Denmark gatecrashed the 1992 UEFA European Championship, but as they geared up to face reigning champions the Netherlands in the semi-finals, the party looked to be over.
Late replacements after Yugoslavia’s withdrawal from the competition, Denmark came to the finals in Sweden with limited expectations but reached the four-team knockout phase with a 2-1 win against France in their final group game. EURO winners in 1988, the Dutch looked to have one foot in the decider against Germany as they took on the Danes in Gothenburg.
Coach Rinus Michels admitted he did not know much about Richard Møller Nielsen’s side (“We know what their kit looks like,” he joked). Were they guilty of underestimating their opponents?
Peter Schmeichel: Signed by Manchester United from Brøndby in 1991, the goalkeeper was a top-division runner-up in his first season in England, and already looked to be what manager Sir Alex Ferguson had called “the bargain of the century”.
Marco van Basten: Tall, skilful and deadly with both feet, the striker won the Serie A golden boot as AC Milan took the 1991/92 Italian title. He had not scored in the EURO group stage but looked set to prosper against the Danes.
Kim Vilfort: The midfielder was dealing with horrendous personal tragedy and regularly left the team camp to visit his terminally ill seven-year-old daughter, Line, during the finals. His quiet strength spoke volumes.
Henrik Larsen’s early opener for the Danes looked like an aberration; Dennis Bergkamp struck back for the Netherlands soon enough, so it was a surprise when Larsen pounced again to make it 2-1 at the interval. Denmark were in sight of the final until Frank Rijkaard equalised with 86 minutes on the clock.
Extra time should have settled it, but goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel helped to keep his side in contention with a series of fine saves, and was a hero in the subsequent shoot-out, saving from Marco van Basten. Every Danish player found the target, Kim Christofte scoring the fifth to send his team to the decider.
Peter Schmeichel, Denmark goalkeeper: “I always make my mind up before. The first one I was going to go left, then I was going to go left and then I’d go three right. I stuck by that; I didn’t even look at who was taking the kicks.”
Richard Møller Nielsen, Denmark coach: “[Schmeichel] gives everybody on the team confidence. He showed everybody today he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”
Kim Vilfort, Denmark midfielder: “You can never be certain you will score. But you must believe you will – and block everything else out as you walk to take it.”
Elsewhere that night
While the Danes were celebrating in Gothenburg, Iceland’s women’s team enjoyed a 2-1 win at home against Scotland in a qualifier for the 1993 UEFA Women’s European Championship, Halldóra Gylfadóttir and Ásta Gunnlaugsdóttir scoring the goals.
The Danes went on to beat Germany 2-0 in the final in Gothenburg to complete perhaps the greatest shock in EURO history (only Greece’s success at EURO 2004 runs it close). Schmeichel played his part again, with John Jensen and Kim Vilfort both beating Bodo Illgner to spark celebrations back in Copenhagen.
The Netherlands’ bad luck with shoot-outs continued after 1992. They bowed out of EURO ’96 (quarter-finals vs France), the 1998 World Cup (semi-finals vs Brazil) and EURO 2000 (semi-finals vs Italy) following defeats on penalties, finally ending their losing streak with a victory against Sweden in the quarter-finals of EURO 2004.