The greatest game you never saw: Denmark, the Soviet Union and pure footballing geometry

The greatest game you never saw: Denmark, the Soviet Union and pure footballing geometry

There’s something to be said about being joyous at a time of immense sadness, about finding something to celebrate when we should otherwise be mourning or consoling. It’s why we tell jokes at wakes, why we reminisce about good times during bad. It’s not that we find humour or joy in such times, more that it presents itself as a natural antidote.

On 6 June 1985, Bobby Robson’s England lost 2-1 to reigning world champions Italy. The fixture had been planned as part of a three-game tour to Mexico 12 months ahead of that country’s World Cup. It was an opportunity to experience playing at altitude and for Robson to blood emerging talent such as Gary Stevens and Kerry Dixon.

The game was a strange affair played in an almost deserted Azteca Stadium. ITV’s broadcast showed a pair of English fans drinking beer and displaying a lone Union Flag, flying it proudly, defiantly, perversely. Eight days earlier, Liverpool fans had been partly responsible for the deaths of 32 Italians and seven others from Belgium, France and Northern Ireland.

Football was still reeling from events in Brussels. England was a pariah state in international football; its clubs were banned from all European competition two days after Heysel. Days later, FIFA imposed a worldwide ban on all English clubs. Brian Moore, commentating for ITV, called the match a bridge-building exercise. Bobby Robson spoke of the importance of the spirit of the game. Players wore black armbands and stood side-by-side for the anthems and for a minute’s silence.

The match itself was a tepid affair played mostly at a pedestrian pace. While this was due in part to the heat and humidity, it was also a result of the still-young shadow of Heysel, a grim Turin shroud cast across the sporting world. Terry Butcher’s reaction after fouling Giuseppe Galderisi was typical of the match.

Butcher was known as a warrior years before his bloody heroics in Stockholm. He’d go on to find trouble with the police in Scotland after kicking down a referee’s door. There was no malice in this tackle on Galderisi, but in the context of the match, he couldn’t turn and jog back for the resultant free-kick as he would have normally. With Galderisi on the floor, clutching the ankle Butcher had kicked, the big man held both hands aloft in apology. Then came a hand of friendship followed by a ruffle of the striker’s hair. Next another hand, this time an offer to lift his prey to his feet, and a pat on the back followed by another offer to lift Galderisi which was finally accepted.

With the Italian satisfied at Butcher’s sportsmanship, the big defender turned to the referee and apologised once more. Watching the match now it’s almost possible to hear the breaking of eggshells beneath English boots.

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Diplomacy was displayed throughout. Neither Liverpool nor Juventus were represented in the starting line-ups, though Antonio Cabrini and Marco Tardelli appeared as second-half substitutes. Perhaps the most diplomatic moment of all was Italy’s winner, a penalty scored by Alessandro Altobelli after an innocuous challenge by Gary Stevens on Pietro Vierchowod.

Mick Channon, co-commentating for ITV, asserted the penalty award was daylight robbery. Under normal circumstances, his assertion would have held much truth. The real truth, however, was this game was as far removed from normal circumstances as is possible, and Altobelli’s last-minute winner was the least any Italian football fan deserved at that time.

During his commentary, Brian Moore informed the audience how much sport was available on Mexican TV. He’d watched two other World Cup qualifiers in his hotel; Finland vs Romania and Sweden vs Czechoslovakia. It was a shame, then, with Moore’s thirst for footballing brilliance and his ability to describe it with a unique minimalism, that he hadn’t seen Denmark dismantle a very good Soviet Union side 24 hours before England’s exercise in diplomatic relations.

Such was the quality of that match it’s easy to hear Moore use the word antidote in any description or summary he might have offered. “It was the antidote football needed,” he would have said. “Just what the doctor ordered.” His voice would have gone all deep and gravelly then, as was his way, when saying: “And boy can those Danes play.”

He’d have been right. The game played at Idrætsparken that day was more than a football match; it was something to behold, something to tell your grandchildren about. Watched now, more than 30 years on, you can liken the match to a work of art, at times a geometry lesson. Pick any sporting analogy – a basketball match, high-speed chess, all three Benn-Eubank fights rolled into one – none of them do it justice. You can watch it again and again like your favourite film and never tire of it.

Picture the scene: glorious June sunshine, 45,000 Danes dressed exclusively in red and white swimming in a sea of flags around this old stadium, three-quarters of it terraced, much of it uncovered. This was a carnival even before kick-off. A celebration. An antidote. Its soundtrack an incessant wave of klaxon noise. It was as if the Danish fans knew their team was about to remind the world what football could be, what it should be.

It was Constitution Day, a holiday atmosphere prevailed and beer flowed freely. The Danes were happy drunks, not angry, fighting drunks. Nor were they nationalistic, animalistic drunks. Just happy. Just wanting to go to Mexico. How could they not be optimistic about that with the wonderful array of talent taking the pitch before them?

More soberly, the Danish fans knew all too well their team’s failings. They knew the result of this match was no sure thing. Their efforts in the qualification campaign prior to meeting the Soviets were a microcosm of their performances throughout the decade; in short, they flattered to deceive. Explosively brilliant beating a talented Ireland side at home, but flatly average in Berne a month before, where they lost 1-0 to a brutal Swiss team, and had failed to register a decent goal attempt until the game’s closing moments.

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Perhaps the spectators soaked in sunshine and beer that June afternoon had attended the game against Ireland. Perhaps they had seen that day two of the finest team goals they would ever see. Perhaps they knew, no matter how efficient or workmanlike this very good Soviet team would be, that their own team could cut through any defence like the proverbial hot knife through butter. A cliché perhaps, but like most clichés, there was a whole lot of truth to this one.

Touching on boxing again for a moment, it is worth recalling Lloyd Honeyghan’s controversial title defence against Johnny Bumphus, when Honeyghan raced across the ring at hearing the bell to start round two and clobbered his unprepared, barely upright opponent. Bumphus didn’t know what had hit him. Now, with all the attacking talent at their disposal, the least the Danes could have done was wait for the Soviets to be ready. They began this game, however, like Honeyghan would start that round of boxing 18 months later.

There were just nine seconds on the clock when Frank Arnesen received the ball on the left wing, on the halfway line, and went straight at the Soviet defence, turning and accelerating away from one man before outrunning Sergei Aleinikov. He was pushed to the ground as he cut inside and a free-kick was awarded. What a statement of intent. No passing it patiently along their defensive line, pinging it from defence to midfield and back again. No probing, testing for a weakness in the Soviet defence. No chess-like opening, trying to gain a foothold in the midfield from which to launch their attacks.

As the Soviets would soon find out, and as Ireland could testify, the Danes were quite prepared to launch their attacks from anywhere. Incidentally, the free-kick was cleared and led directly to a Soviet counter-attack. They were swift, the Soviets, and their one and two-touch combinations and angled dummy runs led them straight to the Danish area. It was a warning for the Danes, and a sign of things to come. Within 60 seconds, appetites had been whetted.

The game continued as it had started. In reality, Arnesen’s opening dart wasn’t a sneaky attempt to catch the Soviet defence unawares, but simply the way the Danes played; given the ball, they attacked. They were quick and incisive. They were strong as a herd of oxen and deft as the finest magician. They could be both of these simultaneously.

Right from the off, the game was littered in equal measure with crunching tackles and mazy dribbles. Bizarrely for such an important encounter – the Soviets had won one from four and neither side had won away from home – there was an abundance of casual back heels and cheeky nutmegs, many of which were deployed to play out from defence.

A typical example of Danish confidence, naivety, plain daftness or effortless cool came late in the first half. Leading 2-1, they had just wasted a corner, caught easily by Rinat Dasaev. The pale goalkeeper launched a clearance as high as it was long for Igor Belanov to chase deep into the Danish half. Ivan Nielsen had it covered. He tracked its flight with his back to his own goal before turning his back on both the ball and Belanov.

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Midway between his own penalty area and halfway now, and with Belanov sprinting two yards behind him, Nielsen made no attempt to head the ball clear, no attempt to control it or even to step across Belanov’s path. Instead, and with perfect timing and awareness of his surroundings, he casually back-heeled the dropping ball 20 yards back where it had come from to the permanently available Jens Jørn Bertelsen. Svend Gehrs, the Danish commentator, could only laugh.

With such episodes littering the match and the final 4-2 result in Denmark’s favour, it’s easy to remember the game as being this Danish side’s peak, as the time they gave the Soviets a real footballing lesson. While this might be true, it’s important not to understate the contribution of the Soviets in making this game the spectacle it was. For every flowing Danish attack, there was a geometry-defying counter-attack. For every thrust made by the rampant Preben Elkjær, there was a lightning-quick Soviet surge forward, often led by the tireless Belanov or the more gifted Oleg Protasov.

It was one such attack that brought the first save of the match after seven minutes. Having already seen Bertlesen pull a shot wide and Michael Laudrup make a fool of Boris Pozdnyakov before also shooting wide, Anatoli Demyanenko strolled unopposed along the Soviet left flank before sidestepping Klaus Berggreen and launching a right-foot drive towards the top left corner of Ole Qvist’s goal.

Despite being momentarily wrong-footed by the fade on the shot, Qvist easily adjusted to divert wide. A save for the cameras maybe, but the goalkeepers were involved now and the game’s pattern was set; its ebb and flow would continue unremittingly until both sides had worn out their opponents. Even then they would go at it like heavyweights in the 15th round, barely able to stand, attacking because that’s all there was.

If the game’s opening exchanges had whetted the crowd’s collective appetite then the events of the second quarter-hour sated it. Three goals were scored, Danish wood was struck twice, and other chances came and went. It was no surprise when Elkjær opened the scoring. Berggreen had poked wide from 12 yards moments before and Arnesen, too, had shot wide.

Like so many of that side’s great moments, it started deep inside their own half, their defence under pressure from a twisting and turning Protasov until Berggreen won possession, tackling precisely inside his own area and passing intuitively to Arnesen, whose contribution to the ensuing move was two sublimely flicked one-touch passes. Bertelsen was involved and Berggreen again, now raiding into the Soviet half and involving Bertelsen once more down the right channel, the latter playing a first-time reverse pass across the face of the Soviet area to Laudrup.

Laudrup turned and helped the ball on its way – with one touch, naturally – to Elkjær. Pozdnyakov got ahead of his man and cleared hurriedly against a teammate, Elkjær’s presence alone enough to put even the most organised of defences in a tizz, and it was left to the big striker to follow the ball into the box and lash a venomous low shot across Dasaev.

There were 23 seconds and five first-time passes between Berggreen’s tackle and Elkjaer’s goal. It was a piece of modern art, a thing of beauty that deserves to be watched again and again. Both the move and the finish were typical of so many goals they had already scored, and would go on to score. For proof of this, one need only watch Elkjær’s second goal against Ireland in Copenhagen months earlier, or maybe just wait the three minutes it took for him to double his tally in this match.

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There was time in those three minutes for Arnesen to run 60 yards with the ball only to be halted before he could shoot from 15, and then for Morten Olsen to nick the ball from Belanov’s toe as Qvist rushed to meet them at the edge of his area. Breathless stuff indeed, though Belanov might have felt aggrieved that the Austrian referee didn’t blow for Qvist’s handball just outside his area. He would have felt a whole lot worse 18 seconds later as once again Elkjær shot home across Dasaev.

The second was almost, but not quite, a carbon copy of the first. Not waiting for the referee’s whistle after halting Belanov’s charge, Qvist stepped further outside his area and passed nonchalantly to Bertelsen. A triangle of first-time passes and the ball was with Bertelsen again, this time on halfway, and a moment later Elkjær chased his through ball, his presence again causing panic for two Soviet defenders who almost ran into each other.

The striker squared up to Tengiz Sulakvelidze 20 yards from goal in the left channel. Knowing he could beat his man from a standing start he paused for the briefest of moments, a fraction of a second, just long enough for Sulakvelidze to need to stop, and as soon as he’d stopped Elkjær passed him in a blur of Teutonic sinew and arrogance. Two touches, a bump of the shoulder and a hand across his man, then a left foot shot equally as venomous as his first.

This great Dane’s strength was just that – his strength – allied with the simple directness of his game: charge at goal, score, repeat ad infinitum. At his peak he was often unplayable; if defenders weren’t outpaced by him they were barged out of the way. Svend Gehrs was in raptures as Elkjær sank to his knees at the edge of the pitch. The crowd wondered from where they could buy sombreros.

What happened next was akin to something out of a Rocky film, perhaps Rocky IV, this being the moment communist superiority was in danger of being swept aside by these uber-decadent Danes. Don’t forget that this was a nation that until the late 1970s didn’t even have its own professional league, and that until 1971 had forbidden those players who played professionally for foreign clubs from representing their country at international level.

The Soviets were being overrun in midfield by the Duracell qualities of Søren Lerby and Bertelsen, by the tenacity of Berggreen, who switched seamlessly from full-back to midfield throughout the game, and by the ridiculously skilful Arnesen. Like a boxer covering up on the ropes, the Soviets needed to hold on for a few minutes, to gain a foothold. Eduard Malofeev, perhaps fearing the game might be over by half-time, sacrificed the attack-minded Gennadiy Litovchenko for the more conservative Andrei Zygmantovich.

The change worked. Within a minute, Aleinikov’s run and back-heel allowed Yuri Gavrilov to hammer Qvist’s left post from outside the area. Ninety seconds later, Demyanenko found Protasov with his back to goal on the edge of the area. Taking one touch to turn and set himself, his high shot, as explosive as Elkjær’s second, bisected Søren Busk and Bertelsen before leaving Qvist grasping for something he was never going to reach. 2-1. Gone were the klaxons now. Such was the quality of Protasov’s strike that a faint ripple of applause circled the stadium.

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Within a minute, Laudrup flashed a shot high and wide. Though the shot didn’t threaten Dasaev’s goal, it served notice of what would come later. For now he was just warming up, but don’t think for a moment he would be outdone by his strike partner on this wonderful occasion.

It wasn’t long before the frame of the Danish goal was shaking again, this time Sergey Gotsmanov finishing off a delightful sweeping attack by shooting across a prone Qvist. The dummy and rolled pass by Gavrilov to set up Gotsmanov was both sublime and instinctive; it deserved a goal at least, maybe two. With an hour to play it seemed the game had no more to offer. If the teams had gone off at this point nobody would have complained. The crowd would have been glad for the rest.

In four frantic minutes before half-time, Dasaev kept his side in the game four times. He knew little of the first, an impudent Elkjær back-heel from close range bouncing off his knee and onto his face. Within seconds, Lerby drove with the outside of his right foot, forcing Dasaev to palm over. From the resulting corner he clawed a Berggreen header from the top corner before making a simpler save at his near post from another Berggreen effort. It was during this period – the Danes having reasserted a good level of control over the direction of the match – that Nielsen produced that back-heel.

There was still time before the interval for Lerby to miss from six yards when it was easier to score, but at half-time, and despite their defensive substitution and brief revival, it seemed the Soviets had all their fingers and toes in the holes in the dam. The Danes had had 15 attempts on goal in the first half, nine of them on target, yet Malofeev might have felt his team still had a puncher’s chance.

For the first 15 minutes of the second half, he’d have been right. It was the quietest period of the match. Maybe the Danes sensed their own vulnerability – or had been reminded of it at half-time – maybe they truly sensed now the significance of a win, of going top of their qualifying group having played a game fewer than anyone else, of being on the cusp of sporting immortality as the first Danish side to qualify for a World Cup.

Perhaps these things were the cause of this fallow period, or it may have just been that both sides needed more than 10 minutes to recover from their first-half exertions. During this period, neither side clicked. Twice Laudrup almost played Elkjær in. Arnesen, too, almost found Elkjær at the far post with a wonderfully weighted cross along the face of Dasaev’s goal. At the opposite end, Pozdnyakov beat Busk to the byline and pulled the ball back beyond Qvist’s reach only to see Bertlesen clear with Belanov waiting to tap into an empty goal. Some quiet spell.

If Malofeev thought his side were still in this, he was either naive or blindly ignorant of the truth. It would take only a spark to once more set the Danes off. At times they played like they knew they could score but like they couldn’t be bothered unless it was absolutely necessary. They would go up two or three gears as and when they pleased. It was like the fifth year at school playing a team of third years, turning it on for a few minutes when the girls showed up to watch, but until then playing well within themselves, knowing they had the match. This attitude laid bare the Danes’ immaturity as a professional outfit and countered the many platitudes of greatness that would be trotted out by pundits leading up to the World Cup. They could win it, some said. In truth that could never happen.

With an hour on the clock, the switch was flicked, though for all the Danes’ good work thus far, it took a howler from Aleinikov to allow Laudrup in to score. Sweeping up from a long clearance he attempted one flick too many, which gave Elkjær and Laudrup a two-on-one on the edge of the area. At first sight, Elkjær’s pass to set up his colleague seems just that; on closer inspection, it becomes a heavy touch as he attempts to round the last defender. Either way, Laudrup finished high past Dasaev while slipping to the floor. Elegant it wasn’t, but nor was this a beauty contest; at least not all of it.

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Three minutes later, Laudrup killed the match with the sort of goal he was becoming known for. He picked the ball up just inside his own half after good defensive work from Lerby and aimed at the heart of the Soviet defence. So quick was their retreat, Laudrup reached the edge of the area without evading a tackle. Only as he pulled the trigger did two defenders attempt to close him down. It was too late; his shot evaded Dasaev’s left hand and nestled into the bottom corner.

Minutes later, the crowd swaying and singing about Mexico, Gotsmanov lashed in a bouncing ball after the Danes had failed to deal with a free kick. 4-2. The scoring was done, though nobody had told Preben Elkjær; in the next five minutes he huffed and he puffed but he just couldn’t blow down Dasaev’s door to complete his hat-trick.

First he chased a Per Frimann pass, galloping down the right channel like a thoroughbred pulling away from the pack. Without the noise of the klaxons, you’d have heard his thundering hooves. This time his finish didn’t fulfil the promise as he raced clear, firing wide of the near post with his right foot. Morten Olsen made a vital block to prevent Belanov’s goal-bound shot going in before Elkjær was at it again, this time narrowly failing with a cheeky attempt to beat Dasayev from just inside the Soviet half.

Within moments he was through again, this time down the left channel, choosing to cut onto his right side to evade a challenge before pulling his shot narrowly wide. His frustration, his annoyance at the hat-trick remaining just out of reach, was visible.

The Danes were tired now. They sat back, happy with their lot, perhaps reckoning they needed to be ready for the Soviet kitchen sink about to get hauled at them. Olsen blocked again, this time from Gavrilov. Arnesen headed a 25-yard drive away, a goal almost certain with Qvist struggling to reach it.

That done, the kitchen sink never quite arrived. The Soviets were as shattered as the Danes. They probed still with their darting angled runs, though predictably now, and their passes ran astray. Pozdnyakov glanced a header wide when well placed to score, his miss drawing an audible intake of breath from Svend Gehrs. He knew what this result would mean. He fancied a trip to Mexico.

With the game meandering towards its conclusion, the Soviets had their final and arguably best moment. They approached the Danish goal as the crowd’s whistles grew louder and their hosts’ lethargy more pronounced. It was ironic that their final attack was also their most Danish in style with its off-the-cuff nature. Pozdnyakov played a short pass towards the edge of the area and a cluster of five Danish defenders. Substitute Zygmantovich somehow beat them all to it, collecting the ball at pace, running across the penalty area left to right.

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The two Danes who went with him, Busk and Bertelsen, were fooled by his delicate back-heel for Protasov, who in turn took the ball at a gallop and with a single touch beat Nielsen and Henrik Andersen before rolling the ball to Georgi Kondratiev. He had been left unmarked and standing seven yards from an unguarded net, with Qvist having been sold by Zygmantovich’s initial burst and Protasov’s opting to pass when he might have shot. Kondratiev’s finish was too casual by far. His flick towards goal, his subtle diversion of Protasov’s pass, was never enough. Had Berggreen not made the last of his many lung-burning runs, reaching the ball in the nick of time to slide it away for a corner, it’s possible it would have stopped short of the goal line.

Perhaps in this late moment, the Soviets saw that they shouldn’t attempt to out-football their opponents. Stoicism would be their best ally for the return in Moscow a few months later, with a togetherness and rigidity in their play. They had gone toe to toe with the Danes, with their cool, aloof arrogance, their innate understanding of their own ball-playing abilities and their intuitive, unrehearsable patterns of play, and they had come away with more than a bloodied nose. Their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup had suffered a significant setback.

It was fitting, moments before the final whistle, that Elkjær should have the final contribution to this spectacle. Tucked away in the corner, running down the clock, he tussled with Aleinikov, the Belarusian niggling away at him from behind. In one sweep of his right leg, he pulled off a Cruyff turn to nutmeg his man and loped lazily into the Soviet area once more. The crowd roared. Aleinikov might still be wondering where his opponent went.

Within moments the curtain had dropped on this wonderful occasion. The Danish supporters celebrated as if the World Cup was already a sure thing. The Soviets would have their day in the return in Moscow. Both teams went to Mexico the following summer, where they both flattered to deceive, putting six past first round opponents before crashing out at the second hurdle against better organised opposition. Had they not, they would have met each other in a quarter-final in Puebla.

It’s not surprising the match has gone down in Danish folklore. There were 45,000 there. What’s the betting 10 times that number claim to have been in the ground? Watching it back now is like watching the distant footage of the Stone Roses at Spike Island, those few minutes that still exist; you just wish you were there, wish you’d been born five years earlier, or in this case just across the North Sea.

The final words should be those spoken by Svend Gehrs. As reported in Rob Smyth’s Danish Dynamite, a superb homage to the Hummel-era Danes of the 1980s, Gehrs suggested the game was possibly the greatest World Cup qualifier ever played. But more than that, he said with reference to Heysel: “One week before, football died. The week after it stood up from the grave.” It’s hard to disagree.

By Scott Derry

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