The 1992 European Championship Tournament was a significant one in more ways than one.
It was the first Euro’s that a reunified Germany team competed in, the last tournament to award the winner of a match with just two points, and the last tournament before the introduction of the back-pass rule.
The tournament was also the final one to feature 8 teams, as the next European Championships, held in 1996, featured 16.
Despite all this, by far the most significant feature of the tournament was the fact that it was won by a country that never even qualified.
That country was Denmark, but how did it happen?
Seven of the eight sides had to qualify for the tournament, as Sweden qualified automatically as hosts. The other 7 teams that qualified were France, England, Scotland, Germany, Netherlands, The Soviet Union (who competed as The Commonwealth of Independent States after the breakup of the country), and the crucial one, Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia qualified in May 1992, as the winner of group 4 in qualifying, and were set to compete as The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which represented modern day Serbia and Montenegro.
From 1991, the state had been embroiled in the Yugoslav wars, a series of separate conflicts which led to the dissolution of the Yugoslav state. These conflicts caused issues on the international stage for Yugoslavia, as their football team split up and were banned from competing at Euro 92.
As a result of this, Yugoslavia’s spot in the tournament was given to the runners up of their qualification group, Denmark, just 10 days before the start of the tournament.
Denmark were not obvious favourites going into the tournament, especially considering that if not for the issues in Yugoslavia.
The odds were stacked against them in the group stage, as they faced England, France, and the hosts Sweden in Group 1. Denmark opened their tournament against England, performing well and earning a 0-0 draw in a game that they could have won had John Jensen converted a shot that rebounded of the post into the arms of England’s goalkeeper Chris Woods. England also had chances but Denmark’s Peter Schmeichel kept them at bay, namely with a fingertip save from an Alan Smith volley.
Next up was the hosts, Sweden, who had drawn their first game themselves vs. France. Sweden were heavy favourites, but Denmark were not prepared to sit and soak up pressure against the hosts. The Danes had several chances in the game through the likes of Flemming Povlsen, Kim Vilfort, and Kim Christofte, with Schmeichel making a full stretch save from an Anders Limpar strike.
However, Sweden proved their superiority and managed to scrape a 1-0 win through a Tomas Brolin goal which sent them to the top of Group 1.
Denmark would need to beat France in the final game of the group to have any chance of advancing, as the top two teams in the two groups would advance to the semi-finals of the tournament.
France came into the tournament as one of the favourites, having won all 8 games in qualification and boasting such players as Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, and Jean-Pierre Papin.
Denmark did have one advantage over their French counterparts though, as the Danish side bore no weight of expectation, the pressure was all on France after two draws in the opening games of the tournament, and they were expected to brush Denmark aside and progress to the semi-final.
Denmark flew out of the blocks and caught France off guard with their tenacity, taking the lead just 8 minutes into the game through Henrik Larsen.
Jean-Pierre Papin equalised on the hour mark, which would have put France through to the next round had nothing changed, but Povlsen for a second time in the game as he set up Lars Elstrup for the winner 12 minutes from time, condemning France to an unexpectedly early exit from the tournament.
Denmark had done the unthinkable and progressed from Group 1 in second place, bettered only by the hosts of the tournament.
A star studded Netherlands side awaited Denmark in the semi-final. The list of superstar talents in the Dutch side must have been daunting; Koeman, Bergkamp, Rijkaard, van Basten, Gullit and de Boer among others had led Netherlands to a first place finish in Group 2, leading them to be definite favourites in their tie with Denmark.
Despite the perceived discrepancy in quality between the two sides, Denmark actually had the better of the game within the 90 minutes, leading twice through Henrik Larsen, but they were unable to retain the lead, being pegged back by goals from Bergkamp and Rijkaard which took the game to extra time.
The 30 minutes that followed must have felt like an eternity for the Denmark side, as the Dutch players attempted to force their way through the resolute Danish defence.
Schmeichel made a crucial save to deny Bryan Roy in the closing stages, and it wouldn’t be the last time he was a hero on the night.
Denmark held on to the 2-2 result, sending the game to penalties.
Schmeichel saved the second Dutch penalty from Marco van Basten, which gave Denmark the platform to convert every spot kick of their own, and win 5-4 in the shootout to send themselves to the final.
Larsen, Povlsen, Elstrup, Vilfort, and Christofte scored the penalties, with Schmeichel saving one which was ultimately the difference in the tie.
Players who had made themselves heroes in the previous round had performed heroically again, leading a team who had not even meant to be present at the tournament to its ultimate game, and Germany, the champions of the footballing world, stood as their final obstacle in a fairy tale story…
The final kicked off in expected fashion, with Germany dominating their Danish opponents, and forcing Schmeichel into making saves from Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald early on.
Despite the German onslaught, Denmark took the lead against the run of play through Jensen, who had missed a big chance in Denmark’s opening game of the tournament against England. Povlsen robbed Germany of possession on the right side of the German box, proceeding to pull the ball back to Jensen who caught out Germany’s keeper Bodo Illgner at his near post.
Schmeichel continued to impress, stopping Matthias Sammer and Jürgen Klinsmann from scoring to protect Denmark’s lead. What followed could hardly be believed, as Vilfort collected a pass, beat two German defenders, and calmly slotted the ball into the bottom right corner to double Denmark’s lead.
At the final whistle, the dream had been achieved.
Denmark became the champions of Europe against all the odds, they had won a tournament they had not even managed to qualify for, and they had done it by defeating the World Champions.
At the beginning of the summer, Denmark coach Richard Nielsen had been planning to fit a new kitchen in his home. He was called away to coach a team in an international tournament on 10 days notice, and 16 days later he had led his side to European Championship glory.
The story of Denmark’s Euro 92 campaign is the epitome of a sporting fairy tale. It was their first major international trophy, and remains their only one.
Not one person would have ever expected Denmark to win the tournament when they were drafted in, but no Danish football fan will ever forget the tournament or the heroes that it bred.