Denmark weren’t supposed to win Euro 92. In fact, they famously weren’t meant to be there at all. They’d had no big tournament build-up, no celebration of qualification success and not a great deal of preparation for the tournament full stop.
And 30 years on from becoming arguably the most unlikely winners story in European Championship history (sorry, Greece), the Danes’ tale loses none of its lustre.
In qualification for the eight-team competition, the Danes finished second in their group behind Yugoslavia, meaning they would spend the summer looking longingly over the North Sea as neighbours Sweden hosted the tournament.
However, little over two weeks before a ball was first kicked in Stockholm, they got notice they would be participating after all, following the break-out of civil war in Yugoslavia and the Plavi’s subsequent disqualification.
The short notice was a concern for many in the hastily assembled Denmark squad, but they were still excited to make the trip. Holiday plans were abandoned, any pre-season training regimes were scrapped and life was put on hold: they were playing at the European Championships instead.
John Sivebæk, the eccentric Monaco defender who’d made a name for himself at Manchester United and Saint-Étienne, discussed the feeling among the team as they got ready.
“It wasn’t very good,” Sivebæk recalls. “It wasn’t a special feeling for us because we were on our way to our holidays. Some players were already on holiday, then we got called in and asked to play in the tournament because of the war in Yugoslavia. Of course, we were very surprised, but we were looking forward to it.
“We had a few doubts about how our condition was because we weren’t really preparing to play at the tournament. But we were called in some 15 days before the tournament started so we had a few weeks to get ourselves ready. It’s not the same as when you know you’ve qualified for a tournament like the European Championships – it’s more of a challenge when you’re called in the way we were. It’s a big competition.”
Fitness was a concern. The domestic season had ended a few weeks earlier and the players would have broken their fitness routines, leaving them without any real match rhythm. Was that an issue for the squad that was to travel for the Championships?
“Definitely,” Sivebæk continues. “I remember some of the Danish players playing in England were already on holiday and I was playing in France at the time. My season had just ended, so the fitness was not really an issue for me. However, some of the guys – like Flemming Povlsen – were already on holiday for a week or two.
“The good thing was that a week before the tournament, Denmark had planned an international friendly anyway. We played it to get into rhythm after the end of the season. We were preparing for that anyway, however not all the players in the Euro 92 squad were part of the camp for the friendly. Some of the players that played the friendly perhaps weren’t fit enough. Lots of plans changed overnight.”
The eight-team tournament was split into two groups of four before the two semi-finals and final. Denmark had a tough task ahead of them, with hosts Sweden, France – who boasted Ballon d’Or holder Jean-Pierre Papin in their ranks – and England, who had come within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the World Cup final two years earlier.
Denmark were rank outsiders and any thoughts of winning the tournament would have seemed fanciful considering the lack of preparation and quality of opposition.
But led by coach Richard Møller Nielsen, they were optimistic. In their first group match in Malmö, Denmark did exactly what they came to do: putting in a strong performance to earn a point with a goalless draw against England. A resolute defensive performance gave Denmark hope, but after a 1-0 defeat to Sweden, chances of progression looked slim.
“We weren’t confident at all during the tournament, really,” Sivebæk reveals. “We took it one game at a time… After the draw against England, we were happy because we had at least shown we could be at the tournament and compete at that level. That gave us some confidence.”
Sivebæk’s own experiences of playing in France gave him knowledge about the challenge ahead in Denmark’s final group game. And the entire team rose to the occasion. Henrik Larsen scored the Danes’ first goal in that tournament early on to give them the lead, before Papin equalised for France. However, a late Lars Elstrup goal clinched the victory, earning Denmark an unlikely semi-final berth.
“I was playing in France at the time, so I knew many players from the French team quite well,” Sivebæk remembers. “It was an amazing team. It was difficult, but we put in a very good performance and won 2-1, which helped us qualify for the semi-final. We were surprised, but of course, there was a lot of happiness among us.”
Qualification from the group stage as runners-up behind the hosts meant Denmark would go up against the winners of Group One: the Netherlands, one of the favourites to win the tournament and reigning champions. The Oranje were filled with quality, from Marco van Basten’s mastery in front of goal and Frank Rijkaard’s genius, to Ruud Gullit’s drive – all backed up by the legendary Rinus Michels in the dugout. This was a squad worthy of being champions.
The semi-final was played at the Ullevi in Gothenburg, one of the host stadiums in the 1958 World Cup. And from the off, Denmark were proactive, getting an early reward as Larsen struck in the fifth minute. That didn’t last long as Dennis Bergkamp equalised, but the Dutch were pegged back once again as Larsen scored his third goal of the tournament. The Danes showed the quality that got them this far, keeping Michels’ side at bay, but in the 86th minute, disaster struck.
Rijkaard’s late equaliser sent the game into extra-time and after 30 minutes where a breakthrough couldn’t be found, it went to penalties. Five players stepped up for Denmark, five players scored. Five players stepped up for the Netherlands, four players scored. Van Basten, who had won the Netherlands hero in the Euros four years earlier saw his spot-kick saved by a mammoth Peter Schmeichel, sending Denmark into the final to face reigning World Cup holders Germany.
“They [the Netherlands] were a big team and had big players and a top-class coach,” Sivebæk says. “We knew we were underdogs going into the game and just wanted to try to do our best. I think we were quite lucky in that match to be honest, but we needed a bit of luck to win these games. The match went to extra-time and our team suffered a few injuries, so it was a challenge to get through to the penalty shoot-out, but we lucky we had Peter Schmeichel in goal. He was able to save a shot from Marco van Basten, which proved to be decisive.
“Obviously, we had to convert our own penalty, which put us in the final and set up a match against Germany, who themselves were another big challenge. I got injured in the semi-final just before the equaliser, so there was a lot of defending from the team and I was basically playing as a striker. We were very lucky we got to penalties.”
Denmark’s senior players had turned up when it mattered. This was a team of big personalities. Schmeichel was well-renowned already, Sivebæk was the most-capped, Brian Laudrup was touted highly for the future, Povlsen loved to score while Larsen was making a name for himself. Leading them with calmness, though, was Nielsen, the head coach who had such a big impact on Danish football for nearly two decades, working with the country’s under-21s, senior national team and senior futsal squad. He only wanted to see the best for his country.
Sivebæk can only praise Nielsen’s impact during the tournament and speaks highly of how he carried the team forward.
“He [Nielsen] was like one of the players,” Sivebæk says. “We got along very well and he was a big part of the success. He was always relaxed about the whole situation before the tournament and he knew how he wanted to set the team up tactically. As a coach, he was always very thoroughly prepared for any opponent. Of course, that had an influence on the rest of us as a team. I would say he did his job very well, as did the rest of the players.”
Then came the final and a chance for immortality. A group that had been through a rollercoaster of emotions already, played the match of their lives against Germany. In goal, Schmeichel was unbeatable, stopping good efforts from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald, and up front carried a regular threat. John Jensen, the Danish midfielder who rarely scored, found the net early in the first-half to give his side the lead.
In the second, Kim Vilfort, rose to prominence. The Brøndby midfielder was enduring a difficult summer, having joined the squad late so that he could be with his seven-year-old daughter, who was undergoing treatment for leukaemia.
After he got to Sweden, his daughter’s condition worsened and he missed the final group match against France so he could visit her. Vilfort returned in time for the semi-final and then again in the final, where he scored the second against Germany late on to secure victory. The Danes, against all odds, were European champions and returned to Copenhagen as national heroes.
“It was unbelievable,” Sivebæk remembers. “We just couldn’t understand what was going on. Of course, we celebrated after the final and we saw our families at the stadium, and that was only the first part of the celebrations.
“It was a different matter in Denmark itself, the whole country went crazy. When we got to the airport in Copenhagen the day after the win, there were people all over. The federation arranged a bus from the airport, directly going into the centre of Copenhagen. There were people all over – I can’t remember how many – but it was amazing to see how many people were there applauding us. It was a fantastic achievement to be a part of as a player.”
In the years to come, this team were honoured even further. In 2006, the Dansk Boldspil-Union (Danish FA) opened the Danish Football Hall of Fame, with the 1992 team being its first inductees, and in the summer of 2015, when The Summer of ’92, a movie about the success, hit cinemas, more than 320,000 people went to watch. Nielsen’s death in 2014 made people further realise his contribution to Danish football, and further understand the importance of unity and team-work.
“We were left a very good impression of Danish football, nor just across Europe, but around the world, I think,” Sivebæk says about the team’s wider impact. “It was the most unexpected win. We’re a small country so it was great that we were able to achieve such a feat.
“The way we went into the tournament was also something to talk about. I think people had a lot of respect for what we did, and we still hear stories about that day: what they did, where they saw the game and so on. Of course, we were proud and we’re always proud to win. It’s now been 30 years and it’s unbelievable that people still talk about it. It’s fantastic.”