“I don’t think it will end 2-2 – that’s a very unusual result.” These were the words of the Sweden co-manager Lars Lagerbäck on the eve of Scandinavians’ final group game with Denmark in Euro 2004. In amongst a litany of cross-Kattegat clashes between Danish red and Swedish yellow over the years, but this clash would go down as the most memorable, and indeed the most infamous.
Danish coach Morten Olsen echoed his Swedish counterpart’s sentiments during his pre-match press conference, with a little added bite for good measure. “That’s ridiculous. Don’t speak about that. We are honest people. We are going out to win the game and that’s all. Italy can speak about these things but not Denmark and Sweden. We are going honestly for a result.”
Lagerbäck’s fellow Swedish coach Tommy Söderberg was even more animated in his response to the suggestion of a Scandinavian fix from Italian journalists at the pre-match press conference, banging his fist on the table in frustration. “We say it again,” he said. “We will not make a deal with Denmark. It’s about passion and dignity.”
The opposing coaches were understandably furious at the mere mention of the word “fix”, but it was a word that had very much come to the fore in the build-up. Having both drawn with Italy and beaten Bulgaria in Group C of the opening round of Euro 2004, a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark in the final group game would mean Italy couldn’t overhaul either Scandinavian team, no matter how many they may bang past Bulgaria in the group’s other match.
A 2-2 draw was therefore the result that many an Italian had foretold in a match that, despite the obvious attraction of a draw of convenience, both Sweden and Denmark insisted they wanted to win. Such an outcome would see the angst-ridden Azzurri eliminated from the group stage, crying foul. Surely it couldn’t happen, could it?
Ahead of the match at the Estadio do Bessa in Porto, Boavista’s home ground was packed on an unseasonably wet and drizzly June evening. The fans created a colourful scene as seas of red and yellow braced themselves for the umpteenth clash between the old rivals. Denmark had not been particularly prolific in front of goal, but with AC Milan’s Jon-Dahl Tomasson in attack, and a defence yet to be breached in the tournament, they were progressing well. A goalless draw with Italy in their opening match had been followed by a 2-0 win over Bulgaria.
Sweden, on the other hand, featured the highly productive front-line of the experienced Henrik Larsson and the raw, youthful hustle and bustle of the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 22 years old at the time. Having thumped Bulgaria 5-0, it was Ibrahimovic’s last gasp, deft and delicate flick which gave Sweden their late equaliser against Italy, as he acrobatically hooked the ball at head height over Christian Vieri on the goal-line, setting up this final showdown.
After all of the pre-match brouhaha, the endless fixation on the potential fix, the match itself could have been something of an anti-climax. Not a bit of it. Both sides set about each other with an intensity that revealed their shared stated intent on winning. While both teams initially struggled in the slippery conditions, it was Denmark who grabbed the initiative.
They had already created a few decent chances, with a resurgent Jesper Grønkjær in fine form on the flanks, before they grabbed the lead in spectacular style on 27 minutes. Tomasson chested down a pass from Ebbe Sand and sent a vicious, dipping half-volley past the stranded Andreas Isaksson in the Swedish goal and into the top corner.
This shock to the system jolted the Swedes into life, with Olof Mellberg hitting the post before the break as the men in yellow sought a way back.
Half-time brought the unlikely news from Guimarães that Italy were losing to Bulgaria, a scoreline that made moot any quibbles about a Scandinavian fix for the time being. But for Sweden, relying on the weak Bulgarians to hold on seemed a remote hope. They needed to take control of their own destiny. Soon after the break, they would be level.
A mere 30 seconds into the second period, Larsson stormed into the Danish penalty area, nudged the ball past Thomas Sørensen and was felled by the keeper. The same two protagonists faced each other from the resulting penalty with Larsson sending Sørensen the wrong way to equalise at more or less the same time that Simone Perrota scored a leveller for Italy in the other match. Suddenly it was all to play for again, as the ever-evolving possibilities kept the outcome poised on a knife-edge.
Sweden then enjoyed their best spell of the match, with Larsson and Ibrahimovic combining well in attack to create several more chances, though none were taken. And yet it was Denmark who took the lead once more midway through the half. Christian Poulsen’s speculative shot was deflected into the path of Tomasson who finished coolly, silencing the Swedish fans and delighting the Danish following.
Conspiracy theorists may not have noticed Tomasson celebrating in front of the Swedish fans first with the universal shushing action, and then by bending over and pointing his backside at them; more the actions of someone intending to beat his rivals rather than of someone setting up an expedient draw.
At 2-1, though, the pieces were moving gradually into place for Italy’s nightmare scenario, now only one goal from becoming an agonising reality. Sweden were struggling to find a way back in, however, with their opponents appearing comfortable on the ball and keeping them at arm’s length. Seemingly their best chance came on 77 minutes when Ibrahimovic shot straight at Sørensen. Had Italy’s nightmare been avoided?
Just one minute from the end that all changed. In Guimarães, Antonio Cassano had grabbed a last-gasp 95th-minute winner for Italy, initially celebrating with the gusto of someone who had just saved his nation. His delight was soon cut short, quickly converted into despair as the reality of the evolving situation dawned. The Italian bench had given the signal, knowing what had just happened in Porto, and Cassano’s face told the full story.
The all-Scandinavian affair had just ended, but not before a dramatic finale. A Swedish burst down the left from Christian Wilhelmsson saw the ball driven into the box. Thomas Sørensen grabbed at it but spilled the ball, allowing Mattias Jonsson to hook it home. His dramatic, late and conspiracy-inducing equaliser at the very last would send both Scandinavian teams through.
Sweden, Italy and Denmark all finished level on five points, but events had conspired, willingly or circumstantially, to oust the Azzurri. Italy may have battled to victory, but it was to be an ultimately hollow one.
The following morning, Sweden’s main daily newspaper led with a huge “2-2” on the front page and the message: “Congratulations Italy, you tipped correctly.” The reaction in Italy was less jovial. AC Milan’s vice-president Adriano Galliani voiced the thoughts of many in his country, saying: “We got as many points as the players who are blonde and beautiful. But we are darker and not as beautiful.”
The statistics don’t necessarily backup any Italian allegations, though. Denmark had 16 shots, Sweden 15. Sørensen in Denmark’s goal made four saves and Sweden’s Isaksson made five – not the numbers you would expect to see in a match where the outcome was fixed, and the teams were manufacturing the result.
In truth, they had both attacked the other with the intensity of a local derby, and both came close several times in addition to the goals they scored. Indeed, Thomas Gravesen could and perhaps should have made it 3-1 for Denmark when put through on goal, only for Isaksson to stop him with an excellent save.
Only once the game was in its final moments, and both teams were sure of their progress, did the Scandinavian brotherhood emerge, and the friendliness that the Italians had feared broke out. Isaksson rolled the ball under his foot in his penalty area, while the Danish players stood around making no attempt to win it back. But this truce was only momentary at the end of the game, not the conspiracy-laden fix Italy had anticipated.
And yet it was the result that all of Italy had dreaded. Muttering tales of dodgy dealings, Italy slunk off defeated, while the Scandinavians celebrated together. For them, the show would go on. It was a result that led to a party in Portugal, with the rest of Europe having a sly chuckle at Italy’s expense. But it was a result that was beyond suspicion to any right-minded observer.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams