This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
On the evening of 19 June, Denmark and Belgium produced a modern classic at the Stade de la Meinau in Strasbourg to provide a thrilling climax to a stunning Group 1.
Six games, 23 goals – 20 of which have been scored in the last four fixtures alone – all topped off by Denmark’s hypnotic comeback against Belgium to claim a place in the semi-finals of the 1984 European Championship against what is likely to be West Germany on Sunday evening.
Sepp Piontek’s team were in the depths of despair a week ago, having lost the opening game to the hosts, France, having seen their star player Allan Simonsen depart for the hospital with a broken leg.
Danish frustrations spectacularly taken out on Yugoslavia in the form of a 5-0 thrashing three days ago, combined with Belgium’s chastening experience at the hands of France, had worked to dramatically alter the landscape of the group. In fact, fortunes had swung so emphatically since the opening game that Denmark went into this game safe in the knowledge that a draw would be enough to see them through to the last four. Yet, with five minutes remaining in the first half, they found themselves 2-0 down to a Belgium side that were good enough to be beaten finalists four years ago.
Guy Thys’ and his players might have been humbled 5-0 by France in their previous fixture, but this was a talented team boasting the services of not only Jan Ceulemans but also those of Erwin Vandenbergh, René Vandereycken, Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo and the rapidly rising Nico Claesen.
In sweltering conditions, it was Cuelemans who struck first in the 27th minute, Belgium having set the early tempo in the knowledge that it was they who needed to win to advance. Perhaps Ole Qvist will be disappointed that he was beaten at his near post, but the Denmark goalkeeper was left with little time to readjust after Georges Grün redirected the latest in a succession of dangerous Belgium free-kicks into the path of Ceulemans to open the scoring.
Within 12 minutes, Belgium had extended their lead. Their greater experience seemingly too much for Denmark’s free-spirited skill and exuberance, Vercauteren caught the ball beautifully from the left-hand angle of the Denmark penalty area and it flew past the helpless Qvist to double the score.
Just two minutes later, however, Denmark had a foothold back in the game, as the lively Preben Elkjær won a penalty. Exhibiting his usual guile and grace, he twisted and turned in the Belgium penalty area before he was brought down by Walter De Greef. While there were suspicions in some quarters the Lokeren maverick went down easily, there was no doubt that some contact was made.
Regardless of how the penalty was procured, it will have stung in Belgium that it was Elkjær that obtained it. Lokeren has been a sanctuary for him following his failure to take his chances at Köln as a youngster.
Expected to complete a transfer to Verona after the end of the tournament, an interested party in the stands of the Stade de la Meinau was the new Tottenham manager, Peter Shreeves, who supposedly harbours ambitions to hijack Elkjær’s transfer at such a late date as a replacement for the Barcelona-bound Steve Archibald.
In any event, Frank Arnesen crashed his penalty in off the underside of Jean-Marie Pfaff’s crossbar, leaving a cloud of chalk dust in his wake.
The final few minutes of the first half and the opening minutes of the second half were where Belgium lost the game. From the Denmark penalty that need not have been to a shuddering missed opportunity in the 48th minute by Vandenburgh when he had the Denmark half of the pitch and Qvist at his mercy, it was here that a place in the semi-final slid agonisingly from Belgium’s grasp.
A little over ten minutes later, Denmark levelled the game when the substitute Kenneth Brylle headed home from close range. He’d been on the pitch for less than five minutes, and when he joined the fray, it meant that there were now an astonishing ten Anderlecht players taking part, three of which participated in the Danish ranks.
Now in need of another goal, Belgium pressed forward but without creating any clear-cut opportunities. Instead, the game descended into a physical encounter, with neither team showing any mercy at times, as countless challenges went unpunished. Remarkably, in spite of the violence, only two yellow cards were flashed, and Denmark escaped the game without a booking at all.
Increasingly frustrated, it was a weary Belgium that could only watch on in pained admiration, as Elkjær, on the counter-attack, weaved his way into the penalty area before drawing the attention of Pfaff and blithely dinked the ball over him as the Bayern goalkeeper went to ground.
In the stands, it was a huge Denmark following that celebrated their heroes reaching the semi-finals, an achievement that would have seemed incredulous a year-and-a-half ago.
England’s Bobby Robson will certainly feel that little bit more vindicated in his assertion that failing to qualify was no catastrophe, having fallen admirably to Sepp Piontek’s heirs to the throne of totaalvoetbal.
Where this Denmark side can go from here will depend upon who they now meet in the last four. Should West Germany maintain their place at the top of Group 2, then Denmark’s run may end in Lyon on Sunday. Any slip up by the defending champions against Spain, however, and Piontek might just guide his side towards a potential rematch with France in the final next Wednesday in Paris.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74