We all love a classic underdog story. We were all supporting Leicester in 2016 when they won the Premier League. The same can be said for Bradford in 2015 when they beat Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge. But what is it about the underdog we love so much? Why do we torture ourselves by supporting the team that are odds on to lose? Well, the German word ‘schadenfreude’ goes some way to explain why.
Originating from the 18th century, schadenfreude is a term used to express the experience of pleasure that comes from witnessing others’ misfortunes. Sounds sadistic right? But the science behind it is actually what makes us support the underdog. As football fans, we resent the powerhouse teams, the Real Madrid’s, the Manchester City’s, and the Paris Saint Germain’s of the world. Therefore, we unconsciously take pleasure in their on-pitch failures.
Over the years we have been blessed with some truly amazing underdog stories. Greece in 2004, Montpelier in 2012, and Leicester in 2016 are all classic underdog examples where a smaller team defies the odds to come out victorious. However, none were quite as shocking as Denmark’s remarkable triumph at Euro 92.
Not only because they weren’t expected to win, but because they hadn’t qualified for the tournament in the first place….
This piece will tell the remarkable story of Denmark’s Euro 92 campaign and the magical journey that they went on throughout the tournament.
Euro 92 Qualification
That’s right, Denmark didn’t actually qualify for Euro 92 in the conventional way. Drawn into a favourable qualifying group with Austria, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, and Yugoslavia, Denmark fans felt that this group was an excellent opportunity to qualify for the Euros. Sadly (at the time) for Denmark, they finished second in the qualifying group, despite winning six games out of eight. Yugoslavia pipped them to 1st position by one point, beating Denmark in their capital Copenhagen in one of the deciding games. Whilst in Euro qualifiers of today, second place would be enough to qualify, back then only the winners of the seven groups joined the hosts at the tournament.
Yugoslavia were due to compete at the tournament, but after a terrible civil war broke out, FIFA and UEFA subsequently banned them from competitive football at the very last minute. To put into context how last minute the decision was, the Yugoslavian players had already landed in host country Sweden in preparation for the tournament. Denmark, on the other hand, were ready to watch the tournament from the comfort of their own sofas, or from a sports bar on the beach whilst soaking up that summer sun.
On May 30th, just two weeks before the tournament began, the Danish FA received an official invitation from UEFA to replace Yugoslavia at Euro 92 and make up the numbers. The consensus around Europe was that Denmark didn’t pose any significant threat at the tournament. Denmark on the other hand saw it as a time to put their name in lights; quite literally, with the tournament being the first major competition to have name printing on shirts.
Richard Møller Nielsen was the Danish coach throughout the qualifying stages and for the tournament itself. Despite media outlets demanding that Nielsen stepped down from the manager’s role after a disappointing qualifying campaign, he stayed in charge, and the rest is history. A defender during his playing days, Nielsen was known as a defensive coach making his teams very hard to beat. At the time, Denmark were a relatively inexperienced team on the European stage, with 15 of the 20-man squad having not played outside of Denmark.
One of the exceptions to this was the captain Lars Olsen, who was plying his trade in Turkey for Trabzonspor. At 31 years old, Olsen was the oldest player in the Denmark squad, highlighting the inexperience within the squad.
Although there was little experience in the squad, Denmark did possess a couple of game-changers in their ranks. In between the sticks they had a player who went on to become arguably the best goalkeeper in Premier League history, Peter Schmeichel. After all, you don’t get nicknamed The Great Dane for nothing. At the start of Euro 92, Schmeichel had just completed his first full season at Manchester United under iconic manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
In attack, the Denmark team were heavily reliant on the creativity and talent of talisman Laudrup. Now I know what you are thinking and yes you are correct, there are two Laudrup’s. Adding yet another twist to the Euro 92 story, technically both the Laudrup brothers had quit international football before the tournament began. Unhappy about the defensive style deployed by Nielsen, the Laudrup’s made the decision to step down from international football.
But in February 1992, Brian Laudrup had a change of heart, declaring himself available again for international selection. Despite his best efforts, Brian was unable to persuade his older brother Michael to follow his lead. A massive blow for Denmark, the man nicknamed “The Prince of Denmark” would not be at Euro 92.
Even after the decision from Brian, there were still doubts about his fitness. He was still coming back from a cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out of most of the 91-92 season at Bayern Munich. There were concerns that Laudrup was rushed back by Bayern, who had a disastrous season by their standards, severely missing his services. For Nielsen, it was a risk he was willing to take, only needing one moment of magic from Laudrup to turn any game on its head.
As we approach the 30-year anniversary of Euro 92, I wonder if there is a day that goes by where Michael Laudrup doesn’t rue his decision to step down from international football.
Put it this way, if the same teams were put into a group today, you would consider it the group of death. The first team in Denmark’s group were the hosts Sweden. With the home crowd behind them, the Swedes always going to be a difficult team to face.
Joining Denmark and Sweden in Group 1 was France, the Euro 1984 champions. A team full of world-class talent, including charismatic figure Eric Cantona, hard-working and tough-tackling midfielder Didier Deschamps and ‘Le Président’ Laurent Blanc. Leading France into the tournament as manager was none other than controversial figure Michel Platini.
The third and final team joining Denmark in Group 1 was England. Captained by talisman Gary Lineker and starring ‘psycho’ Stuart Pearce at the back, England took part in their first tournament under former Watford and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor. Coming off the back of a 4th place finish at World Cup 90, there was a growing belief around England that this could be ‘their tournament’. A phrase that we have since heard for a further 30 years.
In their first game of the tournament, Denmark held England to a 0-0 draw, showcasing the defensive stability that Nielsen’s managerial career was built on. The second game of the group saw the Danes fall to a narrow 1-0 loss at the hands of hosts Sweden, meaning that anything but a win against group favourites France would see them eliminated from the tournament as many expected.
But in front of 25,000 fans, the Danes pulled off a miracle victory, defeating France 2-1 to seal second place in the group and a place in the knockout stages. Denmark took an early lead in the 9th minute, but were pegged back by France early in the second half. That was until former Luton Town player Lars Elstrup scored a second in the 78th minute, the most important goal of his career and the winner that saw Denmark progress to the knockouts.
Defying all the odds and with just 10 days’ notice, Denmark were through to the semi-finals of the Euros. A tournament they hadn’t even qualified for.
That Netherlands game
With just 4 days between the France game and the semi-final, there was no time to celebrate for Denmark as they faced an uphill task in the semi-final. They faced the Netherlands in the semi-final, a nation with an abundance of world-class options in the squad. Captained by football icon Ruud Gullit and spearheaded in attack by a young Dennis Bergkamp and clinical finisher Marco Van Basten, the Dutch went into the semi-final as clear favourites.
But it was Denmark who took a shock lead in the game with a big goal from Henrik Larsen, (not to be confused by his Swedish namesake). Bergkamp tied the game up in the 23rd minute with a well taken strike against a helpless Schmeichel but just 10 minutes later, Denmark retook the lead with a second strike from Larsen.
However, after holding on for much of the second half, the Netherlands broke the Danes down in the 86th minute with a Frank Riijkard goal. With the game tied at 2-2 at full time, the resilient Denmark team had taken tournament favourites to extra time. 30 long minutes and a Dutch onslaught later, Denmark dragged the game out to a penalty shootout, owing a lot to goalkeeper Schmeichel who made a string of saves in extra time to keep the game level.
Holland began the shootout and up stepped former Barcelona and Everton manager Ronald Koeman to take the first penalty, which he calmly dispatched. The man of the moment Larsen stepped up to take Denmark’s first penalty, holding his nerve and scoring to level the tie. Second up for Holland was three-time Ballon D’or winner Van Basten. A man who has won the European Cup three times and scored over 200 career goals, it seemed inevitable that he was going to score.
Nope! Schmeichel printed his name in European history, springing across his goal line to save Van Basten’s penalty. A poor penalty in truth, for such a world-class player, but take nothing away from the save. The goals flew in from this point onwards, with both sides dispatching their next three penalties. Denmark were just one penalty away from one of the biggest upsets in international football history!
Denmark’s fate was in the hands of Kim Christofte. Not a player renowned in his career for his goalscoring abilities, but as one of the older players in the squad he took on the pressure of taking the dreaded 5th penalty. With one of the shortest run-ups I’ve ever seen, Christofte sent the Dutch keeper Van Breukelen the wrong way, sparking mass celebrations in Denmark.
4 days after their penalty shootout heroics, Denmark faced off against Germany in the final. At this point, Denmark had claimed fandom from every neutral fan at home, even some of the native fans in Sweden. In the 18th minute, they made the dream start to the game. Midfielder John Jensen put the Dane’s 1-0 up against a bamboozled Germany, with just his second ever international goal. Putting up a very stubborn defensive display, Denmark limited Germany to minimal chances in the game. Vilfort sealed a shock victory for his country in the 78th minute, putting the game beyond the Germans.
The full-time whistle sounded and the Danish players collapsed to the floor in celebration. In one of football’s biggest miracles, Denmark won the Euro 1992 tournament, a tournament that they hadn’t originally qualified for. What a way to win your first ever international trophy.
Relishing as the underdog
After Denmark defied the odds at Euro 1992, it really didn’t come as any surprise when they almost repeated the trick at Euro 2020 (technically 2021). In their first group fixture against Finland, midfield maestro Christian Eriksen collapsed in the 43rd minute, suffering a cardiac arrest in some of the most horrific footballing scenes ever seen. Heroics from captain Simon Kjær, Kasper Schmeichel, and the Danish medical staff thankfully saved the life of the then Inter Milan midfielder.
The Danish players and staff gained millions of fans around the world for the way they conducted themselves in a moment of despair. With the emotional trauma and stress that the situation put the Danish team through, nobody expected them to play another minute at the tournament. Instead, the situation seemed to of invigorated them. With the news that Eriksen was in a stable condition, the whole country united together as his teammates continued their Euro campaign.
Despite eventually losing the rescheduled game against Finland 1-0, Denmark made it out of the group and into the knockout stages. They beat Wales 4-0 in the round of 16 and Czech Republic 2-1 in the Quarter-Finals, doing what they do best and defying the odds at a European tournament. The Danish fairy-tale story was sadly ended at the Semi-Final stage by a rampant England team, searching for their first international trophy since 1966. We all know what happened next…
Whilst this wasn’t the ending the Danish fans had hoped for, the courage and spirit that the team showed will forever be remembered. They may not have won the tournament, but they won the hearts of millions of footballing fans across the world. Denmark did get their fairy-tale ending 9 months later when Christian Eriksen stepped off the Danish bench to score with his first touch for the red and whites since the Euros. A goal that was applauded by all four stands of the Johan Cruyff Arena.
A fitting end to a tragic moment that united the whole football world.