Everyone remembers the summer of 1992. It was a special time. But for one group of men it has become a defining moment, a fairytale, the stuff dreams are made of and in the immortal words of Dante in Clerks they weren’t “even suppose to be here today”. That group of men was the Denmark National Soccer team that shocked the world by winning the 1992 European Championships.
After finishing runners up to Yugoslavia in the qualifiers most of the Denmark team had booked their holidays and were expecting a quiet summer when 10 days before the tournament began they were called upon to replace their group winners due to sanctions placed by the United Nations against the country which was in the middle of a civil war.
Brian Laudrup was the biggest name on the team sheet having moved to Bayern Munich in 1990 from fellow Bundesliga side FC Bayer 05 Uerdingen. He was without his brother Michael though as he thought the chances of the team doing anything significant in the tournament were slim and decided instead to stay home. This stemmed back to a disagreement in 1990 with manager Richard Møller Nielsen that saw the Laudrup brothers and Jan Mølby leave the national team.
Thirteen of the twenty Danish players played their football in the local Superliga and were placed in a group of death with England, France, and hosts Sweden. To say nobody gave them a chance would be an understatement and after drawing with England and losing to Sweden in the opening two group games any small glimmer of hope that might have been sparkling was fading fast.
Bottom of the group going into the final game Denmark had to beat a France side managed by Michel Platini and hope neighbors Sweden could beat England to make it through. Both games kicked off simultaneously to avoid a repeat of the 1982 World Cup incident between West Germany and Austria that became known as the “Disgrace of Gijón”. With Algeria and Chile having played the day before both teams knew a win by one or two goals for West Germany would result in both teams qualifying. West Germany took the lead after 10 minutes and the following 80 minutes can only be characterized as a training session with neither team trying too hard.
Four minutes in and disaster struck for the Danes. Sweden fell behind to a David Platt goal meaning as it stood England would go through as group winners with Sweden taking the second place. Four minutes later Denmark were ahead through midfielder Henrik Larsen against France, but unfortunately it still meant England and Sweden would go through as their Scandinavian neighbors had scored more goals.
Nothing changed as the second half began with Denmark still needing another two goals to beat out Sweden’s greater goals scored and England still topping the group. Then chaos erupted. Defender Jan Eriksson scored for Sweden in the 51st minute to tie their game meaning they would go through as group winners on five points while Denmark would take the second place on four points ahead of France and England. Nine minutes later Jean-Pierre Papin equalized for France against Denmark changing the table once again. Despite being even on points with England, France jumped into the second place position based on goals scored.
The dream was becoming a nightmare and something needed to change. The Danes needed a goal and Møller Nielsen turned to the one man he knew he could trust. Former Luton Town striker Lars Elstrup. Introduced in the 66th minute, Elstrup got on the end of a Flemming Povlsen cross in the 78th minute to poke the ball past Bruno Martini and send the Danish fans wild in the stands. Four minutes later Tomas Brolin scored a second for Sweden as both Scandinavian teams advanced to the semi-finals.
While the hosts would meet the newly unified Germany, who scraped through by the narrowest of margins, the Danes would have to go up against the reigning champions, Holland. With players like Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Ronald Koeman nobody gave Denmark a chance and why would they!?! They weren’t even supposed to be there!
Henrik Larsen didn’t care! He was hellbent on causing an upset and with five minutes on the clock he headed Denmark ahead after meeting a Brian Laudrup cross at the back post. Dennis Bergkamp equalized for Holland in the 23rd minute before Larsen again put the Danes ahead in the 33rd minute after latching on to a loose ball at the edge of the box. From then on it was all about defense for the Danes as the reigning champions piled on the pressure, which finally paid off in the 86th minute when Frank Rijkaard swiped home from a Holland corner and sent the game into extra time.
During the thirty minutes of extra time, Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel stood on his head to keep the scores level and send the game to a penalty shootout. That’s when the miraculous happened. Schmeichel saved Marco Van Basten’s penalty, Holland’s second out of five, while his teammates went on to score all five, sending Denmark to the final of a major tournament for the first time in the country’s history.
After beating reigning European Champions Holland in the semi-final Denmark would now face a Germany side in the final that had a number of players from the 1990 World Cup-winning West Germany. Despite their achievements up until this point Denmark still went into the final as massive underdogs. Although the Germans were without influential captain Lothar Matthäus they still had influential stars like Thomas Häßler, Jürgen Klinsmann, Jürgen Kohler, and Stefan Effenberg gracing the field to take on the Danes.
John Jensen opened the scoring after 18 minutes as Flemming Povlsen pulled the ball back to the edge of the area for the Brøndby IF midfielder to fire home past Bodo Illgner in the German goal. From then on the game was all Germany but the World Cup Champions couldn’t find a way past Peter Schmeichel and in the 78th minute Kim Vilfort added a second when he chested down a through ball and shot past Illgner before getting mobbed by his teammates in celebration.
The scenes that followed by Danish players, piling on top of Vilfort, took place out sheer joy and relief as Germany had kept the Danes under pressure for most of, if not all, the second half. Although a little of the celebration had to be in honor of just who the goalscorer had been. Vilfort played in the tournament but traveled back and forth to Denmark after nearly every game to be with his seven-year-old daughter who was fighting leukemia and only played in the final on her request as the condition worsened.
Line Vilfort lost her battle a few weeks after the final but not before she watched her dad live out a fairytale the likes of famous Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. To this day it is still the greatest story ever told as Denmark, a team that only turned professional 13 years earlier, beat the Goliaths of football to be crowned Champions of Europe. And they weren’t even supposed to be there!