By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (January 18, 2007) — Once Denmark was eliminated after penalties by Spain in the semifinals of the 1984 European Championships, their sweeper and captain Morten Olsen remarked, “Luck evens itself out in the long term.”
And indeed it did. Less then a decade later, when the Danes toppled both Holland and Germany to win Euro ’92. By the time this piece of luck came around, however, Olsen and his teammates — who had put Danish soccer on the map for the first time in the mid-80s — had almost all departed.
Denmark had never qualified for the finals of a World Cup or the European championships. No one expected them be one of the eight finalists for Euro ’84 either; especially since they were drawn in the same group as Hungary, who were still a force to be reckoned with, and England. The only thing most people knew about Danish soccer was that they had one pine-sized but gifted forward, Allan Simonsen, who had been named European Footballer of the Year in 1977.
But the English learned that they were no longer easy marks after the Danes pegged them back twice in the first group match in Copenhagen. The 2-2 draw actually flattered the English because the Danes had taken the match to them for long spells, and the point was made even more emphatically when Denmark settled the group with a 1-0 win at Wembley. Michael Laudrup, who was already being referred to as a prodigy as a 19-year-old, nearly scored in the first minute, and all of their possession soccer paid off in the 39th minute after Phil Neal conceded a penalty by handling a Laudrup cross. Simonsen duly converted and England was out.
By the time the Danes arrived in France they were no longer outsiders. Their two fabulous all-around midfielders — Søren Lerby and Frank Arnesen — were playing for Bayern Munich and Anderlecht of Belgium, respectively. Morten Olsen was also on the books at Anderlecht, and his unrelated namesake, Jesper, was playing left wing for Manchester United. The revelation of the tournament was their left-footed target, Preben Elkjaer, who went on to help lowly Verona win Serie A in 1985.
The Danes lost their opening match 1-0 to the hosts and eventual champions, France, after Simonsen had his leg broken late in the first half, but the competitive quality of the match and their freewheeling style served notice that they were not afraid of anyone.
That was certainly not the case with their next opponent, Yugoslavia, whom they beat 5-0 in a match that one critic claimed should have ended 12-7. They only needed to draw their next match against Belgium to reach the semifinals, but they played to win throughout the game. They fell behind by two goals after 32 minutes, but sealed a pulsating comeback when Elkjaer spooned the ball over the Belgian Keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff in the 83rd minute.
Denmark looked likely to reach the final at the expense of Spain. Lerby put them ahead after just six minutes and they came close to extending their lead several times in the first half. However, in the second half Spain took over the match. Maceda leveled the score in the 66th minute and matters only got worse after one of Denmark’s stoppers, Berggren, received a controversial red card. The Danes held out for penalties, but Spain prevailed 5-4. Denmark had failed to reach the finals, but their style of play and partying fans, known as Roligans (who were once described as, “the nicest drunks in the world”), had won many admirers.
Denmark qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico by finishing second in their group behind the Soviet Union. The Danes’ 4-2 win over the Soviets in Copenhagen in June of ’85 was an absolute classic. Both teams attacked with complete freedom of expression for the whole 90 minutes. Elkjaer scored twice with his lethal left foot early, but the Soviets scored once, with a rasping shot into the upper right hand corner, smashed the woodwork three times, and forced the besieged Danish keeper into a couple of miraculous saves, in the first half. Still, the Danes usually looked the better side, and Laudrup put the match out of reach in the second half.
They arrived in Mexico as one of the favorites, and their scintillating style of play earned them the nickname “Danish Dynamite.” It all started at the back with Morten Olson, who had wonderful vision and was probably the last sweeper to enjoy the freedom to move forward whenever he saw fit. In fact, almost everyone was free to attack, and Arnesen, Lerby, Jesper Olson, and Laudrup constantly changed positions. It was perhaps the most exciting soccer seen in Europe since the Dutch had declined after the ’78 World Cup.
Their opening match was against Scotland. They only won 1-0, through Elkjaer, but the Scots clearly looked second best. They really came into their own in their next match against Uruguay. The Danes were already up 1-0 after 19 minutes when an already frustrated Uruguayan was sent off. Elkjaer got a hat trick, but Laudrup, who toyed with and tormented the South Americans the whole match, was the player most responsible for the subsequent 6-1 demolition. They clinched the group with another fine display in a 2-0 win over West Germany, but the result was marred by the fact that Anesen picked up a red card in the last, meaningless minutes.
After the match, West Germany manager Franz Becknebauer described the Dane’s style of play as naïve. Perhaps their 5-1 collapse against Spain justified his appraisal. Jesper Olsen won a penalty for Denmark just after the half hour mark, but Olsen turned the match on its head when he carelessly rolled the ball across his own penalty box two minutes before halftime. Emilio Butragueño pounced and then went on to score all five of Spain’s goals. The result was a disaster and, more or less, brought an end to the era.
The team that won Euro ’92, which would not even have qualified for the tournament if Yugoslavia had not been forced to withdraw because of civil war, did not include any of the starters from the Spain match (Laudrup declined to participate because of tactical disagreements with the manager), and their style of play was a lot more subdued. Nonetheless, both sets of players were products of the same youth system, one that placed more emphasis on having fun than getting results.
As Brondby sports chief Frits Ahlstrom explained right after the Dane’s triumph, “The side which won in Sweden was a product of our youth system where boys are encouraged to play for fun and not compete until later years.”
The players on the ’92 team were “inspired by the thrilling soccer of the 1980s side.”
As were many others around Europe.