They were the unlikeliest of all European champions and to this day remain the poster boys for all underdogs.
Denmark, the Euro 92 winners, gave hope to generations of teams that would follow them onto the big stage.
How could a nation with a population of a little over five million in 1992 sweep away the competition, when that competition looked so formidable?
Michel Platini’s France squad boasted Papin, Cantona, Deschamps, Blanc and Boli; Germany had Klinsmann, Hassler, Moller and World Cup final match-winner Brehme; the Netherlands fielded Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and a young Bergkamp.
Nobody was tipping Denmark, who were called into the tournament 10 days before it began after the expulsion of Yugoslavia, a decision taken by UEFA amid war in the Balkans.
Denmark have given hope to teams who logically should have none. This hope has often been outrageously misplaced. The notion that ‘if Denmark can do it, so can we’ is a fallacy. The Danes opened the door and fantasists walked through.
The 1992 Denmark team were a band of brothers who seized their unexpected opportunity, facing on-field and off-field challenges along the way. Thirty years since the June 26 final, we celebrate them.
— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) June 26, 2019
HOW ON EARTH DID THEY DO IT?
There was little indication of what was to come when Denmark followed a 0-0 draw against England by losing 1-0 to hosts Sweden; However, a 2-1 victory over France in Malmo snapped the watching continent to attention.
Peter Schmeichel. John Jensen. Brian Laudrup. Kim Vilfort. Torben Piechnik. The football world knew about goalkeeper Schmeichel, a year into his Manchester United career, and Laudrup was Denmark’s star outfielder. But many in their side were barely known outside Denmark. Twelve of their 20 still played in the Danish league.
Michael Laudrup was in international exile, after he and Brian quit the national team in late 1990, unimpressed with new coach Richard Moller Nielsen. Brian came back shortly before the Euros, but Barcelona forward Michael continued to give international football a swerve. Denmark got by without him.
“We were very fortunate that we were one group of people who felt like pioneers in Danish football,” Schmeichel told UEFA.com. “We felt we had the responsibility to break the waves and go against the tide and prove to everyone that we can compete.”
He said it was a “myth” that the Danes had been summoned from the beach, not least because the Danish season was still in full swing.
It was “like a funeral” in the Denmark dressing room after the England stalemate, according to Schmeichel.
“But from that moment on we felt we were definitely in a position where we can compete in this tournament,” he said.
SLAYING THE GIANTS
In an eight-team tournament, scraping through in second place from Group 1 meant the Danes went straight into a semi-final.
Getting the better of the Netherlands looked beyond Denmark, given the defending champions were so strong.
Both teams knew Germany were waiting in the final, having got the better of Sweden 3-2 in the first semi-final. The Netherlands had beaten Germany at the group stage, but their hopes of a second clash with Berti Vogts’ side were to be shattered in Gothenburg.
Henrik Larsen’s double either side of a Bergkamp strike almost gave the Danes victory in 90 minutes, but Frank Rijkaard grabbed a late leveller. When it came to penalties, Schmeichel’s save from Marco van Basten made all the difference, every other player scoring from the spot as Kim Christofte sealed the shoot-out success.
In an interview at the FIFA Best awards in 2022, Schmeichel recalled how he had found inspiration in the national team from a young age.
“I have to go back to even 1984 when Denmark lost to Spain in the semi-finals of the Euros,” Schmeichel said.
“I was in the generation that came after that and [took] the inspiration from that, and the understanding that even though we are from a small country with a limited number of people playing football, if you work hard and look for your luck, and we always produce skilful players, then there is an opportunity to create very, very good results.”
Denmark were winning their battles on the pitch, but the most important struggle was being fought away from the spotlight, with Vilfort’s young daughter Line battling leukaemia.
He missed the France game to be with his family in Copenhagen but returned to Sweden before the semi-final. A movie dramatisation of Denmark’s great triumph that summer portrayed Line telling her father he should go back and join his team-mates.
Come the June 26 final against Germany, the Danes were not alone in thinking the improbable might just be possible.
At the Ullevi stadium, Germany began strongly but were caught out in the 18th minute when Jensen sent a sizzling strike past Bodo Illgner.
Best goalkeeper to win a EURO is _______
— UEFA EURO 2024 (@EURO2024) May 20, 2020
Schmeichel and his defense defied Germany, and in the 78th minute came a magical moment for Vilfort when he found space between Brehme and Thomas Helmer before sending a low left-footed shot in off the right post, sealing a 2-0 win.
Schmeichel said Denmark’s achievement came “from not accepting we’re a small country”.
“If we get the right circumstances, we can go and do whatever job we want to do, so it’s more a mentality thing,” he said. “I think that, more than anything, was why we won the European Championship. It was magical and unexpected.”
Coach Moller Nielsen later reflected on his sudden change of plans for June 1992.
Moller Nielsen, who died in 2014, was quoted by UEFA as saying: “I was supposed to fit a new kitchen [in my house] but then we were called away to play in Sweden. The kitchen is finished now. I got a professional decorator to do it.”
From a hospital bed, Line Vilfort got to see her father lead Denmark to the country’s greatest footballing success.
She died a few weeks later, at the age of seven. Dad was a national hero, but this would be the cruellest of final chapters in the story of these great Danes, a personal tragedy amid a summer-long national celebration.