The Danish Fairy Tale

By | December 2, 2013

A friend of mine is a fan of F.C. København, the most successful Danish league side of the last 10 years. København have won 7 of the last 10 Danish Superliga titles, but are more famous for being a Cinderella team that beat Manchester United and drew Barcelona and Manchester City in the Champions League. Remarkably, however,  København is not the most successful Cinderella that Denmark has produced. That honor belongs to the Danish team that won Euro 1992 against all odds, which wrote a fairy tale that can rival any work by Hans Christian Andersen

The Champions

The Team that shouldn’t have even been there

European football in th 1970s and 1980s was dominated by the Germans and Dutch. These bitter rivals had won 3 of the 5 Euros held in that timespan, and were favored to repeat then dominance in the 1992 Euros. But qualification had to occur first. Sweden, as host country qualified automatically, while the Netherlands, Germany, France, England and Scotland qualified by winning their groups. The Soviet Union qualified, then ceased to exist as a country, but sent a team under the name “Commonwealth of Independent States.” The last team to qualify was Yugoslavia, who had beat out Denmark, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and Austria for a spot at Euro 1992.

But as so often occurs in football, fate had other plans. After the death of Marshal Tito, ethnic tensions had risen in the Soviet Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The various ethic groups started arming themselves, creating a very volatile situation. In mid 1992, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, starting the Yugoslav Civil wars. During these conflicts, atrocities such as the last genocide in Europe occured, resulting in the breakup of Yugoslavia. In an effort to calm the situation, the United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 757, which banned Yugoslav participation in global evens. Part g of the resolution banned Yugoslav participation in sporting events

As a result, the Yugoslav team was disqualified from the 1992 Euros. Denmark, the runners-up in that group, were selected to replace them. Barring the disqualification of  the former Yugoslavia, Denmark would not have has a chance to write one of the most remarkable tales in soccer history.

The Danish Team

The Danish team, despite finishing runners up in their group, were actually a solid team. In the 1984 Euros, they had lost to Spain, the eventual runners up, on penalities in the Semifinals. The 1992 team boasted players such Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup, Henrik Andersen, and Flemming Søgaard Povlsen, who all played in the major leagues of Europe. However, the most famous and talented player of that Danish generation, Michael Laudrup, had decided not to go to the tournament due to differences with the coach. Famously, Michael Laudrup though Denmark’s chances were so low that he decided to stay on holiday instead of representing his country


Laudrup must have regretted his decision


The Group Stages

Denmark was placed in a group with France, England, and Sweden (which was another stroke of luck-they may not have qualified from the other group). In the 1st game, they played England, drawing 0-0. In their second game, Denmark faced the host nation, Sweden, but lost 1-0 thanks to a goal by the Parma midfielder Tomas Brolin. At this point, qualification was still possible, but Denmark was last in their group, with only 1 point (France and England had drawn their first two games, so were ahead of Denmark but behind Sweden). At this point, qualification was not in Denmark’s hands; if England won their game by a small margin, Denmark would have been eliminated on goals scored and head to head results.

But Sweden defeated England 2-1 after falling behind early. It was now up to the Danes to determine their own destiny.

In the last game of the Group stages, Denmark faced France, a team brimming with talent. At that point, France boasted players such as Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc and jean Pierre Papin. During the game, Denmark took an early lead when henrik Larsen scored in the 8th minute. But Papin equalized for France in the 60th minute. As the clock ticked down, Lars Elstrup scored in the 78th minute.  With this goal, Denmark was through to the knockout stages.

The Knockout Stages

But what chance did Denmark have? They were drawn against the mighty Dutch team, who were mounting a strong defence of their 1988 championship The Dutch boasted players such as Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank De Boer, Frank Riijkard, and Wim Kieft. Gullit, Van Basten, and Riijkard had formed the backbone of the famous Arrigio Saachi A.C Milan teams of the late 1980s, which had won back-to-back European Cups (a feat which has not been equaled since).   The Dutch were heavily favored, but football is a game of where any given team can win given the right circumstances.

Those circumstances were provided by Henrik Larsen, who gave Denmark the lead in the 5th minute. The Dutch equalized due to a Dennis Bergkamp goal, but Larsen scored again in the 33rd minute. As the clock was winding down, Denmark seemed destined for a famous victory. But Ruud Gullit scored with 3 minutes to spare, sending the game into overtime. Though both teams threatened, the match went to penalties. It was Peter Schemichel’s time to shine. The newly minted Manchester United keeper has just finished as runners up (to give this a little perspecitive, Sir Alex Ferguson had not yet won his first Premier League). The first Dutch and Danish penalties were scored, but on the second Dutch Penalty, Schmeichel was able to save van Basten’s penalty


The rest of the Danish and Dutch scored, so Denmark won5-4 on Penalties, eliminating the defending champions


The Final

Still, Denmark couldn’t repeat another miracle, could they? After all, they were facing Germany, one of the best teams in the world. The Germans had won the 1990 World Cup, and boasted future legends such as Matthias Sammer, Jürgen Klinsmann, Bodo Illgner, and Andreas  Brehme.  They had easily beaten Sweden 3-2, with Sweden’s last goal coming in garbage time. Again, the Danes were heavy underdogs.


Surprisingly, the Danes took the lead in the 18th minute- John Jensen, who was later bough by Arsenal solely because of his efforts in the final, scored a screamer with his left foot. It was the first real goal scoring oppurtunity, but the Danes had capitalized. But the German seemed determined to score. For the next 60 minutes, they laid siege to the Danish goal. shot after shot was on targer, with Schmeichel performing acrobatic saves to preserve the Danish lead. It seemed that the Germans would eventually be rewarded for their dominance

But the Danes had destiny on their side. During Euro 1992, one of the most touching stories was that of Kim Vilfort . Vilfort was a Brøndby IF player who was a solid if unspectacular player. Picked to replace Laudrup, he was one of Denmark’s few true offensive threats. However, Vilfort had a 7 year old daughter, Line Vilfort, who was striken with Leukemia. During the tournament, Vilfort had to twice leave the Danish camp because his daughter’s condition was deteriorating. However, he was sent back by his family to rejoin the team, and had scored one of the penalities in the shootout against the Dutch.

In pretty much the second actual chance for the Danes, Vilfort shot a low goal  in the 78th minute that evaded Bodo illgner and gave the Danes a comfortable cushion.. They weathered relentless German attempts for another 12 minutes, after which Denmark Were champions of Europe. Sadly, however, Line Vilfort would die soon after the tournament



Denmark’s victory at the 1992 Euros remains the most remarkable moment in the history of that championship. It showed how a team with no superstars could beat teams brimming with individual talent if they possessed defensive discipline, efficient counterattacking, and a healthy dose of luck. The Danes wrote the blueprint which Greece successfully followed in 2004. Yet, the Danish victory remains the most improbable result in the history of the Euros due to the fact that had it not been for Yugoslavia’s disqualification, the team would never have been in the tournament. Yet, Denmark were worthy winners, writing one of the unlikeliest fairy tales in the history of the game.


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