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20 years ago: The true underdog story of the European Championships

Pre-Euro 2004, knowledge of the Greek national football team was meagre. The customary high expectations of England were fuelled by the arrival of an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney. Hosts Portugal and their half superstar, half cry-baby Cristiano Ronaldo were tipped to shine and the usual suspects of Germany, Spain, Italy and France could be seen regularly on betting slips in bookies across the continent. It was Greece, however, playing in only their third ever major tournament, which surpassed all expectations to lift the trophy in a tournament that all football fans will remember well (not least for the incompetent refereeing of one Urs Meier). If you come to be asked 20-odd years down the line what the most fascinating ‘underdog’ story in football has been of your lifetime, it is likely you’ll place the Greek triumph at the top of your list (that is, of course, until Martin Kelly scores the winner in the final this time round!). But what many don’t realise is that for those born by this date in 1992, an even greater, more fascinating, more unexpected tale was written – the Denmark story.

It’s 1992, and the European Championships are being prepared to take place in Sweden. The hosts are expected to excel, led by the highly-rated Parma forward Thomas Brolin. Germany played for the first time as a unified nation, and defending European champions Holland were given elevated expectations. Denmark, on the other hand, had failed to qualify. After losing out in qualifying to group-winners Yugoslavia by one point, the Danish players were free to jet off on their summer holidays and soak up the sun.

Two weeks prior to the tournament, however, Yugoslavia found themselves banished from the finals. A state of civil war had led to sanctions being placed by the UN Security Council, preventing them from appearing. Denmark were subsequently thrown into the tournament, with two weeks to put a squad together and prepare for a campaign they had already been eliminated from.

Following a fall-out with manager Richard Møller Nielsen during the qualifying campaign, brothers Micheal and Brian Laudrup – considered two of the greatest ever Danish football players – had quit the national team. Whilst Brian returned to the squad for the European Championships under that same manager, Michael turned down the opportunity. Considering the exceedingly low expectations of the Danish national side, he preferred instead to remain on his holidays.

This tournament was to become the last in which only 8 teams reached the finals. There were only two groups, with the top two from each advancing straight to the semi-finals. Denmark were handed the challenge of coming up against the hosts, England and France – a group nobody expected them to stand a chance in – including the players. One squad member acknowledged that the pressure was so low that if they were to lose all three games 5-0 they would not be considered failures; so minute were the expectations. They headed into the final game against France on the back of a hard fought draw with England and a 1-0 loss to Sweden courtesy of a Thomas Brolin strike. With a loss and a swift exit anticipated, the Danish played with no fear. An early goal from the eventual tournament’s joint top goal scorer Henrik Larsen, followed by the winner from Lars Elstrup, secured an unlikely 2-1 victory. The French crashed out alongside a (surprising) exit from the English, and Denmark sailed through to the semi-final by one point. The Danish were to come up against the Dutch for a place in the final, in what was to become one of the most fascinating games in the history of the European Championships.

Defending their European title with ‘The General’, Rinus Michels in charge once again, Holland were hot favourites. Peter Schmeichel was to prove to be the hero, keeping the mighty Dutch at bay with an outstanding display in the Danish net. Larsen twice put the Danes in the lead, only for a late Frank Rijkaard strike to even the scores out at 2-2. The phenomenal Schmeichel prevented a Holland winner in extra time following a hoard of chances, meaning only penalties could separate the two teams. Denmark converted all five of their penalties, whilst Marco Van Basten, who had failed to score all tournament, saw his strike saved by Schmeichel. Van Basten’s penalty eventually proved decisive as Denmark, against all the odds, booked their place in the final.

Surely then, when faced by the Germans in the final, Denmark’s luck would have run out. Germany had knocked the hosts out 3-2 in their semi-final, and despite a less-than impressive group stage where they were comfortably beaten by Holland; yet again Denmark found themselves with the odds stacked against them. Danish player Kim Vilfort later admitted Germany were the best team in the final, but football is a funny game, and when John Jensen put Denmark one up, the impossible was made possible. Denmark’s counter-attacking philosophy paid dividends and the Germans were made to rue missed chances, as Vilford secured the unlikeliest of successes, putting the game beyond reach with the second goal little more than ten minutes from the end. The Danes had won the European Championships they failed to qualify for – and somewhere in the world their star player Michael Laudrup was watching on with regret as his brother lifted the trophy.

This fairytale, however, ultimately failed to produce a happy ending. Vilford, who had missed the France match to return home to care for his sick seven-year-old daughter, had to later come to terms with the loss of his child in her battle against Leukaemia. I used to agree with one Brian Clough, that football isn’t a matter of life or death, that it’s much more important than that. In reality, Brian, I can assure you, it’s much less.

20 years later, and Group A appears to have turned upside down. Favourites to proceed to the knock-out stages through this group Russia, and joint-hosts Poland, have found themselves eliminated by the Czech Republic and Greece, who yet again found themselves exceeding expectations. The Danish were unlucky to crash out of the so-called group-of-death at the expense of Germany and Portugal, after a shock 1-0 win against the Dutch (yes, again!) made some look up and take note. Even England appeared to finally be given the recognition they deserve as serious contenders of international tournaments until their debilitating defeat to Italy. With the arguable exception of Germany, we are yet to see one team really set the tournament alight. Is it possible we could have another underdog story unfold? Or will Euro 2012 be remembered as Ronaldo’s tournament? No, of course not, what am I thinking…

Shaun Gibbs

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