On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week, it’s the country that brought us Hans Christian Andersen, LEGO, and the 90s eurodance band Aqua. If Carlsberg did countries, they’d probably be Denmark.
The Player: Preben Elkjær
Like brown sauce on a bacon butty or sprinkles on an ice cream cone, sometimes even the best things in life can benefit from a little extra. In the 1980s, during their peak years as a force in world football, Denmark could not only call on the sublime skills of Michael Laudrup, but also the devastating firepower of Preben Elkjær. Five feet and eleven and a half inches of pace and aggression, the Copenhagen born forward has cemented his place in Danish football’s hall of fame, earning plaudits for his wit, vibrance and acerbic tongue both on and off the field. In the summer before coming to prominence as a bit-part player in FC Köln’s double winning season of 1977/78, the nineteen year old striker made his full international debut for Denmark after impressing at youth level. Scoring both goals in a 2-1 win against Finland. Elkjær would go on to earn 69 caps for his country, but in the dark days of the 70s could surely not have expected the illustrious career that followed. Before the appointment of German coach Sepp Piontek, the Danes were considered mere minnows at international level, regularly finishing bottom of their qualification groups for major tournaments. Piontek, a disciplinarian who’d made his name in the Bundesliga, brought a much-needed dose of professionalism to the role of national team coach, and quickly set about building a team that could challenge the rest of Europe. With the domestic leagues in Denmark still operating at an amateur level, Elkjær and his peers had fled to the elite European leagues for bigger wages and more competitive football. Initially frowned upon by the DBU, Piontek made the sensible decision to welcome the outcast players back into the fold. Soon enough, they began to resemble a decent football team.
Meanwhile, Elkjær had moved to Lokeren in Belgium, competing in a league that boasted no fewer than six Danish first-teamers. It was there that his game really began to take shape, scurrying after loose balls, pressing defenders, and dribbling through tackles. As capable with his back to goal as facing, his record of a goal every other game soon had the bigger clubs in Europe casting admiring glances. Having scored four goals in Denmark’s successful qualifying campaign for Euro 84, Elkjær’s reputation was further enhanced as the Danes surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals in France.
The following two seasons would prove to be the pinnacle of Elkjær’s career as a move to Serie A saw him join Hellas Verona, helping I Gialloblu to the first Scudetto title in their history. His determination in attack and selflessness in front of goal earned him the nickname The Mayor, and in 1985 he was named the second best player in the world behind Michel Platini. Perhaps his most defining moment in the yellow and blue of Verona came in a match against Juventus during that run to the title. Streaming through on goal, Elkjær’s boot flew following a challenge from a defender but, unpertubed, the striker waltzed around another man before guiding the ball into the bottom corner. In 1986, Denmark headed to their first World Cup finals in Mexico. The story of the Danes’ campaign in ’86 is one of extreme highs and lows, but for Elkjær the undoubted peak was his brutally efficient performance against Uruguay during the group stages. Dovetailing beautifully with star man Laudrup, the #10 helped himself to a hat-trick against the bruising South-Americans, as Piontek’s side hit them for six. The campaign would end in heartache as Spain eliminated the Danes in farcical circumstances. By the time they arrived at Euro 88, much of the magic sprinkled on the Denmark team had disappeared, and their exit at the group stage after three defeats spelled the end of Elkjær’s international career. The Mayor left Verona to wind down his domestic duty in Denmark, but managed just 26 appearances in two years at Vejle Boldklub.
After a brief flitrtation with club management, Elkjær has spent the last couple of decades carving out a career as a popular pundit for Danish TV, thanks largely to his heroic performances for the team dubbed ‘Dynamite’.
The Game: Denmark 2-0 Germany, 1992
If the defeats to Spain, Italy and West Germany at Euro 88 marked a decline in the Danes performance, then the failure to qualify for the following two major tournaments all but killed the optimism fostered by Piontek. Defeat to Romania in the decisive qualifier for the 1990 World Cup signalled the end of the German’s decade long reign, succeeded by assistant Richard Møller Nielsen, who’d been part of the Denmark coaching set up since before Piontek’s appointment. Draws with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and defeats to England and West Germany sandwiched Møller Nielsen’s maiden victory as manager against Turkey, though dispiriting performances against sides gearing up for a summer in Italy left Danish supporters bereft of confidence in their new manager. Heading into the Euro 92 qualifiers with three wins on the bounce, it looked as though Denmark might be building some momentum. And then things got weird.
Three games into the campaign, with the Danes having won one, drawn one and lost one, a training ground bust-up between Michael Laudrup and Nielsen led to Denmark’s talisman retiring from international football, along with younger brother Brian and Jan Molby. Despite being shorn of their most creative players, the Tin Soldiers would go on to win all five of their remaining qualifiers, but still miss out to the relentless Yugoslavia by a point. Dismay and disappointment followed, but just as the players were gearing up for a summer of avoiding the action in Sweden, UEFA announced the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the competition following sanctions by the United Nations after the outbreak of civil war in the Balkans. As a result Denmark were in, though few fancied their chances in a group with the hosts, France and England. A goalless draw against Graham Taylor’s team in the opening game was followed by defeat to a single Tomas Brolin goal against the Swedes, leaving Nielsen’s side needing a win against France to progress. Lars Elstrup’s goal twelve minutes from time was enough to secure their progress to the semi-final, where they’d surely be knocked out by holders and favourites the Netherlands. Or not, as a scintillating 2-2 draw in which Serie A reject Henrik Larsen scored twice was decided on penalty kicks, and Manchester United’s Peter Schmeichel earned hero status by saving Marco van Basten’s effort. After a bizarre whirlwind of a month, Denmark were in the final.
Against Germany, a team already on the wane from their triumph in Italy two years earlier, it was Schmeichel again that emerged the hero. Saves from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald from the giant stopper in the opening stages looked to be delaying the inevitable, as Berti Vogts aging squad looked to kill the game off early. Then, with less than twenty minutes on the clock, the ball fell to Brondby’s John Jensen on the edge of the box, and the midfielder – not known for his prowess in front of goal – fired an exocet past Bodo Illgner. The impossible had become probable. The Germans struggled to get back into the game, rocked by Jensen’s strike. Despite flying forward in numbers, the steadfast Danish defence held firm – lessons had clearly been learned from their exit in ’86. In the 78th minute, because Denmark loved the 78th minute, Kim Vilfort drilled an effort in off the post. 2-0. Game over. Danish delight.
Still considered one of the biggest shocks in modern football, Denmark’s victory at Euro 92, a tournament they hadn’t even qualified for, is the perfect fairytale. A downtrodden team failing to rekindle their glory years, without their best players and facing some of the best in the world, winning the cup against all the odds. Had Nielsen remained in charge of Denmark for the next fifty years he couldn’t have repeated such a feat. As it was, he stepped down following their group stage exit at Euro 96, having failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994. He would go on to manage Finland and Israel before retiring in 2003. He passed away in 2014.
The European Championship winners of 1992 mightn’t have been as scintillating their ’86 counterparts, perhaps not as lovable, nor as tragically flawed, but they made the most of a situation in which they had nothing to lose.