Colombia were due to add their name to the list of South American countries that had hosted the World Cup in 1986, having successfully bid for the tournament in ’74. However, in the months after Spain ’82, the Colombian authorities declared that the venture was too financially demanding on the country’s economy, and Mexico, having proven their adeptness sixteen years earlier, became the first country to host the tournament twice. The North Americans almost had to pull out themselves, after a severe earthquake in Mexico City eight months before the start of the competition caused between $3-4bn worth of damage to the country’s infrastructure, but fortunately left the host cities’ stadiums standing, meaning the tournament could go ahead.
Among the familiar qualifiers, including returning sides Portugal, Paraguay, and South Korea, there were debuts for Canada, Iraq and Denmark. Two of whom would go on to have undistinguished tournaments, while the other would achieve cult status. FIFA finally saw sense and reverted the tournament format to the one we know and love today (though will be seeing for the last time in Russia), with the second group stage abolished, and a knockout format brought in after the first group stage. With 24 participants the four best third-placed sides would progress from the groups, leaving little room for jeopardy. Iraq and Canada were quickly back on the plane home, as neither side could muster a point between them, while Algeria, Northern Ireland and Scotland (obviously), exited with minimal reward. Portugal were unlucky to be edged out of Group F, having beaten England in their opening game, only to lose to Poland and group winners Morocco. Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against the Polish in the final group game saved Bobby Robson from returning home red-faced, as an insipid Three Lions stumbled out of the groups. Brazil, back to their scintillating best, finished ahead of Spain in Group D, while European Champions France finished in second behind the Soviet Union in Group C, with Hungary ending as unlucky losers – the fifth best third-placed team. Hosts Mexico beat the talented Belgians in the opening game of Group B on their way to first place, though Belgium would recover to qualify for the knockouts in third, the two teams sandwiching a surprisingly adept Paraguay side. The two previous winners met in Group A, with masters of the draw Italy finishing a point behind Argentina, and Bulgaria squeezing through despite failing to win a game. Though there was little room for shocks in the group stages, there was at least some eyebrow raising results in Group E, where two time winners Germany and Uruguay were expected to see off the wily challenge of debutants Denmark.
Denmark’s football history was hardly illustrious. The country’s domestic league hadn’t become professional until 1978, and up to that point the national team hadn’t come close to qualifying for the World Cup. A fourth placed finish at the 1964 European Championship was achieved thanks to an unseeded qualifying group, and when it came to the tournament the Danes were dispatched comfortably by Soviet Union and Hungary.
What Denmark did have, however, was a crop of exciting players, led by 1977 European Football of the Year Allan Simonsen. The Danish playmaker had moved to Germany and Borussia Mönchengladbach by the time he was 20, and hadn’t looked back. With the lack of professional football available in their home country, many of Simonsen’s fellow talented players followed suit, and by the late 70s, Danes were representing some of the biggest clubs in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The next thing they needed was an experienced coach, having spent three years under the guidance of former Marseille striker Kurt Nielsen. Step forward Sepp Piontek. Bundesliga winner as a player with Werder Bremen, Piontek’s burgeoning managerial career had seen him in three stints with Bundesliga teams, as well as a two year spell as coach of the Haiti national team. He’d earned a reputation as a dour disciplinarian, but he was quick to make changes to the national set-up in Denmark, and unafraid to ditch players with big reputations from the squad. By the time the 1982 qualifiers came round, the Danes were beginning to look like a serious proposition, and would even beat eventual winners Italy in Copenhagen, though it wasn’t enough to earn them their first appearance on the biggest stage. Two years later, Piontek’s team came of age.
Having qualified for Euro 84 at the expense of England thanks to Simonsen’s winning goal at Wembley, the Danes thrashed Yugoslavia and came from behind against Belgium to make it through to the knockouts, where Spain would ultimately defeat them on penalties. Even so, the seal had been broken, and Denmark began to flourish. They finished top of their qualifying group for 1986, with the foundations of Morten Olsen, Frank Arnesen, Preben Elkjær and Allan Simonsen now augmented with the breakthrough of dynamic midfielders Soren Lerby, Jan Molby and Jesper Olsen, and the striking genius of a 21 year old forward from Frederiksberg by the name of Michael Laudrup.
Having made it to Mexico, Piontek wasn’t about to allow his players to ease off, and a grueling pre-tournament training schedule was arranged that included altitude training in oxygen masks, and would often last over twelve hours a day. The hard work would pay off, however, and throughout the tournament the fitness of the players, their ability to drastically change pace, and the speed of their attacks left them earmarked as one of the most exciting teams in the tournament. Piontek had also tactically drilled his players to within an inch of their lives, and while often preferring to use the ageing Morton Olsen as a libero in a sweeper formation, there was a fluidity to Denmark’s system that allowed each of the outfield players to fill in the gaps where necessary.
In their opening game, Scotland made the Danes wait for almost an hour, before Elkjær received a pass from Arnesen, shuffled past his marker and drove the ball into the bottom corner for the only goal of the game. Denmark were up and running, and they weren’t about to stop there; next up – Uruguay. The South Americans had continued the tradition of bruising thuggery of the side from the 60s, but managed to take a point from an ill-tempered tie with West Germany. Within eleven minutes, Elkjær had opened the scoring, and then turned provider for Lerby before Enzo Francescoli’s penalty halved the Uruguayan deficit on the stroke of half-time. The second-half was a demolition job. Seven minutes after half-time Laudrup announced himself on the world stage with a spellbinding goal of individual brilliance, waltzing through the Uruguayan’s and dispatching to all but guarantee Denmark’s safe passage to the knockouts. Elkjær added two more to complete his hat-trick, before Jesper Olsen’s late goal completed the rout.
That result took Denmark top of the group, ahead of the already qualified Germans. A draw in the final game would in theory see them into the ‘easier’ side of the draw, though judging by the much-changed line-up named by West Germany, there was little preference in their camp. The Danes at full strength ran out 2-0 winners, but a late sending-off for their midfield conductor Frank Arnesen for a kick on Lothar Matthaus took their World Cup campaign off-course. Arnesen would later reveal that his wife’s mystery illness, which had left her bed-bound, had been playing on his mind throughout the game, and Piontek’s decision to leave the visibly wound-up player on the pitch proved to be the pull in the thread. They would face old foes Spain in the quarter-finals.
A true tale of cult heroism is nothing without a comi-tragic denouement, and in the stifling late afternoon heat in Querétaro, Denmark’s World Cup hopes withered in double quick time. Jesper Olsen had given Piontek’s side the lead with a penalty just after the half-hour mark, and the dark horses were looking good for a quarter-final meeting with Belgium, but one slip of concentration on the stroke of half-time set the wheels in motion for the most memorable collapse in World Cup history. Danish keeper Jes Hogh rolled the ball out to Olsen in the right-back position and, having escaped the attentions of his marker, Olsen then inexcplicably clipped the ball across his own penalty area, where the dangerous Emilio Butrageno latched onto the loose pass and rolled the ball into an empty net to take the sides in level at the break. A close-range header from Butragueno ten minutes after half-time put Spain in the driving seat and, not wishing to spent the rest of his life wondering ‘what if?’ Piontek instructed his players to pile forward in search of an equaliser. That left Spain with the simple task of picking the Danes off on the counter, and by full time Butragueno had helped himself to four goals, and Spain had run out 5-1 winners.
There was a school of thought that, having made it out of the group stage in their first World Cup appearance, the Danish players felt that their job was done, and lacked the belief and inclination to progress any further. Reports from the players’ camp during the tournament had heard mutterings that the squad were becoming homesick, having made it into the third week of the competition. Regardless of their obvious ability on the pitch, it seems Denmark weren’t quite ready to become serious challengers for the World Cup. The defeat to Spain spelled the end of an area for many of Denmark’s more experienced players, and by the time Euro 88 rolled around much of the ‘Danish Dynamite’ team were no longer in the squad, and Piontek’s side finished bottom of their group, losing all three games. The German manager’s reign would come to an end in 1990, as Denmark lost out to Romania in qualifying for the World Cup in Italy. A disappointing end to a phenomenal decade, where Piontek had helped change the face of Danish football forever.
Spain’s journey would not last much longer than Denmark’s, as they were knocked out in the quarters by Belgium in one of three penalty shootouts at that stage – West Germany beating Mexico and France beating Brazil in the other two. The fourth semi-final berth was taken by Argentina, as Diego Maradona grabbed their tie against England by the scruff of the neck. Maradona would then be too much for Belgium, as his double ensured set up a final against the Germans, for whom Andreas Brehme and Rudi Vollers scored the goals that saw off France.
The last great World Cup final was a topsy turvy affair, in which Maradona tormented the German midfield, laying on goals for Jose Brown and Jorge Valdano as the ’78 champions raced into a two goal lead. Somehow West Germany fought their way back into the game with two goals in six minutes from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Voller, but seven minutes from time a perfectly weighted through-ball by El Diego had Jorge Burruchaga steaming through on goal, and his calm finish over Harald Schumacher saw Argentina lift the World Cup for the second time in a decade. Diego Maradona was rightly lauded worldwide for his breathtaking performances, but few who saw them can forget the effect that great Denmark side had on Mexico 86.
You can read the full story of Denmark’s transformation from football backwater to World Cup dark horse in the superb account ‘Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team’ by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons.