This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Has there ever been a more unlikely tournament victory than this? Denmark’s rise from non-qualifiers only a fortnight before this tournament begun to lifting the trophy having beaten the world champions Germany in such dramatic circumstances is the most remarkable story of sporting fairy-tale.
Goals in each half from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort, and an inspired display from the magnificent Peter Schmeichel in goal, completed one of the greatest surprises in international football history for Richard Møller Nielsen’s side. Surely this is the greatest day in Danish sporting history.
Germany, the favourites in the eyes of almost every observer, had begun the match in dominant style; a continuation of their fine display in seeing off the hosts Sweden in the semi-final earlier in the week. They dominated the Danes from the off forcing Schmeichel into some early saves.
The first big chance came courtesy of some fine play by Matthias Sammer, Germany’s elegant sweeper and, as an East German, the most prominent symbol of the new unified Germany. His deft pass sent Stefan Reuter clear who attempted to lob Schmeichel. The Manchester United goalkeeper was more than a match, however, standing tall to save as he also did from a Guido Buchwald effort shortly after.
Denmark had barely dusted themselves down from these early German attacks when they themselves scored against the run of play in the 18th minute. Vilfort, playing after a second trip home to Denmark to be at his gravely ill young daughter’s bedside in midweek, won a crunching tackle against Andreas Brehme on Denmark’s right-hand side.
The force of that tackle sent the ball towards the lively striker Flemming Povlsen at the side the German penalty area, who cut the ball back for Jensen, steaming in from midfield. Jensen’s shooting had been woefully wayward in the semi-final against the Netherlands, and indeed in the group phase, but this was to be his moment.
He hit a ferocious thunderbolt which flew past the startled Bodo Illgner and into the top corner of the German net, before setting off on a celebratory run with his delighted teammates. It was a celebration that owed as much to the Danes’ surprise as to the identity of the scorer of such a fabulous goal as it did to the fact that they had taken a surprise lead in the biggest match of their lives.
Far from a frequent scorer, it was only Jensen’s second goal in 48 internationals, but he will surely never score a more vital one. His focus quickly had to return to his more regular defensive duties, as Germany poured forwards again, turning the screw in search of an immediate response. Schmeichel saved superbly at full stretch from Jürgen Klinsmann, before denying Stefan Effenberg as Denmark managed to cling on until the interval.
An equaliser seemed only a matter of time as Berti Vogts’ Germany poured forward again after the break, but with Schmeichel in spectacular form, their frustration began to mount. The big goalkeeper was the standout performer, barking orders to the hurriedly scrambling defence in front of him who to a man never let their efforts diminish.
The Danish defence may have creaked at times, but by hook or by crook they simply wouldn’t break. Kent Nielsen cleared a Klinsmann cross off the line with Karl-Heinz Riedle ready to pounce, while Schmeichel then made another great reaction save to top Riedle’s powerful header over the bar.
Against this near-constant attack, the Danes landed their final, decisive punch. With just 12 minutes remaining and defensive desperation becoming increasingly frantic, Vilfort controlled the ball on the edge of the German box before turning inside and shooting low off the post past Illgner to the startled delight of Danish players and fans alike.
Just as Germany had previously seemed certain to get back into this final, it now seemed beyond them. The overwhelming sense of destiny now appeared written in the stars. Germany valiantly kept going and probing; hope remained, but their spirit was broken.
When the final whistle heralded this most remarkable of triumphs, the playing field and the stands were decorated with red and white, as Danish delight and disbelief spilt over into absolute ecstasy.
Amidst the celebrations, the stoic Møller Nielsen could be forgiven a wry smile of satisfaction, his stint as Denmark’s coach having been beset by controversy at times. Michael Laudrup may have chosen to stay away, but those who did wear the Danish red played their hearts out for their country.
Laudrup’s younger brother Brian, himself having stepped away from the national team for 18 months in solidarity with his sibling, was their key inspiration on the field, but Denmark’s is a collective glory. It is a triumph of team spirit over adversity.
In the history of international football, there can never have been a tale to match this most unlikely of triumphs. It seems remarkable to say it, but it is a victory worth rejoicing: Denmark are the champions of Europe.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams