When you wind up winning a tournament you haven’t even qualified for, it’s safe to say your team has achieved something unique. That’s precisely what Denmark managed to do when they triumphed at the 1992 European Championship, beating Germany 2-0 in the final. Having finished second in their group after drawing against a hotly-favoured England, losing against hosts Sweden and beating France, they also dispatched the Netherlands in the last four.
Before they entered their final group stage clash against Les Bleus, the Danes were readying themselves for an early exit. The French were one of the best sides in Europe, boasting a culture of beautiful, effective football as well as a squad that consisted of the likes of Laurent Blanc, Eric Cantona, Emmanuel Petit, Jean-Pierre Papin and Didier Deschamps.
Denmark didn’t even have their country’s best player, Michael Laudrup, who decided to stay at home instead of travelling with the rest of the squad. Still, they managed to conjure a 2-1 win to book a semi-final berth against the Netherlands.
The Danes produced a memorable penalty shootout triumph when Peter Schmeichel denied Marco van Basten from 12 yards with a save that ultimately proved the difference after Henrik Larsen’s brace had been cancelled out by goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Frank Rijkaard in normal time.
It set up a grand final against Germany – and despite the heroics achieved by Richard Möller Nielsen’s troops en route to the showpiece event in Gothenburg, no-one really gave the underdogs much of a chance against what was essentially footballing royalty. After all, Denmark had only made their European Championship mark when they were called upon to replace a Yugoslavia side disqualified due to the outbreak of war.
In many ways, Denmark’s role as Yugoslavia’s replacements allowed them to channel some extra skill and motivation; the general consensus is that Yugoslavia – containing many of the 1987 World Youth Championship-winning squad – would have made a deep surge at Euro 92, so Denmark’s triumph was a nice, albeit adjacent, tribute to what could have been for the disqualified side.
That aside, it was a special achievement in and of itself and ranks up there as one of the greatest underdog success stories in international football history. To this day, Danes fondly recall the win as something that fills them with national pride and joy.
Many consider it to be a superior triumph than Greece’s win in 2004. Although only eight teams participated in 1992 – much less than would appear in later tournaments – the fact that Denmark were thrust into the competition without any real advance warning (getting only very short notice of their attendance) should make it stand out as a euphoric win that defied all expectation and logic.
They didn’t have the best squad, they didn’t possess the best individuals, they had little experience of international success and they had taken only a point from their first two group games – and still they emerged victorious against a recently reunified, mighty Germany who had Jürgen Klinsmann, Stefan Effenberg, Matthias Sammer, Jürgen Kohler and several others who had won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany.
The match itself was a thrilling spectacle as Germany attempted to impose their superiority early on. A first-half long-range effort from Effenberg gave Manchester United’s Schmeichel something to consider after a pacey burst towards the box saw the midfielder create some space, but the ‘keeper was equal to it.
When Denmark fashioned a chance of their own, pressing high against Germany’s back-line not long afterwards, John Jensen made no mistake to produce a thunderous right-foot shot from the edge of the area that flew past Bodo Illgner to nudge them into a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute. The goal stunned the crowd and most neutrals; this wasn’t the script many had in mind when the final was first scheduled.
Sammer did his best to restore parity with an attempt from distance not long after, but Schmeichel was again on hand to deny the German advance. In the second half, a Klinsmann header caused panic in the Danish rearguard when he leapt highest to connect at the back of the box, but Schmeichel got a firm hand to it once more.
Then, Kim Vilfort took centre stage to bamboozle the German defence when he dribbled skilfully passed two markers on the edge of the 18-yard area before arrowing the ball towards goal as it connected with the right post to ping in over the line. An unexpected, brilliant strike, it caused the Danes watching in the stands to erupt with euphoria as their famous 2-0 victory was sealed.
Without wanting to downplay the skill and brilliance of Denmark’s triumph, one of the key ingredients of their success that summer was the togetherness and spirit the players displayed. Banded together with nothing to lose and no-one to prove, they seized their moment in the spotlight with everything they had.
Vilfort himself underlined the importance of the Brondby connection behind their win when he spoke to the BBC a few years ago: “Ten of the players we had in the squad either played for or had previously played for Brøndby. A year before the Euros, Brøndby had got to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that’s a very good thing when you’re at the highest level.”
Schmeichel, Vilfort and John Jensen – three of the key figures in the final – were teammates at Brøndby when their club reached that UEFA Cup semi, along with several other national team members, and that bond certainly helped them gel together on the big stage at short notice.
In an era where international football is being pushed to the side by the money, commercialisation and theatricality of the club game, Denmark’s triumph almost 30 years ago should act as a soulful reminder that there are few events more memorable than seeing a dark horse secure silverware on the international scene thanks to a devastating cocktail of fellowship and flair.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90