Throughout Euro 2016 we will be serialising Rob Fielder’s marvellously comprehensive book, The Complete History of the European Championship. The series will look at the 10 greatest matches in the tournament’s history, recalling the events around the games and many of the wonderful players who have graced the competition over the years. We began with Yugoslavia’s fightback against France in the semi-final of the 1960 European Nations’ Cup, continued with England’s victory against the Netherlands at Euro ’96 and the thrilling quarter-final between Germany and Turkey at Euro 2008, and now it’s time for Denmark’s improbable victory against the Netherlands in the 1992 semi-final…
DENMARK – NETHERLANDS 2:2 (2:1) 5-4 pens
Scorers: 1:0 Larsen 5, 1:1 Bergkamp 23, 2:1 Larsen 33, 2:2 Rijkaard 86
22.06.1992 (20.15), Gothenburg, Nya Ullevi Stadion, Att: 37,450
DEN: Schmeichel; Piechnik, Lars Olsen (c), Christofte; Sivebæk, Jensen, Larsen, Vilfort, Andersen (Christiansen 70); Brian Laudrup (Elstrup 57), Povlsen
NED: Van Breukelen; Van Tiggelen, Ronald Koeman, Frank De Boer (Kieft HT); Gullit (c), Rob Witschge, Rijkaard, Wouters, Roy (Van’t Schip 115); Van Basten, Bergkamp
Penalties: 0:1 Ronald Koeman, 1:1 Larsen, 1:1 Van Basten (saved), 2:1 Povlsen, 2:2 Bergkamp, 3:2 Elstrup, 3:3 Rijkaard, 4:3 Vilfort, 4:4 Rob Witschge, 5:4 Christofte
Referee: Emilio Soriano Aladren (Spain)
As the Dutch prepared for their Euro ‘92 semi-final, all looked set for a procession into the last two. They were playing better football than when they claimed victory at Euro ‘88 with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Scotland and a superb display in beating bitter rivals Germany 3-1. Now they were set to face Denmark, the unheralded late arrivals who were still just pleased to be there. Given the relative imbalance it was no wonder that the Oranje entered the match as overwhelming favourites.
For the Danes each match they played was a bonus. Having originally missed out on qualification, only to be granted a reprieve through the ejection of Yugoslavia due to the ongoing conflict in the Balkans, they were the surprise package of the finals. A dour draw with England had kicked off their campaign while defeat to neighbours Sweden threatened to finally end the fairytale. Only a shock 2-1 win over a highly-rated France side had carried them into the final four. Surely they couldn’t pull off another improbable victory against a team as accomplished as the Netherlands?
Perhaps over-confidence was to blame but the defending champions started slowly. Brian Laudrup had already broken through their defence and failed to make anything of an opening when a poor clearance from Frank De Boer handed him another opportunity. This time the Dane’s cross picked out Henrik Larsen who was completely unmarked and able to head in at the back post. The Dutch were rattled but they set about providing a riposte. Skipper Ruud Gullit saw his shot cleared for a corner and Ronald Koeman fired a free-kick over the bar after Kim Vilfort brought down Dennis Bergkamp.
Jan Wouters was providing typical determination in central midfield, breaking up play with gusto and lucky to avoid a caution for a foul on Torben Piechnik, but the Dutch did find a way back into the game. A neat cross from Rob Witschge was headed back by Frank Rijkaard and Bergkamp was well placed to steer the ball in from the edge of the area. Yet almost immediately they trailed again. The Danes probed through Flemming Povlsen whose cross was kept alive by Vilfort; Koeman attempted to head Laudrup’s header clear but succeeded only in picking out Larsen to drill his finish into the bottom corner.
The match was growing increasingly bad tempered with the Danes angry over the referee’s failure to punish a series of Dutch tackles, not least Koeman’s cynical felling of Povlsen on the edge of the area. Half-time provided a period of respite and the Netherlands’ master tactician Rinus Michels opted to change things around with Wim Kieft sent on for De Boer and Witschge moving into defence. That provided another proven finisher to the line-up, but the Netherlands’ problem was a surprising lack of creativity. Although they dominated possession and were camped in the Danish half for long periods, they rarely forged an opening for either Kieft or Marco van Basten. Young forward Bryan Roy tested Peter Schmeichel with a drive from just outside the area and Gullit twice came close but it was largely uninspiring.
Furthermore they should have been helped by their opponents’ injury problems as Laudrup went off, to be followed by Henrik Andersen who suffered a horrific injury to his knee-cap. When John Sivebæk in turn went down they were forced to move him up front (where he could do no harm) and pack the defence in the hope they could hold out. Instead that merely invited further pressure and it was almost inevitable that the Netherlands would find an equaliser. Eventually exactly that happened as Gullit, always so dominant in the air, flicked on a Bergkamp corner and, after Denmark failed to clear, it fell to Rijkaard to force the ball in from close range.
In extra-time the Danes seemed to have little hope. Looking increasingly weary they were rarely able to get forward into threatening positions. When they did break into attack both Povlsen and John Jensen showed tired legs with wayward shooting. In comparison the Dutch seemed to be sure to force a winner, dominating play and coming close twice through Roy. Their biggest opening fell to Gullit, sliding in, but although Schmeichel could only half save he was helped out by Claus Christiansen who hacked clear from under his own crossbar.
The resulting shoot-out started in unsurprising fashion as Koeman emphatically fired into the roof of the net before Van Breukelen got hands to Larsen’s spot-kick but failed to keep it out. Next up was the world’s leading striker but Schmeichel dived low to prevent Van Basten netting; the Milan centre-forward enjoying a fine tournament but failing to find the back of the net when it counted from 12 yards.
Van Breukelen did his best to put off the remaining takers, again coming close to saving PSV Eindhoven teammate Povlsen’s effort, but the Danes kept scoring. Arguably the most impressive display of calm came from Vilfort, back in the side after departing the tournament to visit his desperately sick daughter, as he fired home. The decisive penalty fell to Kim Christofte who approached the ball off a two-step run-up and calmly placed it past Van Breukelen. Even his celebration, a little pirouette and punch of the air, failed to demonstrate the magnitude of the achievement. Plucky Denmark had beaten the European champions and progressed to an improbable final.