Denmark’s class of 1992: The Euros miracle workers who slayed champions without even qualifying

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Denmark defied expectations by beating the reigning European and World champions on their way to unprecedented success

Heading into a major international tournament, pundits and fans can often gain a great insight into how a team is going to perform by the manner in which they qualify. Euro 2020 winners Italy for example were on a 27 game unbeaten streak before their opening day victory against Turkey.

Likewise, Euro 2012 winners Spain were already the reigning World and European champions when they took on Italy in their tournament opener, and were already on an incredible 14 match winning streak in all competitive matches.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Euro 2000 winners France were also the reigning world champions, flying high on confidence after crushing Brazil at the Stade de France two years earlier. Even underdogs such as Portugal in Euro 2016 and to a greater extent Greece in Euro 2004 had both enjoyed stellar qualification campaigns before toppling Europe’s elite.

However, the exception to this rule is Denmark who failed to even qualify for the tournament in 1992 yet still found themselves celebrating victory just months later. With that in mind we take a look back at the Denmark team that slayed the giants of Europe on their way to unprecedented glory.

The qualification campaign

By the early 1990s, Denmark had a talented yet youthful team which featured future Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, Borussia Dortmund forward Flemming Povlsen and notably both of the Laudrup brothers - Michael and Brian - who were both in the prime years of their careers at Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively.

The team performed admirably in qualification - winning six, drawing once and losing once. However, in an era where just eight teams qualified for the tournament, it would not prove to be enough to secure automatic qualification with a hugely talented Yugoslavia team instead topping the group.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Yugoslavia themselves had something of a golden era of talent at their disposal and many experts believed that they would have had a strong chance of winning the whole competition had they been allowed to enter. 

Three years before Euro 92, a host of Yugoslavia’s young and hungry players had won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Chile, while a number of their top players had played a major role in Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup win in 1991, including the late Sinisa Mihajlovic - who scored twice in the semi-final against Bayern Munich.

Tragically on 30 May 1992, amid war in the Balkans and due to United Nations sanctions, Yugoslavia were kicked out of Euro 92 and were sent home from Sweden just 11 days before the tournament began, in a ban which also prevented the team from competing in the 1994 World Cup.

With such short notice this meant that UEFA had little room to find a replacement - there was no time for a play-off between the second place teams and instead the place was simply awarded to the qualification group’s runners-up Denmark - who were probably the most worthy team due to their superior points tally compared to other second place teams.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One of the most remarkable things about Denmark’s Euro 92 triumph is not only the fact that they were rank outsiders, but also the fact that they had just 10 days to scramble together a squad for the tournament in Sweden. Many of the big names from the Denmark team had been out of action for a month following the end of the club season and many were probably relaxing on a beach somewhere tropical with their flip flops on and a pilsner in hand.

Notably the team’s star player, Michael Laudrup, who had just lifted the European Cup with Barcelona, opted to stay at home due to a feud between himself and the team’s coach Richard Moller Nielson over the team’s style of play.

His predecessor Piontek had been heavily praised for his team style of play as the team reached the round of 16 in the 1986 World Cup, while Nielson prioritised a more pragmatic approach, something which the team’s playmaker Laudrup felt nullified his individual talents.

Laudrup would instead watch the tournament on holiday in the USA, though his brother Brian would play a major part in his nation’s greatest ever triumph.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The group stage

Denmark were drawn in Group 1 with host nation Sweden, World Cup semi-finalists England and highly rated French side featuring Eric Cantona, Didier Deschamps and the previous year’s Ballon d’Or winner Jean Pierre Papin - this made the Danes rank outsiders at odds of 20/1 to win the tournament and few thought they would progress beyond the group stage.

In their opening game they used a 5-3-2 formation which successfully nullified an England team featuring Gary Lineker and Paul Merson in a largely uneventful 0-0.

That was followed by a 1-0 defeat to rivals and tournament host Sweden, which appeared to have consigned the team to a group stage exit with the might of Michel Platini’s France on the horizon.

France had drawn both of their opening group games heading into the match with Denmark - but remained one of the favourites for glory due to their impressive eight wins from eight matches in qualifying and the star-studded squad that they boasted.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

By this stage Denmark’s odds had increased to 150/1, but the defiant Danes did not read the script and produced a fine and courageous attacking performance to beat the favourites 2-1 with former Luton Town striker Lars Elstrup hitting the decisive strike from the bench, simultaneously ending England and France’s hopes of progressing at the same time.

The semi-final

As group 2 runners-up, Denmark would be paired with the reigning European Champions Netherlands in the semi-final. The Oranje were the architects of Total Football and boasted a team featuring Ballon d’Or winners Ruud Gullit and Marco Basten, along with serial winners such as Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald Koeman.

With Sweden facing Germany in the final, most in the media were already preparing themselves for the prospect of an incredible final between arch-rivals Germany and Netherlands.

Germany returned their end of the bargain by beating Sweden 3-2, but Denmark would continue their thrilling run in an epic 2-2 draw which saw Henrik Larsen’s goals get twice cancelled out by Dutch equalisers, including a last gasp 86th minute equaliser from Frank Rijkaard.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A highly talented Peter Schmeichel would make many crucial saves in both the 90 minutes and extra time, though the most memorable one would come in the shoot-out against Marco van Basten as the Danes kept their nerve from the spot to reach the final.

The final

Up until recently, if there was one international country that could be described as immune to upsets it would be Germany. At the time of the final they were the reigning world champion and boasted for the first time in history a star-studded team which featured West and East German players side by side.

However, on this occasion the German national team failed to live up to the clinical and ruthless tag that is often bestowed upon them as they forced Schmeichel into a series of world class saves in the first half. The Denmark team set themselves up to play on the counter John Jensen, a combative and talented Arsenal midfielder, but a scorer of few goals - often labelled a wayward shooter, fired the Danes in front with a thunderous strike from the edge of the area.

As the second half progressed the Germans continued to hunt for an equaliser, but their attacking prowess and indeed belief gradually waned as Schmeichel produced a series of saves to deny Jurgen Klinsmann and co.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Amid the stories of the Danes’ victory was a tragic and emotional personal tale. Kim Vilford had spent the tournament travelling between Sweden and Denmark, to  visit his leukemia-stricken 7-year-old daughter whose condition was deteriorating. Vilfort was twice sent by his family to rejoin his teammates in time to play - he netted a crucial penalty to help his team in the semi-final and would go on to score the second and winning goal in the final during the second half. His daughter died shortly after the tournament and Vilfort has since rejected the ‘hero’ line.

Speaking of the team’s heroics, Vilfort commented: “We had fantastic spirit. We didn’t have the best players, but we had the best team.”

After the tournament Brian Laudrup and Schmeichel were lauded in the team of the tournament. Schmeichel performances in particular were impressive and his heroics earned him a move to Manchester United for £505,000 in what Sir Alex Ferguson would later describe in his autobiography as the ‘bargain of the century’.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.