In the mid-1980s Denmark’s international team was brilliant. After the appointment of the visionary Sepp Piontek in 1979, a stunning generation of players proceeded to lift Danish football out of a century of amateurism. They reached the semi-finals of the 1984 European Championship and Denmark’s first ever World Cup in Mexico in 1986, where they laughed in the face of the Group of Death. That 24-carat golden generation grew old together; almost as soon as the tournament was over they fossilised and were never the same again.
The last player cut from the provisional squad for the latter tournament was a confident and assured 22-year old goalkeeper called Peter Schmeichel, who had just helped to promote his club Hvidovre to the Danish top division. Schmeichel watched on from the other side of the Atlantic as the Danes eventually had to use their third-choice goalkeeper and the man picked ahead of him, Lars Høgh, as their team was spectacularly eliminated in a 5-1 defeat to Spain in the second round.
At the time Schmeichel was a part-time goalkeeper. Most Danish clubs were only semi-professional so Schmeichel completed his national service and held down a variety of jobs in his youth, including a stint with the WWF. It was an office job for the World Wildlife Fund rather than a wrestling career with the American sports entertainment giant, though Schmeichel’s stature and athleticism would have at least given him a reasonable chance against Hulk Hogan.
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Peter Schmeichel celebrates in the dressing room after the Arsenal v Manchester United Charity Shield match at Wembley Stadium, London on August 7, 1993.

Image credit: Getty Images

Instead he would soon apply those gifts solely to goalkeeping. In 1987 he transferred to Brøndby IF and took up that trade full-time. After some excellent performances as Brøndby reached the semi-finals of the 1991 UEFA Cup, he came to the attention of Alex Ferguson and transferred to Manchester United for £505,000. Given the return that would follow, Ferguson called it "one of the bargains of the century in football."
By now Schmeichel had established himself as the first choice for his national side. He went to the 1988 European Championship with Denmark, making one appearance in their last group game with Italy after the Danes had been eliminated. The proof that the great ‘Danish Dynamite’ team had traversed the brow of the hill was all there in that tournament as the Danes lost all three matches.
Schmeichel was entering his prime and ready to lord it in the Danish goal, but it was after the Lord Mayor’s Show. In the three years after Mexico almost all of the great players from that team had drifted away from the set-up due to age, injury or retirement. Denmark failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup after a defeat to Romania in Bucharest, and Piontek left shortly afterwards.
The new man, Richard Møller Nielsen, struggled with the dimensions of the shoes he was given to fill. He fell out so badly with Michael and Brian Laudrup over training and tactics that both retired from international football in their twenties. The two outfield players earmarked to guide the team through the next decade were gone, and Denmark lost out to Yugoslavia in the qualifying rounds for the 1992 European Championship in Sweden. The line-up for that tournament was about to change however, as a result of huge changes in Europe itself.

An unexpected chance

Denmark line up for the Euro 92 final against Germany

Image credit: Imago

On 10 November 1989, the world woke up from history. Overnight the Berlin wall had begun to be dismantled, and Germany was on the way to reunification. One by one the dictatorships of Eastern Europe began to fall and Big Brother, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was dissolved at the end of 1991. The USSR had by this point qualified for the 1992 European Championship in Sweden, and so a loose, compromised collective of what remained – the Commonwealth of Independent States – went instead. The era of the Soviet Union at the tournament was over.
Yugoslavia would not make it either. Escalating tension in the Balkans in the early 90s had handed Europe its bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. Just 11 days before the European Championship kicked off Yugoslavia were disqualified and Denmark, as group runners-up from qualifying, took their place. The urban myth is that all the Danish players at that point were on the beach and winding down after a long season. It’s not true – their promotion had been likely for a while and the players were preparing to play a friendly – but the late notice and their recent results hardly hinted at what was to come. Almost no one thought they could win.
"I got the call," remembers Brian Laudrup, who had returned to the national set-up in April. "Report tomorrow in Copenhagen, we’ve got a week to prepare. I was like 'We haven’t got a chance.' We all gathered on the pitch for the first time and Richard Møller Nielsen was standing in the middle. He said 'Let’s make one thing clear. We’re going to Sweden to win the competition.' And we were all laughing. At that moment I think he laid down the dreams and thoughts that we could go on and do the impossible."
It looked impossible without Brian’s brother. Michael Laudrup had just helped to secure Barcelona their first European Cup a few weeks earlier. He was arguably the best player in Europe at the time but felt that being the focal point for club and country was too great a demand upon him. He was still at odds with Møller Nielsen and would not waiver on returning to a set-up he didn’t agree with. "The higher a monkey climbs," Møller Nielsen had once retorted, "the more you can see of its arse."
Denmark had some other useful outfield players, like Flemming Povlsen of Borussia Dortmund and the captain and sweeper Lars Olsen from Trabzonspor. The squad lacked the stardust of 1986 though and adhered to a more counterattacking philosophy rather than the swashbuckling forward play of six years earlier. Møller Nielsen did have one significant ace up his sleeve; he had the best goalkeeper in the world.

'They were a bit arrogant towards us'

Petre Schmeichel prepares to make a save from David Platt

Image credit: Imago

Schmeichel kept a clean sheet in the opening group match as Denmark drew 0-0 with England in Malmo. It was a game in which Denmark had the better chances, and they were similarly unlucky in against the hosts in Solna three days later. Schmeichel was excellent again but was beaten when Tomas Brolin stabbed a loose ball past him just before the hour to give Sweden a 1-0 victory. The tournament was now a complete free hit as the Danes prepared to play the French in the final game of the group. France, now managed by Michel Platini, had qualified flawlessly by winning all eight of their qualifying games. They were one of the favourites to win the tournament and were not shy about expressing it.
"France, even stood in the tunnel, were a bit arrogant towards us," Schmeichel told the BBC in 2012. "We had {John} Sivebæk who played in France at the time, and they came up to him and said ‘don’t be too tough on us today, don’t be rough, because we’ve got to play the semi-final.’ He’s relaying that to us, and we’re like ‘No!’ Absolutely no way are we going to let them off with that.’"
And they didn’t. Henrik Larsen put Denmark ahead before Jean-Pierre Papin equalised in the second half. A point would have been enough for France to go through, but they were sucker-punched with twelve minutes to go. Danish striker Lars Elstrup, who would retire at 30 the following year after joining a spiritual sect, turned in a Povlsen cross from close range to put Denmark into a lead they would not relinquish. Sweden beat England in the concurrent match in Solna, and the Danes were through to the semi-finals.

Peter Schmeichel saves Marco van Basten's penalty

Image credit: Imago

Waiting for them at that juncture in Gothenburg were the defending champions. The Netherlands had won Group 2 by defeating the now-unified Germany 3-1 in the final game of the section, the latest in a series of testy and high-profile clashes between the two sets of players that began in Hamburg in the previous championship. When Germany then beat Sweden in the first semi-final, the general assumption was that they would meet the Netherlands in the final to settle accounts on the pitch once and for all.
Denmark were operating in an oasis far away from any such pressure. In their down time they played crazy golf, and Møller Nielsen took the squad to Burger King ahead of the semi-final. They were in no mood to let the Dutch have it their way, and Larsen twice gave Denmark the lead during the game. The Netherlands got back into it though, with their first equaliser from Dennis Bergkamp going under the dive of Schmeichel, his only significant mistake of the tournament. Denmark were hanging on by the end, and lost defender Henrik Andersen to a sickening broken kneecap in the second half. Frank Rijkaard smuggled in a late equaliser to get the game to extra-time, from where it went to penalties.
"I have to say that we were quite lucky in the penalty shootout," Schmeichel later said, "because the Dutch goalkeeper, Hans van Breukelen, actually got a hand on three of our penalties. Under normal circumstances, with luck turning or swinging their way, he would have saved three of them. But it didn’t happen." Instead, the only save from the shootout came from Schmeichel, and it wouldn’t be the last time he saved a crucial spot-kick from an iconic Dutch forward. When Schmeichel pushed Marco van Basten’s shot wide of the post it gave Denmark the advantage. Their centre-back Kim Christofte later converted the winning strike with a magnificent piece of two-step theatre, and, incredibly, the Danes advanced to the final.

The miracle happens

Peter Schmeichel hugs team-mates after Denmark's stunning win

Image credit: Imago

The Dutch had been the latest team to underestimate Denmark. After Bergkamp’s initial equaliser in the game, Schmeichel had noted that they barely even celebrated. Ahead of the final, Schmiechel suggested the Germans were in the same mood. "The Germans think they just have to turn up here and pick up the gold medals," he warned. "The French and Dutch had that attitude before they met us, and they lost. They were arrogant." The day before the final Steffan Effenburg called his Bayern Munich team-mate Brian Laudrup and asked if they could swap shirts at the end of the match, a presumptuous request for a trophy from the vanquished.
On paper Germany triumphing in the final should have been a matter of course. They were mostly comprised of the world champions from Italia ‘90 and bolstered by players from the former East Germany like Matthias Sammer, Andreas Thom and Thomas Doll. The number of registered professional footballers in Germany was greater than the entire population of Denmark. "We were convinced that it would be no problem," German striker Jurgen Klinsmann later admitted. In Denmark however, they like a little more whimsy in their endings.
Before the final, Møller Nielsen praised the spine of his team and in particular Schmeichel, who he called "that wonderful big mouse". There was nothing timid about his performance in the match. Few goalkeepers have ever imposed their personality so completely on such an occasion. "Maybe that was the first time where people realised what a goalkeeper we had," Brian Laudrup said later. "You have to show it at the very highest level and that was exactly what he did. He was outstanding."
The final in Gothenburg showcased Schmeichel’s full range of abilities. He commanded his penalty area and barked his back line into position. When Stefan Reuter got clean through Schmeichel was out like a flash, spreading his body like an airborne starfish to make himself as big an obstacle as possible. Two saves in particular from Klinsmann displayed his astonishing reflexes; one low to his right to divert a viscous, dipping shot around the post, and a full-stretch, fingertip touch that turned a Klinsmann header over the crossbar. Schmeichel’s self-confidence was obvious, but he underscored it anyway by catching a long cross with one hand in the second half.
That security at one end was the platform for amazing things to happen at the other. John Jensen, whose shooting from midfield had been woeful through the tournament, suddenly found the sweet spot to hit a screamer and put Denmark ahead after 18 minutes. With just 12 minutes to go, his midfield partner Kim Vilfort settled the game. He had been playing under terrible personal pressure during the tournament, having to travel back and forth to Denmark to see his seriously ill daughter. Vilfort’s slightly scuffed shot from the edge of the area beat Bodo Illgner and crept in off the near post. Denmark were European champions.

Peter Schmeichel kisses the European Championship trophy

Image credit: Imago

"It’s dramatic, it’s delightful, it’s Denmark!" was BBC commentator John Motson’s concise and alliterative summary of events. Denmark’s victory was the greatest and most unlikely in the history of the tournament. Just 37 days earlier they weren’t even in the competition; the subsequent run of victories over France, the Netherlands and Germany had surpassed any fairy tale that any Danish author could conjure up. The triumph also came a few weeks after a referendum where the Danes had declined to join the European Union. "If you can’t join them," quipped their foreign secretary Uffe Ellemmann-Jensen after the final, "beat them."
The European Championship in Sweden had confirmed Schmeichel as the best goalkeeper in the world. Thereafter he was pivotal in establishing Manchester United as the dominant force in the nascent Premier League, winning five of the first eight titles contested. Schmeichel’s last touch as a United player was to lift the Champions League title in 1999 as captain in the absence of Roy Keane, which completed a Treble unprecedented in England. He retired completely from the game in 2003 after short spells at Sporting Lisbon, Aston Villa and Manchester City.
Denmark’s victory represents the last great triumph in football’s age of innocence. Along with the introduction of the Premier League in England, 1992 also saw the change to the backpass law implemented and the first UEFA Champions League. Geopolitics would soon have an impact on UEFA too. The new wave of democracy and change caused huge adjustments to Europe’s borders in the following years and their membership would soon increase by 45%. Everything had changed, and the European Championship would soon know it.
Next up: Football comes home as Alan Shearer enjoys a golden summer at Euro 96...

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