumph, both in the final game, too.
Both were terrible. The European Championships were incredible. Being Danish you can never expect to win a title, but we did and it was incredible. But being a player you always look forward to the World Cup. I remember my brother told me about ‘86 and it was just one of these experiences that every footballer in the world would to like to have. I told myself that ‘if I can play in one World Cup then I will have done it’, so when 1998 came along – and of course in France it was a fantastic World Cup – it was certainly one of the experiences that I’ll never forget.
Does the last-16 game against Nigeria in France, where you won 4-1, rank as one of your top international memories?
Definitely. We had a very good team, Michael was back in after struggling a bit in the opening games. Newspapers were beginning to think he should be left on the bench – crazy, crazy stuff. Nigeria was incredible for all of us because they were household favourites to beat us, no doubt. With some of the players they had back then, Jay-Jay Okocha, [Tijani] Babangida, [Nwankwo] Kanu, on a great day for them they would have beaten us, maybe easily.
When the pressure is not on, Denmark – a small country – performs to the best of its ability and we shocked Nigeria, which went a long way to giving us the victory. They tried to do all they could but it was impossible. We played so well in that game and that gave us the belief that we could move on to even greater things and the self-belief in the team was at an all-time high.
Having reached the quarter-finals against Brazil, you were in uncharted waters for Denmark. Was it a case of nothing to lose?
In the three group games we really didn’t perform that well and knew we needed to come out again, just like against Nigeria, and produce some miracles early on if we were to have any chance whatsoever. We scored after two minutes, which was absolutely incredible, and you could see the Brazilians were shell-shocked.
Then obviously they came back, before we equalised and at that stage a lot of the Brazilians were angry at each other, they were arguing, they really were struggling a bit. They were tired and I thought ‘we are going to do this, this is going to be the all-time surprise’, but unfortunately they had one of the best players at that time in Rivaldo.
Your celebration [pictured above], coming to equalise at 2-2 with Brazil, is one of the iconic images of Denmark at a World Cup. How did it come about?
My son said to me before that game: 'If you score, can you do something a little bit extraordinary, as you always are just running back to your goal after you score. Do something special.' I just remember kicking the ball into the roof of the net and I had to do something so I ended up with that celebration. I don’t know where it came from but he was quite pleased with that! Scoring an equaliser against one of the best teams in the world and having the chance to get to a semi-final – we were so close! It’s not something I think about in everyday life, but in interviews it all comes back to you and that’s what your career has done to you, you will never forget these moments and that’s what football is all about.