Preben Elkjær: the last of football’s true mavericks

Preben Elkjær: the last of football’s true mavericks

The date is 5 June 1985 and, in Copenhagen, Denmark have just beaten the Soviet Union 4-2 in World Cup qualifying group 6. It’s quite possibly the very plateau above cloud level when it comes to 1980s football hipsterism.

The game included vibrant, passionate and partisan home support, two fantastically evocative kits, two sides capable of very distinct and beautiful football, a screamer from Oleg Protasov, an emphatic finish from Sergey Gotsmanov, the woodwork hit on multiple occasions, multiple goal-line clearances, a wonderful example of how erratic Danish international goalkeepers used to be prior to the rise of Peter Schmeichel, and two goals apiece from Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær Larsen.

Elkjær is a mystical figure; widely overshadowed by Laudrup over the course of the last three decades, but massively revered by those who witnessed his unique style of play. In fairness, it’s impossible to draw yourself away from the urge to compare with Laudrup when it comes to Elkjær. However, when you do, it ends up being more a case of noticing the contrasts than drawing the parallels.

For the geometrical vision, you got from Laudrup. Elkjær instead offered a bewitching free-spirited hypnotism. For the crystal-clear still waters, which seemed to run through Laudrup, Elkjær gave you a passionate volatility. For Laudrup’s honed physical condition and his intense professionalism, Elkjær was a heavy smoker and renowned for nights out prior to big games. For Laudrup’s mastery of the ball, which almost appeared to be a pre-programmed concept, Elkjær often struck the image of a man trying to control a small and excitable dog beneath his feet, as he swept past all-comers with an unorthodox beauty.

While Laudrup’s career path was entirely textbook for a man of his many outstanding talents, Elkjær instead undertook a wonderfully meandering route through his. Laudrup, with a career which took in a flirtation with Liverpool, before spells with Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid, is vividly contrasted by Elkjær, who spent his peak years with Lokeren and Hellas Verona.

Elkjær’s formative years within the professional game go a long way in explaining why he later allowed his career to take a more sedate path. Fast-tracked into the Denmark under-21 side at the age of 18, he quickly became one of Europe’s most sought-after teenagers after scoring seven goals in just 15 outings for Vanløse IF.

By the age of 19, and during the early exchanges of the 1976/77 season, Elkjær was heading to the Bundesliga, with FC Köln edging out VfB Stuttgart in a hotly contested battle for his services. His debut for the club came swiftly, as he was thrown into a second round, second leg UEFA Cup encounter with Grasshoppers Zürich, making an explosive entrance for his new team by scoring twice in a 3-2 victory.

Within days Elkjær had made his Bundesliga bow, during a defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach, going on to score in the very next game against Duisburg. The initial spotlight was a blinding one, and he was once more thrown into the starting line-up at Loftus Road against Queens Park Rangers in the UEFA Cup. A chastening evening in west London ended in a 3-0 defeat, and he appeared only as a late substitute during the second leg, when the Germans almost completed an unlikely comeback.

Having played regularly during the autumn months of 1976, Elkjær laboured towards the winter and onward through the early spring. Under the disciplinarian regime of the legendary Hennes Weisweiler, he struggled to get to grips with the focused and often clinical West German approach to the game – and to life itself – within a high rolling Bundesliga club environment.

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The teenage Elkjær embraced life away from the club a little too much for the liking of Weisweiler. One infamous occurrence, when reports of Elkjær being out on the town in the days leading up to an important match surfaced, brought a heated exchange of views between coach and player. When Weisweiler confronted him over having been seen in a nightclub with a bottle of whisky and a member of the opposite sex, Elkjær reassured his coach it wasn’t true. Instead, he confirmed it was, in fact, a bottle of vodka and two women.

After a few months in exile, Elkjær returned to the side during the run-in, appearing as a substitute in the final of the Pokal and claiming a winners’ medal after a replay. Just over three weeks later, he was scoring twice on his full international debut as Denmark won 2-1 in Helsinki against Finland.

Despite the polarising nature of the season, Elkjær had enjoyed a successful climax to 1976/77, yet he was very much a man on the outside looking in when the 1977/78 campaign began. By February 1978, both player and club had decided that the best course of action was for him to move on. Despite this, Elkjær has consistently stated that Weisweiler was the best coach he ever played under.

Had either party been willing to offer the olive branch, then many of Köln’s late-1970s and early-80s near-misses might have been converted into silver-laden seasons. However, in February 1978, Köln were on the brink of completing a German league and cup double, with Elkjær a precociously talented but troublesome 20-year old. An opportunity to link the Dane with the up and coming Bernd Schuster was lost on the club.   

Blessed with a great many admirers but willing suitors in short supply, it was Lokeren who ambitiously took the plunge in signing Elkjær. In Belgium, he would find an environment much more to his liking, and the less pressurised atmosphere brought the best out of him.

Lokeren, traditionally sat a long way behind the likes of Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liège in the Belgian food chain, and further lost within the shadow of the strong emergence of near geographical rivals Beveren, added Elkjær to a side which was unlikely to challenge for honours but one which was capable of fluid and entertaining football. It was also a club that had only ascended to the Belgian top-flight for the very first time in 1974.

The Lokeren which Elkjær walked into in February 1978 was struggling in the lower reaches of the table, but was also just one season on from their first season in European competition, having qualified for the 1976/77 UEFA Cup, even managing a win on home soil against Barcelona.

Despite the underdog nature of his new club, Elkjær would spend a happy, if trophyless, six years with the Belgians, teaming up in a wonderfully attack-minded side with the brilliant Polish duo of Włodzimierz Lubański and Grzegorz Lato, the 1973 tormentors of Sir Alf Ramsey and the England national side.

The 1980/81 season would be the high point, finishing a distant runner-up in the top-flight to Anderlecht, and losing the Belgian Cup final to Standard – a season in which they also reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, going out narrowly to eventual beaten finalists AZ Alkmaar. It was a run in which they defeated Jim McLean’s rising Dundee United and LaLiga champions-elect, Real Sociedad.

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From the highs of 1980/81, Lokeren began to fade over the course of the following seasons, but it was arguably the fact that Elkjær had essentially dropped out of the football rat-race in joining the Belgian club that made him so explosive on the international scene. As Lokeren’s star began to fade, Denmark’s simultaneously began to rise.

In June 1981, Denmark defeated World Cup winners to be Italy 3-1 in Copenhagen in a World Cup qualifier. In what had proved to be an inconsistent campaign for the Danes, the win wouldn’t be enough to see them obtain a place at Spain 82, but it did serve as a watermark moment, a moment in which a nation and its football team were infused with the belief that they could move mountains.

Two years later, Denmark were rated by many to be one of the finest international sides in Europe. The advent of the Danish Dynamite era was given its greatest credence when they went to Wembley in September 1983 for a crucial European Championship qualifier, coming away with a 1-0 victory. Yet it wasn’t just the win which made people sit up and take notice; it was the manner of the performance, on an evening when England were fortunate to escape with a narrow loss. Ironically, Elkjær was missing from the side that won at Wembley. His absence only served to keep one of Denmark’s most powerful weapons a partially hidden secret as Euro 84 appeared upon the horizon.

Denmark, playing at the finals of a major tournament for only the second time in their history, embraced Euro 84 enthusiastically. Led by the German coach Sepp Piontek, they made the host nation, France, work hard for their narrow 1-0 win in the opening game at the Parc des Princes.

Forced to adjust their formation for the second game against Yugoslavia in Lyon due to their most recognisable star Allan Simonsen breaking his leg in the loss to France, Denmark jolted into gear. Elkjær was at his belligerent best as the Danes ran out 5-0 winners, scoring the fourth goal. It was a result that set up a winner-takes-all decider in Strasbourg against Belgium, with a place in the semi-finals the prize.

Belgium, the nation that had become Elkjær’s home-from-home, was the place where he had found the freedom of football with which to blossom to his true potential. Now his adopted nation stood between his home nation and a place in the last four of the European Championship.

In an explosive game, Jan Ceulemans and a spectacular strike from Franky Vercauteren shot Belgium into a 2-0 lead by the 39th minute. Belgium, with their greater experience at international tournaments, looked set to overcome the outrageously talented but wide-eyed Danes. Just two minutes later, however, Elkjær won a controversial penalty, which was converted by Frank Arnesen.

The unrelenting pace of the game continued in the second half, and when Pointek switched formations in the 56th minute, it was a move which brought near-immediate dividends. On the hour, substitute Kenneth Brylle netted the equaliser.

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The whole emphasis of the game changed, as with their superior goal difference Denmark were now in possession of a potential semi-final spot. It was here that Elkjær took control, constantly handed the ball by his teammates in a bid to frustrate their opponents into an error at the back.

Six minutes from time, and in typical Elkjær style, he weaved his way into the Belgium penalty area before dinking the ball over the advancing Jean-Marie Pfaff in goal. The 3-2 victory sent Denmark back to Lyon to face Spain in the semi-finals.

On another dramatic evening, Søren Lerby put the Danes into an early lead, only to see Antonio Maceda draw Spain level midway through the second half. In an intriguing contrast of skilled Scandinavian footballing up against almost laconic Iberian confidence, the game drifted towards a penalty shoot-out.

As proves to be the case so many times in these circumstances, the pronounced on-pitch directors of these games often end up being the ones who miss the vital spot-kicks. Elkjær, having done so much to bring Denmark so close to the final of Euro 84, had to be the man to miss from 12 yards.

For Elkjær, the bitter disappointment of defeat was offset in the summer of 1984 when, with a massively raised profile, Elkjaer finally departed Lokeren to return to the bright lights of one of the games major arenas. Verona made their move to take Elkjaer to Serie A.

Verona had begun the decade languishing in Serie B, having spent most of the 1970s in the top division, even reaching the final of the Coppa Italia in 1976. In 1981, however, the club narrowly survived a close flirtation with relegation to Serie C1, and in their desperation to escape the decay they were in danger of falling into, the club turned to Osvaldo Bagnoli to be their new coach. Bagnoli proved to be the spark to a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Within a year, Verona were back in Serie A.

Contrary to popular belief, Verona’s eventual 1984/85 Serie A title win wasn’t as outlandish as the legend insists it to be. Upon their return to the top-flight, Verona finished their first season back in the big time in fourth position, gaining qualification for the following season’s UEFA Cup. This was coupled with a run to the final of the Coppa Italia, where they fumbled the advantage of a 2-0 first leg win when they lost the second leg 3-0 in Turin against the Juventus of Platini, Tardelli, Rossi and Boniek.

A season later, in 1983/84, they finished in sixth position and once again reached the final of the Coppa Italia, where they narrowly lost to a Roma side which was still grieving the loss of the European Cup final to Liverpool.

The addition of Elkjær to the mix of Bagnoli’s Verona was always going to bring a positive combustibility to the 1984/85 campaign. With a slowly ageing Juventus off the pace domestically, Roma rebuilding under Sven-Göran Eriksson, AC Milan making a slow and methodical return to the glories of old, and Inter Milan struggling to find the right combination of players to mount a challenge for a title which was theirs for the taking, it essentially left the door open for any club with a well-drilled plan allied to a cohesive and vibrant squad of players.

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Bagnoli’s Verona happened to be in possession of exactly that. It was a side built upon the watertight goalkeeping of Claudio Garella, the defensive solidity of West German international Hans-Peter Briegel, the midfield drive of Pietro Fanna and Antonio Di Gennaro, and headed by the attacking prowess of Giuseppe Galderisi. Placing Elkjær into the side was an act of genius.

Elkjær was off the mark in just his second game, scoring the third goal in a 3-1 win away to Ascoli. He was soon on target again, in a 2-0 home victory over Juventus, a goal which is still revered to this day – scored at the end of a determined run during which Elkjaer lost his right boot, eventually burying his effort with his bootless foot.

Undefeated until January, Verona powered forward – almost uncontrollably – beyond the rest of their Serie A rivals. A stunning 5-3 victory at Udinese in February encapsulated every aspect of the Verona bandwagon; 3-0 up in 20 minutes, level at 3-3 just short of the hour mark, before replying with two goals in three minutes to settle the issue. Elkjær scored the fifth and final goal of the game.

Majestic throughout March, the nerves began to tell during April, and a 2-1 loss at home to Torino suggested the wheels could yet fall off for Verona. Bagnoli’s side emerged unbeaten from their final five games, however, clinching their unlikely but deserved Scudetto on the penultimate weekend away to Atalanta, coming from behind to gain the one point they needed. Elkjær fittingly scored the title-clinching equaliser.

Verona’s coronation as champions on the final day was marked by a game immersed within the spirit of Elkjær himself – a 4-2 victory over Avellino in which Verona let a 2-0 lead slip before kicking on for the win. Elkjær was once again one of the goalscorers.

That World Cup qualifier in Copenhagen, the one against the Soviet Union, the very plateau of 1980s football hipsterism, was a game which came just two-and-a-half weeks after the Serie A title celebration against Avellino. Elkjær had been made to take a circular career route, but he was now undeniably a man at the peak of his powers, with very few peers within the European game. Elkjaer was a man with only the wider world left to conquer.

By Mexico 86, Denmark were no longer Europe’s best-kept secret. The world knew they were coming, and many expected them to offer the biggest European threat. They swept through a difficult group with three wins from three games as Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany were given no crumbs of comfort.

Elkjær got the only goal against Scotland before hitting a hat-trick against Uruguay during a 6-1 demolition, a game in which Laudrup scored one of the goals of the tournament. When Pointek’s men brushed West Germany aside in the final group game, Denmark found themselves being classed among the favourites to win the tournament.

Two years on from Euro 84, they had matured beautifully. They were now a fitting successor on the world stage to the abdicating Dutch masters. Laudrup, a Serie A title winner himself with Juventus, was operating almost telepathically with Elkjær. Their support cast was a collective of visionaries. Lerby and Arnesen were surrounded by the effervescence of Jesper Olson, the precision and third-eye capabilities of Jan Mølby and the experience of a fit-again Simonsen.

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Spain lay in wait at the last-16 stage. It would be an encounter which still ultimately makes little sense over three decades later, as Denmark found themselves on the end of a 5-1 defeat. Leading 1-0 from an Olson penalty, Denmark conceded a careless, unexpected equaliser shortly before half-time. With the sort of classic overconfidence only the supremely gifted sides can produce, Olson went from hero to villain as he presented Emilio Butragueño with the equaliser.

Elkjær was metronomic; driving the ball forward for Denmark, he twice came close to restoring their lead. It was Spain, however, who scored next, Butragueño striking again. Olson then compounded his error during the equaliser by giving away a penalty for 3-1. Throughout it all, Denmark and Elkjær continued to plough forward. During the final 10 minutes of the game, Spain scored twice more. 

La Roja were outstanding on the day, but it remains one of the strangest defeats in the history of the game. The loss to suspension of Arnesen proved to be the costliest problem. Also, the omission of Mølby, who had played against West Germany, was a vital error. Without Arnesen and Mølby, Denmark were too thin in midfield, and it meant Spain could repeatedly cut through them with ease. In the heat of Mexico, Pointek got his tactics and formation badly wrong.

Mexico 86 was a lost opportunity for Denmark and Elkjær. Essentially at the peak of his powers in Mexico, by the time Euro 88 arrived, the Danish ship had sailed. Elkjær scored the goal which gained Denmark’s participation in West Germany but they returned home after three defeats in three games. The midfielder, having played in the first two matches, against their recurring nemesis Spain and then West Germany, sat out the final encounter against Italy. The game against West Germany proved to be his last in international football.

At Verona, the intervening years between Mexico 86 and Euro 88 had been fruitful on a personal level for Elkjær but hit and miss collectively. The 1986/87 season brought a fourth-place finish in Serie A – any hopes of another title challenge undone by too many draws – while 1987/88 was a difficult season domestically, offset by a run to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, where they narrowly lost out to Werder Bremen.

That year, 1988, marked the end of Elkjær’s associations with both his national team and Verona. Returning to his homeland to play for Vejle BK, he provoked a huge surge of interest in the club. Unfortunately, he was restricted in games by a series of injuries, which eventually saw him call time on his career in 1990.

In Elkjær’s absence, Piontek’s Denmark failed to qualify for Italia 90, losing out on a place in the finals to Romania. By 1992 they were the most unlikely champions of Europe, when brought into Euro 92 as a late replacement for Yugoslavia. Richard Møller Nielsen’s workmanlike side managed to succeed where Pointek’s purveyors of bohemian football had fallen short.

Just as with Weisweiler at Köln, Elkjær’s working relationship with Pointek had been at times volatile. Yet beyond football, they’ve gone on to forge a strong friendship together.

Elkjær’s career was a rich and diverse one, which took in unexpected successes with surprise rising forces: the Serie A title, coming so close to Euro 84 glory, and twice in the top three for the Ballon d’Or. As much as for his career largely spent off the beaten track, Elkjær’s almost mystical position within the game owes just as much to him becoming a recluse during retirement.

A short and inauspicious time as head coach of Silkeborg IF and occasional forays into television work in his home nation aside, Elkjær has kept himself within the shadows of the European and global stage, a wonderfully evocative contrast to the still omnipresent Laudrup. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that he is one of the last of the true mavericks of world football.

By Steven Scragg  @Scraggy_74

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