When hearing about Denmark’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden over the weekend, I can’t help but reminisce about the country’s spectacular victory in the 1992 European Championships.
Although Hans Christian Anderson might have been a Dane, perhaps the country’s greatest fairy tale was told in Sweden in the summer of 1992. Now having watched a truckload of sport in my life, I’m aware that there have always been sporting Cinderella stories and tales of the underdog. However, a closer look at a few weeks in June nearly 21 years ago will reveal an amazing tale in sport’s history.
Once upon a time in Sweden an 8-team soccer tournament was set to take place in June to decide who would be the champion footballing nation of Europe. Now these 8 teams had been finalised after 2 years of qualifying rounds. But with less than two weeks before the tournament, Yugoslavia was disqualified from the tournament due to the Yugoslav wars and Denmark (the group’s runner-up) was awarded their place in the tournament.
The Danish team was filled with a mix of talented youngsters (the Laudrup brothers and the emerging Peter Schmeichel) and a handful of veterans, as many of them rushed back from holidays to ready themselves for the tournament in less than two weeks.
Just happy to be there, the Danes filled out the group that included the fast-improving Swedish hosts led by Tomas Brolin, A Michel Platini-coached France championed by Jean-Pierre Papin and the experienced and gritty English side which had names such as Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker and Martin Keown.
Now whilst this tournament had some of the best teams in the world, nearly every commentator would have seen the fixtures as just time-fillers before a final clash between Germany (the reigning World Cup winners) and the Netherlands (the reigning Euro winners). Both team had the world’s biggest names and they were matched across the board. “Hans” van Breukelen vs Bodo Illgner, Ronald Koeman vs Stefan Effenberg, Dennis Bergkamp vs Karl-Heinz Riedle, Frank Rijkaard vs Thomas Häßler and Marco van Basten vs Jürgen Klinsmann. The brutish (now unified) Germany versus the elegant Dutch.
Not to waste their second chance, the Danes produced a draw with England, a loss to Sweden and a nail-biting victory over France (Schmeichel the hero on numerous occasions). Surprising everyone, the Danes finished second in their group and advanced along with Sweden to the semi finals.
But there was more to this fairy-tale than just the results. Throughout the tournament Kim Vilfort had to leave training camp to visit his leukemia-stricken 7-year old daughter whose condition was deteriorating. He had missed the group decider against France to be at her bedside, but was sent back by his family for the semi-final clash against the Netherlands.
Now very rarely will a sports highlights package give you chills, but the back-end of the Wright’s VHS copy of the 1992 Euro highlights is a tear-jerker. With only a few minutes left in the semi final, it seemed as if Denmark had pulled off a miracle until Frank Rijkaard equalised with a minute to go and the game was forced into extra time. After two frantic halves of extra time, that saw goal-line saves at both ends, the game went to a penalty shootout.
With a goal-advantage coming into the 4th round, up stepped Kim Vilfort. From memory, the commentary went like this, “Vilfort to kick for Denmark. With his sick daughter back home in hospital, his mind must be elsewhere. Can he compose himself? *Goes left for a goal* AND HE GETS THE BIGGEST CHEER OF ALL!”
With the gentle slotting of the 5th penalty, Denmark had progressed to the Euro final and in doing so unveiled one of the weirdest sporting celebration of all-time… the walking down an invisible winding staircase.
Into the final the Danes went against the all-conquering Germans who looked to claim both the World and European championships. But Germany was no match for the story that was unfolding. An early strike from John Jensen and a clincher from Vilfort himself, gave Denmark their first and only European Championship.
For me this tournament had everything you could ask for and was responsible for my love of soccer. There were some amazing goals and saves within a host of enthralling games. It had heroes and villains, plus even the names sounded like they were plucked from the pages of Hans Christian Anderson himself. Karl-Heinz Riedle, “Hans” van Breukelen, Jean-Pierre Papin and Marco van Basten. It truly was a Danish fairy-tale.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” – Coraline, Neil Gaiman
*An interesting fact, Denmark last won Eurovision in 2000 with Fly on the Wings of Love by the Olsen Brothers (also in Sweden).