The following article first appeared in Issue One, released in June 2011.
The fairytale of Denmark’s 1992 European Championship campaign
Du Skal Ikke Tro At Du Er Noget” — The first commandment of Janteloven, a pattern of group behaviour identified by the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks as typical of Scandinavia. It is characterised by a negative attitude towards individuality and success: “Don’t think that you are anyone.”
Once upon a time, not too long ago, the clocks stopped in Copenhagen. For a fraction of a second, every pair of eyes from Skagen to Svendborg fixed on the right boot of a short, bushy-haired midfielder. Normal never got more normal than John Jensen, and yet at 8.34 pm on 26 June 1992 at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, he stared at the spot on which every Dane was concentrating. “Look down on your boots, nowhere else, just down on your boots,” his coach had told him over and over. As Arsenal fans would later discover, Jensen had a habit of blazing the ball over the crossbar from wherever on the pitch he happened to be shooting, but this time he looked down at his laces and threw his boot at the ball. It flew, how it flew, and every jaw in every bar, every front room, dropped as it rose towards the top corner of the net. The German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner was rooted, the great, the seemingly impassable defenders Thomas Helmer, Jürgen Kohler and Guido Buchwald watched it fly. The open Danish mouths a few hundred miles away across the Kattegat and the Skaggerak roared together in a hysterical crescendo, and the six-week journey that stretched from a phone call to a final suddenly looked like it could have a happy ending. A group of Danish fans persuaded the captain of a flight from Oslo to Copenhagen to reroute and fly over the Ullevi to join in the celebrations. The country regularly described as the happiest in Europe had tapped into a higher state of ecstasy.
Once upon another time, five months before that Ullevi moment, in the spring of 1992, Richard Møller Nielsen and his wife decided that they needed a new kitchen. The patterned blue-and-yellow wallpaper had been ruined by the sun, those spring mornings weren’t so bright anymore and a summer change of colour seemed to be the only answer. The reason that the Møller Nielsens were hesitant was that Richard’s Danish football team still had a chance of qualifying for the summer’s European Championship. If they won their final game against Northern Ireland and the group leaders Yugoslavia lost or drew in Austria, then, provided that the goal-difference stars were aligned, Denmark would make the short trip to Sweden that summer and there would be no time for wallpapering. And yet the sprit in the Danish side was not good and Møller Nielsen didn’t feel deep down that things would go in their favour. He and his wife began discussing kitchen designs.
Møller Nielsen’s time in charge of the national side had been both turbulent and occasionally bizarre. If Denmark didn’t make it, then his spiky nature, odd decision-making and lack of friends in the media meant that he was almost certain to get the sack. He had been assistant coach under the popular and successful Sepp Piontek and had suffered by comparison. The biggest controversy of his three-year reign concerned the player who, with a polite nod to Peter Schmeichel and Allen Simonsen, is regarded as the greatest that Denmark has ever produced. Michael Laudrup played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and, even when his legs started to betray him, he could pass the ball through the midfield and read the game like nobody else of his generation. He infuriated with his tendency to drift in and out of games and sometimes to look like everything came too easily, but then he would do something no one else could and you would forgive him in a heartbeat. Laudrup was the stimulus of the stupendous and perhaps naive Danish Dynamite team of the World Cup in 1986, the one that brushed aside Uruguay 6-1 with a display of the “new football” — pass, move and walk the ball in — and then lost 5-1 to Spain after being a goal up. Belief had been allowed to build, perhaps a mite too hysterically, and it was extinguished without even a glimmer of defiance.
Having flopped in 1988, Denmark seemed dispirited, a spent footballing force, as if 1984 and 1986 had been their best chances of winning anything, and their attempt to make an impact at the 1990 World Cup was hamstrung by the memories of the golden generation. After sitting on the bench and watching that performance in Mexico, and the subsequent dissolution of ambition, Møller Nielsen was determined that his team would never fold like the 86 side. He had been a great admirer of Piontek, and yet he felt that once too often he had seen the team play fancy football and end up on the losing side. His team would show more steel. He introduced a more pragmatic way of playing, one that wasn’t designed to endear himself to fans and neutrals, but one that he was convinced was a route to success in the European Championship finals in 1992. The golden boy Michael Laudrup hated it, railed against it, begged Møller Nielsen to change his mind and then used his influence to try and put pressure on the coach. He was the star, he had a voice, and he was sure that he would be listened to ahead of this simple man, this stultifying thinker.
That calculated judgement call turned out to be a political disaster. If Møller Nielsen had dropped Laudrup from the squad because of his attitude, then a national wailing and gnashing of teeth would have ensued. In the end, though, Michael Laudrup walked away from his international football career because he could not, would not play a certain way. The coach didn’t have a decision to make, and the Danes shrugged their shoulders and mumbled about Laudrup’s arrogance. “The higher up a monkey climbs,” the Danish saying goes, “the more you can see of its arse”. No matter how good you are, Denmark is not a country in which to flaunt it. Not everybody in Scandinavia follows the Janteloven, but it is useful shorthand when looking at the prevailing attitude to success. Repeat 100 times: “Don’t think that you are anyone.”
Both Laudrup and Møller Nielsen are difficult men to like and can be wilful and stubborn. The clash between them has often been described as being purely egotistical, but you feel a stubborn sense of sadness and regret on both sides of this story and it may be that their falling out was born of a fundamental difference of footballing ideology: a clash between a player in love with his idea of the game and a coach who was sick and tired of looking good and losing. The sharpest irony of 1992 may be that Denmark would not have won the European Championship had their best player taken part. The triumph of the team over the individual had claimed its highest profile victim.
Møller Nielsen took Denmark to the brink of qualifying, and yet, as he had hinted over the kitchen table, they would fall short. In the final round of qualifying matches, on 13 November 1991, Denmark beat Northern Ireland in Odense, but the Austrians decided to put out an experimental side in Vienna, and they were well beaten by Yugoslavia. The only controversy on that day surrounded the weakness of the Austrian XI chosen by Dietmar Constantini. There was no real hint of what was coming for Yugoslavia. The desperate destruction of their country was already well underway but no one could have predicted quite what was about to happen.
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With 10 days to go before the start of the European Championship in Sweden, the Møller Nielsens got down to business. From their vantage point in the Danish coastal town of Ebeltoft, it was all a little confusing. There were strong rumours that Denmark might get a late reprieve at the expense of Yugoslavia, but there was also a feeling that Uefa might come down on the side of stasis. Møller Nielsen was weeks away from the sack, and hoped out loud that his team would have a chance to go to Sweden, and yet deep down, really deep down, he felt that they had little chance. The kitchen table was covered in swatches and that, he pretty much knew, would be the focus of his summer. As the prospective shades washed around the minds of the Møller Nielsens, though, the phone rang, and the fairy tale was set in motion. Uefa had taken the decision to eject Yugoslavia from the European Championship, and the group runner-up Denmark had been asked to take their place. Could Møller Nielsen please get his players together as soon as possible and prepare to travel to Sweden. When Møller Nielsen put the phone down, he said that the kitchen would have to wait. He still had a job and he intended to make the most of it. First things first, where the hell were the players?
What happened between that phone call and the first kick of a ball in the 1992 European Championship has become the stuff of footballing myth. If you believe everything that has been written about that period then the players were all sunbathing on a beach in the Caribbean when they were somehow reached. Another story goes that some of them expressed an unwillingness to play and Møller Nielsen had trouble getting a side together. None of this is really true. No one can deny that Denmark’s story in 1992 had all of the hallmarks of Hans Christian Andersen, and yet people are never happy with the truth, no matter how astonishing it might be. The soundbite has it that Denmark’s players came off the beach to win the European Championship. It’s a story that amuses some players and annoys others.
Peter Schmeichel, a passionate man mountain whom you wouldn’t want to distress unduly, gets a real glint in his eye when you suggest that Denmark were anything but professional in the build up. “We did not come off the beach,” he said. “It’s true that we weren’t as prepared as a team normally is for a big tournament — of course we weren’t because we weren’t in it — but we did not come off the beach. We had played a couple of friendlies against teams involved in the Championship, and most of us were preparing to play the CIS in a friendly when we heard the news. And also we weren’t stupid — we read the newspapers and we kept ourselves fit and awake because we knew that there was a chance that we could be called up. We didn’t really believe that it could happen, but people had told us that Yugoslavia might be thrown out. And when people talk like that, well, you listen. But this stuff about the beach, well, it’s bullshit.” So there you go — never again say that they were all on the beach. And if you ever meet a journalist you don’t like, suggest with a smile that they interview Peter Schmeichel about his pre-tournament holiday in 1992.
In fact, for all of Schmeichel’s protestations, one or two of the fringe players were sunning themselves when they got the call up. They were a minority though, and the reality is that most of the Danish squad were involved in friendly matches and had stayed in training. Møller Nielsen had managed to get a squad together to help out, but it was a long way from the first team. The Brøndby players like Jensen and Schmeichel were involved as a geographical convenience, and yet there were several unaccounted for. Michael’s younger brother Brian Laudrup was in Munich when he heard the news. He came back from a Bayern friendly match and his wife told him that the Danish FA (DBU) had called and said that he was going to the European Championship. He thought it was a joke, and his initial reaction leavens Schmeichel’s vehemence: “I told my wife that we were going to get slaughtered as most of the players had been on holiday.” He was just on his way back from a serious injury and so burnout wasn’t an issue. He was itching to play football and couldn’t believe his luck. There is still disbelief in his voice as he tells the story now, and it’s noticeable that he speaks, like all the players bar the super-motivated Schmeichel, about “going there to play three games”. It was all about the joy of being able to take part in the summer’s football festival, rather than having any notion that Denmark might make an impact.
As one of the younger players in the squad, Laudrup can perhaps be forgiven for only thinking about their good fortune. Two of the more thoughtful Danes, John Jensen and Kim Vilfort, immediately turned their thoughts to the Yugoslav players, some of whom they knew well. Jensen says that he still feels that he “took something away from football players who had played well and deserved to be there,” while Vilfort sums his mood up succinctly: “there was a sense of both fun and dismay as the reason was not fun.” Vilfort had another reason for regarding football with a sense of perspective. His seven-year-old daughter was seriously ill with leukaemia, and his European Championship would be punctuated by visits home to sit by her bedside. He was one Dane for whom the summer of 1992 was anything but a fairy tale.
While those early phone calls were informing the Danish players of their good fortune, a very different call had been made to the Yugoslav captain Dragan Stojković. He was a brilliant footballer, and had earned a move from Crvena Zvezda to Marseille after a superb performance against Spain at the 1990 World Cup. Stojković had thought that the football team he led could at least provide a positive image of his country and offer some hope to those caught up in the conflict. When he was told the news of Yugoslavia’s ejection from the competition he broke down. And then, when he had to tell his players in their Swedish hotel, he broke down again.
“It was the worst day of my life, and the worst thing is that I couldn’t explain to the players why,” he said. “This is sport, not politics, and the two should never go together. There were terrible things going on in my country and I am deeply ashamed of them. But when I looked at these players, I looked at the way that their faces cracked when I told them this news, I wanted to know why Uefa had let things go this far. If they were going to throw us out of the competition, why didn’t they tell us before? We had been training, we were already at the hotel in Sweden, and now we had to go home. We had to go back to reality. And still, nobody would tell me why.”
Stojković and his players were perhaps naive to expect Uefa to ignore the UN sanctions, human rights abuses and terrible violence. And yet the point that he makes about timing is a valid one. Uefa wilted under the pressure of international sanctions, and the players and staff who listened intently to Stojković could count themselves unlucky as they paid the price for the terrible actions of others.
Møller Nielsen is convinced that, holidays or not, his team’s late call up was a major factor in its eventual success. The other seven squads taking part in Sweden had been involved in the swirl of pre-tournament publicity. Media coverage and advertising opportunities have increased massively in the years since 1992, but it was still a busy time: daily news conferences, cameras at training, products to endorse and, although this was pre-mobile phones, still a constant stream of people trying to contact the players. Denmark had none of that to worry about, and Møller Nielsen was delighted. “I don’t like the way that football has gone with relation to this,” he said. “I hate the idea that you have to be media-friendly, I hate taking part in interviews constantly, I hate the way that players’ lives are fair game now for people who call themselves journalists. The late call up in 1992, well, it gave me a reason to say ‘no’ to all of this, to tell the players to say no as well. ‘Hey,’ I would say, ‘give us a break, we only have 10 days, we can’t talk to you, we have to play football, we must train, talk to someone else.'”
Maybe it’s something that international coaches should remember, even now. The best preparation might be to have no preparation. How often have you heard lazy commentators use the word “carefree” about the way that Brazilians approach the game? In the build up to the 1992 Euro, the Danes were literally carefree. Nothing to lose, no pressure, and the results would be astonishing.
When the ninth European Championship finally got underway with its revised line up, it was the 1984 champions France who started as favourites. France had gone through qualifying with a 100 percent record and were strongly fancied to win their second major tournament after years of underachievement, especially with Jean-Pierre Papin of Marseille to spearhead their strike force. Papin was in his prime, Marseille were in the middle of their run of four titles in a row, and OM provided the backbone of Michel Platini’s team. And yet France came out of their opening game against the Swedes relieved with a draw. Jan Eriksson gave Sweden the lead before Papin equalised from a sharp Christian Perez cross. Sweden weren’t fancied to do much at all in their home tournament, but they had discovered an unlikely pair of heroes in Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin. Both reached the peak of their careers during the four weeks of this tournament: Dahlin’s career would be ruined by injury, and Brolin would succumb horribly to his demons, which left him hugely overweight and selling vacuum cleaners for a living. Watching their quicksilver feet throughout this tournament, though, was a joy. They were the class act of 1992.
If France were shocked by what Sweden could do, then England had a big surprise coming their way as well. That half of the draw, Group One, looked easier because of Denmark’s presence, but England found in their opening game that Møller Nielsen’s side was rather tougher than many had expected it would be. England were in a state of confusion, with Graham Taylor’s tactical plans disrupted by injuries to five important players. Taylor talked enthusiastically about the benefits of playing with a sweeper, but the loss of the one man who could play in that position, Mark Wright, meant that England switched back immediately to a flat back four, with Keith Curle of Manchester City drafted in to play at right-back. Given those problems, England actually performed reasonably well, with David Platt going close on a couple of occasions. John Jensen hit the post for Denmark, and, even though Tony Daley came on late and nearly won it for England, their opening game was a triumph for the Danes. They already had a point more than anyone had anticipated, and the tabloid hum questioning Graham Taylor’s suitability for the England job went up a notch.
1992 was a curious time in the footballing development of both England and France — in England, Graham Taylor’s reign was already an unpopular one, with the media playing an increasingly important role in destabilising him. Taylor’s father was a journalist, and, unlike many managers before and since, his initial instinct had always been to trust the press. Already fraying, that policy unravelled during the tournament. Taylor seemed so willing to listen to and appease the English media that you sometimes wondered whether they picked his team. Taylor always seemed afraid to lose games, rather than brave enough to win them. Platini had been backed into a similar corner with his French team and his unwillingness to attack led to a stultifying game between the two in Malmö. Despite the presence on the field of Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Papin and Cantona, only Stuart Pearce came close to scoring, as he recovered from being headbutted by Basile Boli to thump a powerful free-kick against the crossbar.
Later that day the Danes suffered a reality check. Their game against Sweden was much more entertaining than anything that England and France had managed, and they ended up the losers. The delicate Dahlin and the swaggering Brolin combined to beat Schmeichel for the only goal of the game. There was salvation for the Danes though. The closeness of the group meant that they still had a chance of qualification, but they would have to beat France to achieve it. Møller Nielsen was in danger of getting back to his home improvements much sooner than he wished to, and it was then that he began to discover the man-management genius that he knew nothing about but which had always been lurking within.
The Danish players were returning on the coach from training before the final group game when one of them saw a sign for mini-golf. One of the coaches was sent to the front of the team bus to ask Møller Nielsen if they could go and play. Møller Nielsen still can’t remember exactly why he said yes; it was more an instinct than anything else. “We went into the competition with nothing to lose, we were nice and relaxed with no media pressure and we played well against England in the opening game because of that,” he said. “We were scared against Sweden, though, and I felt that was getting in the way of what we could possibly achieve. So, for the first time as a coach, I said, ‘what the hell, let’s try something different, let’s go and play mini-golf.'” So, while the French and English players were put through yet another rigorous set of interviews, the Danish players were messing about with windmills. Football history confirms that a happy Danish side took advantage of French paralysis the next day and won 2-1 with goals from Henrik Larsen and Lars Elstrup, the latter on as substitute for Laudrup, an inspired tactical move by Møller Nielsen. Platini resigned soon after, and the unorthodox Møller Nielsen had somehow got his team into the semi-finals.
A simple game of mini-golf might seem irrelevant, but it’s fascinating just how many of the Danish squad bring up that mad two hours or so when they discuss the match against France. “The mini-golf was a great thing from the coach,” said Brian Laudrup. “It’s true that we were sitting on the team bus and we were bored as usual going through the traffic. One of the guys, I think it was Henrik Larsen, saw this big sign for the mini-golf and we fancied it. We couldn’t believe it when the coach said yes, and we just had a laugh, threw stuff at each other, and got back on the coach. But we were so relaxed because of this. We’d totally forgotten about the match against France anyway.” The rigid, frightened body language of the French team made their discomfort evident, and the relaxed and confident Danes deserved to win. Platini, the hero of 1984, had very quickly turned into the villain of 1992.
The same day, England succumbed to Sweden in Stockholm in a game which many felt should have signalled the end of the Graham Taylor. If the greatest player in French football history could resign, then why did the former Lincoln City full-back have the temerity to stay? David Platt gave England the lead with a mishit volley after three minutes, but then Taylor’s side went further and further into its shell, and, in the second half, the substitute Johnny Ekstrom came on and turned the game in Sweden’s favour. Eriksson headed an equaliser from a poorly defended corner, and with Sweden needing only a point to qualify, they were content to play England on the counter-attack. Taylor notoriously replaced Lineker with Alan Smith, and Sweden got a win that they didn’t really need, Brolin scoring the second after a rapid exchange with Dahlin. England were a mess and they were out. Graham Taylor gave the waiting media one of many ill-advised sound-bites, insisting that England could have “done without half-time.” That was the beginning of his eventual end.
Before Denmark turned up, the tournament outsiders had been Andy Roxburgh’s Scotland. Grouped with the champions Holland and the World Cup-holders Germany, their story emphasises just how lucky or inspired Møller Nielsen and Denmark really were on the other side of the draw. The Scots came desperately close to beating Holland in their opening game, and with a bit more luck, they might have made the semi-finals. Rangers’ Richard Gough relished the chance to show just what a commanding centre-back he could be, and the Dutch superstar Marco van Basten was barely allowed a kick of the ball. Both Gough and the Celtic forward Paul McStay came close to giving Scotland a shock lead but in the end it was Dennis Bergkamp who won the game for Holland.
Over in Norrköping, Germany looked nothing like world champions, apparently labouring under the burden of playing as a united country for the first time at a major finals. In Euro 96, Berti Vogts said that a key factor in their success was the ability of Jürgen Klinsmann from the West and Matthias Sammer from the East to unite the team, but Germany hadn’t quite reached that point in 1992. Still, a squad which contained Stefan Effenberg and Thomas Hässler, Andreas Möller and Klinsmann should have played a whole lot better than it did. The CIS had been described by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels as the best team at the 1988 tournament (when they were still the USSR), and yet here they abandoned the structured flair that had got them to four previous European Championship finals and decided to shackle the Germans. It worked, and Rudi Völler’s broken arm hampered Germany further. With the wide midfielders, Oleksiy Mykhailychenko and Andriy Kanchelskis, in withdrawn roles, Igor Kolyvanov and Igor Dobrovolsky were the CIS’s only real nod to attacking play and it was Dobrovolsky who opened the scoring with half an hour to go, winning then converting a penalty. Klinsmann was thrown on by Vogts and, after making little or no impact, he threw himself to the ground to win a last-minute free-kick that Hässler bent around the wall for an equaliser.
Germany were lucky again three days later. Illgner made a string of excellent saves before Scotland were finally beaten 2-0, the second German goal looping in off the boot of Maurice Malpas. The CIS continued with their new tactics against the Dutch, and, once more, the stifling paid off — Van Basten may have had a late goal ruled out for offside, but a 0-0 draw meant that neither Holland nor Germany could be sure of making the semi-finals when they met in the final group game.
In Gothenburg, the German national anthem was whistled loudly by the Dutch supporters, the victory of 1988 doing little to dilute the bitterness of their rivalry. As they had four years earlier in Hamburg, Michels and Holland triumphed. Buchwald and Stefan Reuter were both missing through injury and Germany were two down by the 14th minute, goals from Frank Rijkaard and Rob Witschge practically confirming a semi-final place for Holland. Not for the first time though, through a combination of resilience and good fortune, Germany fought their way back into the tournament. News came through from Norrköping that Scotland were finally getting the breaks that they deserved and were 2-0 ahead against the CIS. Klinsmann pulled a goal back, and, although Bergkamp finished things off for the Dutch, Scotland stretched their lead against the CIS, finishing up 3-0 winners. The CIS had looked tired, and, when they were asked to force the game, rather than counter attack, had found no answer. Roxburgh and Scotland had a win to celebrate, but were also left with the feeling that, with the bounce of the ball, they could have been on their way to the last four. The players who had had so much success in youth tournaments in the 1980s had come agonisingly close to causing a shock. If the Scots had had the luck of the Danes, who knows what might have happened?
After the success of the mini-golf expedition, Møller Nielsen tried to think of other ways of keeping the pressure off his players. As they returned from a training session two days before their semi-final against Holland, an opportunity fell from the clouds. The set-up to the story is pretty similar: outskirts of Stockholm, bored players on coach, messenger sent to the front, faintly unusual request. Lars Elstrup had seen a Burger King out of the corner of his eye, and the players wondered whether they might be allowed to have a Whopper. The footballers of 1992 were not diet freaks, and Møller Nielsen was no Arséne Wenger in his approach to matches. He felt that the positives outweighed the negatives and, yet again, he said yes to the request. So the coach stopped again and the players trooped out for their burgers. The coach may have stunk of fries and burgers, but the players were happy, if a little full.
With the general and reasonable assumption that Holland would be too good for Denmark, the more attractive of the semi-finals seemed to be Germany’s against Sweden. Germany had finally found some cohesion and, for all that the Swedish crowd hoped for a repeat of the result of World Cup semi-final of 1958, Vogts’s side won straightforwardly against hosts deprived by suspension of Stefan Schwarz and Patrik Andersson.
Hässler gave Germany a lead which they never looked like relinquishing, and when Karl-Heinz Riedle added a second goal halfway through the second half, the host country were in danger of going down with barely a whimper. A late Brolin penalty threatened to provide a big finish, but Riedle’s second made the scoreline look as comfortable as the victory had been. The Germans went away, fully expecting to play their arch-rivals Holland in the final, and relishing the extra day they would get to prepare. That might have given them the edge over Holland and Michels, but they were preparing to fight the wrong battle.
It seems absurd in the era of positive thinking that the atmosphere among the Danish players should have been so openly downbeat. From the moment that Brian Laudrup said that the team would be slaughtered there was a devil-may-care feeling in the camp, and the lack of self imposed-pressure worked perfectly for Møller Nielsen. The US motivational speaker Anthony Robbins says that “the path to success is to take massive, determined action.” Yet the modern football coach’s obsession with the powers of positive thinking may be a little misguided. Throughout the tournament, the hotel which housed the Danish players was a monument to the kind of atmosphere that would be dismissed by a sports psychologist.
Laudrup remembers that “the hotel was unbelievable. We met on the first day and just spoke about how strange it was that we were there. And before we knew it we had to play a game, then another, and then we were in the semi-finals. The whole thing was like a weird dream and we never really woke up. It was always a question of, ‘can you believe it? Can you believe it we’re here, can you believe it we qualified, can you believe it that we’re in the semi final?’ A lot of the squad felt really bad for the Yugoslav players and that feeling never really went away all through the tournament. We definitely felt that, what the hell, we’re here now, and we might as well play.”
And play they did. It was Laudrup who had the game of his life in the semi-final against the Dutch in Gothenburg. His run and cross created a goal after five minutes for Henrik Larsen and then Schmeichel demonstrated just why he was becoming recognised the best goalkeeper in the world. His aggressive style, wiping his penalty area clear of players when he came to claim the ball, clearly unsettled the Dutch and, although Bergkamp equalised midway through the first half, the Danes knew that they were the better side. No pressure, no problem. Ronald Koeman was clearly feeling it, and when he slipped and allowed Larsen to score a second goal, self belief started to surge through the Danish players. A much more gifted Denmark side had fallen in the semi-finals in 1984, but this time Møller Nielsen’s pragmatic team simply would not allow that to happen. Henrik Andersen picked up a second yellow card and knew that he would not play in the final, and so, like plenty before and since, he put every effort into making sure that his teammates would get there.
But with 20 minutes to go Andersen dislocated his knee, a sickening injury that just about ended his career. With Møller Nielsen’s tactics in shreds, the full-back John Sivebæk, who himself was limping with injury but could not be replaced because both substitutes had been used, was forced to hobble around up front, offering such nuisance value as he could. Only four minutes remained when, with Denmark seemingly on their way and with the Dutch apparently out of ideas, Rijkaard shovelled the ball home from a corner. With Denmark effectively down to 10 men, it seemed impossible that the Danes could survive extra-time.
Those moments between the end of normal time and the start of extra time are the period when coaches really can’t hide. Møller Nielsen couldn’t produce a Whopper with cheese or a battered putter, but he did stick to his psychological plan, which he claims wasn’t really a plan at all. There was nothing Churchillian, just a reminder that the Dutch players were tired too, that Denmark had been the better team in the match and that there was nothing at all to worry about. “If we lose now,” Møller Nielsen told his players, “then — hey — we still made it into the semi-finals of a tournament that we didn’t even qualify for! So, don’t worry, just go back out and play.”
And while Møller Nielsen wasn’t worrying, the man who might have made the difference was sitting at the bar of a New York hotel, constantly on the phone to his father back in Denmark. Michael Laudrup had wanted to go away and have nothing to do with the tournament, but now he couldn’t resist. Of course his kid brother was involved, but there was more than familial loyalty tugging away at him. “Yes, of course, I wanted Brian to do well, but it wasn’t just that,” he said. “I’m Danish, for God’s sake, I’m a Danish football fan, and even though Møller Nielsen and I didn’t always get on, I wanted my country to win. I kidded myself throughout the group stage, I tried to keep away from it, but even in St Lucia with my wife, I was asking people, ‘Do you have a newspaper? Can you tell me the football score?’ Of course, no one in St Lucia cared about football, but I kept finding out from little cuttings here and there. And then I was in New York, and I spent the whole evening on the phone to my father. Every five minutes: ‘What’s the score? What’s the score?’ No one else in the bar cared, even knew what I was talking about, and when it came to the penalties I rang my Dad and said, listen, I think I’d better stay on the phone for the next few minutes.”
And so the greatest footballer in the history of Denmark sat at a bar in New York with the phone to his ear, crouching so that he could hear better, and listening to what should have been one of the crowning glories of his career with his father as his eyes and ears. One by one they stood up strong. John Jensen described how the players put towels over their heads and held hands in the centre circle “like lover boys” while others strode forward. Henrik Larsen, Fleming Povlsen, Lars Elstrup and Kim Vilfort. And one by one they scored. It was the Dutch who cracked, and Van Basten who missed his penalty. When he failed, Michael Laudrup dropped his drink and held his head in his hands. He knew what the 37,000 in Gothenburg knew, knew what the whole of Denmark knew. If Kim Christofte scored his penalty, then Denmark were into the final of the European Championship. One, two, three, four steps the bandy-legged defender took, a brief catching of his breath, and then he turned, ran, and sent Hans van Breukelen the wrong way to put the Danes through. When his team had lost so unluckily on penalties to Spain in Lyon eight years earlier, the Danish captain Morten Olsen had said that luck would even itself out, and here it was.
This article was selected as part of our Daily Euros Read series throughout Euro 2020, as we unlock one article from our archives on every weekday throughout the tournament.
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You’ve probably heard of an American football coach called Vince Lombardi. This is the man who was there at the start of the NFL, and who coached the Green Bay Packers to win two Superbowls. He is also regarded as the father of modern-day sports coaching, of preparation, as the font of all knowledge on getting the best out of a team. Now, I’m sure that Lombardi was an incredible man, and you only need look at his results to see what an inspirational coach he must have been. And yet acolytes of Lombardi (Steve McClaren being one, for example) tend to be a whole lot less interesting than those who are prepared, for whatever reason, to go their own way. Try telling Johan Cruyff that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Try telling the same thing to a Brazilian footballer or a West Indian cricketer — or a Danish football player, circa 1992. Think of Richard Møller Nielsen as the anti-Lombardi, the psychologist by mistake, and you’ll appreciate him a little more. The mini-golf had worked, the trip to Burger King had worked, but Richard knew more than anyone that these inspirational catalysts were a gift from somewhere else, that he couldn’t just invent something to relax his players before the final. He thought and thought and worried a little and then some help came his way from one of the most natural relaxants of them all.
“One of the players came to me three days before the final and he was very worried,” he recalled. “It seemed that our progress in this tournament was so unexpected that none of the players’ wives had planned to be in Stockholm for the final, and that Danish fans who were maybe a little more optimistic had snapped up all of the hotels around Stockholm. And so this player, he said to me, ‘Boss, the wives have nowhere to sleep, can they come and stay with us here?'” You can guess what Møller Nielsen said. He made the usual noises about being careful and not using up your energy and he let the wives stay, hoping, no doubt, that the players would do the opposite. Going against received knowledge had got them this far, and so why change a winning habit?
And it worked, how it worked. On the morning of the final, there was one team who laughed and joked with supporters (not to mention winked at their coach), who smiled all the way to the stadium, and who didn’t really think about what this night meant. The Germans, in contrast, were tense. They were world champions but maybe knew that they were beginning to fade. The squad had not been regenerated, and despite a better showing in the semi-final they were not playing with any confidence, any convincing arrogance. They had everything to lose and, what’s more, their opposition knew it. Denmark would have to do without Andersen, but they were more inspired by his absence than anything. They had to try and win it for him, to show the trophy to Henrik.
Denmark’s fans had poured over the Oresund to cheer on their heroes, and this was the match which proved beyond doubt that Schmeichel was a goalkeeper of the highest class. The Danes got their lead through Povlsen’s cross and Jensen’s nation-halting finish, but that was a moment to remember, rather than one that defined the game. The key man was Schmeichel. He was forced into save after jaw-dropping save, and every Danish player involved in that final, barring the goalkeeper, says now that they thought they were done for. “If Germany had scored,” said Olsen, the captain, “there is no way that we could have won that game. Every bit of defending we did, we were on our last legs, and all of our lack of preparation really starting to show.”
The minds of the players had been freed up by Denmark’s unorthodox call up to the tournament, but their bodies were starting to suffer terribly. “There is no way that we could have survived extra time,” said Brian Laudrup, “and, my God, every time the Germans went forward they looked as if they were going to score. And then we managed to breakaway, and Kim, well, he finished them off.” Kim was Kim Vilfort, the journeyman with more than football on his mind. In this fairy story, it really had to be him who made the dream come true.
Schmeichel’s immense performance had broken the Germans, and they stood and watched as Vilfort finished off a final which was perhaps a disappointing spectacle, but which had an extraordinary result. The Danes could paint Stockholm any colour they wanted, and the Møller Nielsens could turn their minds to their kitchen. They had pulled off one of the sporting shocks of the 20th century and had won a tournament for which they hadn’t even qualified. And the happiest nation in Europe had something else to smile about. The taxi driver who picked up Kim Christofte from Copenhagen airport told him how he had staked 1000 kroner on the Danes at 50-1 and was going to take the beach holiday of his life. The irony of the destination wasn’t lost on Christofte, who made sure that he paid the man and refused his offer of a free ride.
That wasn’t the only post-tournament bonus that was dangled in front of the Danish heroes. Two weeks after the final, the tale goes that Møller Nielsen received a letter from a Danish labourer who had heard the story about his kitchen, and offered to put it in for free. Any design he wanted, cost no object. Møller Nielsen was deeply moved by the working man’s offer, thanked him, and then turned him down. Not for him even the tiniest trapping of success. Richard got his new kitchen, but Richard paid for it. Remember Janteloven: “Du Skal Ikke Tro At Du Er Noget” — “Don¹t think that you are anyone.”
For all his occasional bombast and stubbornness, Møller Nielsen is essentially a quiet man. He found himself touched by the smallest things. His favourite memory of 1992 is not the beer and champagne in the hotel afterwards, or of the bedlam back home, but of the quiet walk he was able to take around the hotel grounds the morning after the game, when he reflected on mini-golf and madness, Whoppers and wives. And when he talks now about what happened in the summer of 1992, he is a man who knows just how fortunate he was and how perfectly aligned the stars must have been. “I tell you now,” he said, and it comes out in a stagey whisper, “there were three things — the mini-golf, the Whoppers, the wives. Everything goes right, and they say, what a genius. How did he do it? God, this man must know something. But listen very careful, and remember this. If it goes wrong, they will say: what an amateur! How can he let them play golf instead of train? How can he let them eat hamburgers? I know what I am, and I was lucky, and that is football. Take it from me, whenever they tell you it’s about science, it’s not. It’s about luck, my friend, it’s all about luck.”
Møller Nielsen’s luck would run out eventually, and he left his job after Denmark had failed to make it out of the groups at Euro 96. By then, he’d already been made a Danish knight of the realm, and his attitude towards success and failure means that he would always have the summer of 1992. And, of course, a new kitchen in which he could enjoy the memories.
And in the European Union poll to find the happiest country in Europe, that combination of peace and love, sunny outlook against a cold backdrop, means that Denmark still wins pretty much every year. They were never happier, though, than in the summer of 1992.