Euro 1992: Denmark's fairytale

To those who think this year's European Championship is Spain's to lose, here is a tale from a past tournament that might make you re-assess.

Twenty years ago, Denmark were given just over a week's notice to get a squad prepared for the Euro '92. Less than a month later, the underdogs were champions.

Their surprise inclusion came after Yugoslavia, in a state of civil war, were not allowed to participate in the tournament.

Euro '92 Facts

Brian Laudrup lifts the European Championship trophy
  • Hosts: Sweden
  • Teams: 8
  • Format: Two groups of four. Two best teams qualify for quarter-finals.
  • Winners: Denmark
  • Runners-up: Germany
  • Stand-out match: Semi-final - Netherlands 2-2 a.e.t (4-5 pens) Denmark

The Danes had missed out on qualification having finished as runners-up to Yugoslavia, but they now found themselves thrown into the eight-team tournament and placed in a group featuring hosts Sweden, England and France.

Kim Vilfort proved to be one of the unlikely heroes for Denmark during the fortnight and he told BBC Sport that his team-mates were better prepared than some had initially thought.

"There were those who didn't believe we would be included, but we were aware of small talk that this could be the situation," said the 49-year-old former midfielder.

"Then we got the news. There was no discussion. Denmark had to participate in the tournament. It wasn't possible to say 'no' because it would not have helped the relationship between Uefa and the Danish Football Association.

"But we had a good team. We'd beaten Yugoslavia in the group stages and had been scheduled to play the CIS [team of former Soviet Union states] the week before the start of the competition."

With the minds of the players hastily focused, it was time for the tournament and Vilfort reckons Denmark were in a no-lose situation.

"We couldn't fail because there were no expectations. If we lost 5-0 three times then that would not have mattered," he continued.

But the story unfolded like this: A 0-0 draw against England, followed by defeat by Sweden. Going into the crunch match against France, the Danes still had a chance of qualification.

Kim Vilfort factfile

  • Date of birth: 15 Nov 1962
  • Position: Midfielder
  • Teams: Skovlunde IF, BK Frem, Lille and Brondby
  • Danish league titles: 7
  • Danish player of the year: 1991
  • National team: 1983-96, 77 caps

Vilfort said of the France game: "We played without nerves because we thought we'd be going home."

Coach Richard Moller Nielsen's men won the match 2-1, with goals from Henrik Larsen and Lars Elstrup.

Vilfort himself missed the match against France as he was visiting his seven-year-old daughter Line, who was fighting leukaemia. Sadly, she lost her battle after the tournament.

Heavyweights England and France were now out of the tournament, but next up for Danes were holders Netherlands, who were outstanding favourites to brush aside their opponents.

However, the Danes battled valiantly and it was 2-2 after 90 minutes, with Larsen grabbing two more goals. A scoreless extra-time followed, so penalties loomed.

The Netherlands hero of 1988, Marco van Basten, had his saved by Peter Schmeichel. It was the only spot-kick failure and defender Kim Christofte eventually sealed Denmark's berth in the final.

Vilfort described the contest as "one of the best matches for the national team" he had played, but admitted his defensive-minded side then had "some luck in the final" against Germany.

The world champions had beaten the hosts 3-2 in a thrilling semi-final having qualified from Group B along with the Dutch.

They dominated the opening quarter of the final and Schmeichel, who had signed for Manchester United the previous year, was again the hero for the Danes, saving from Karl-Heinz Riedle, Stefan Reuter and Guido Buchwald.

The next chance fell to Denmark, and to John Jensen.

The Brondby central midfielder had only scored one goal in his first 48 internationals, but grabbed his second with a spectacular strike from the right-hand corner of the area.

England's Euro 1992

England team v Sweden
  • 0-0 v Denmark
  • 0-0 v France
  • 1-2 v Sweden
  • England finish bottom of Group A and fail to qualify

It rocked Germany. With 11 minutes remaining, the emotion turned to shock.

Vilfort surged to the edge of the area, eluded the challenge of two defenders before drilling in Denmark's second goal via the foot of the post.

His team-mates piled on top of the midfielder and the fairytale was complete.

Vilfort pointed to the strong bond in the squad as to why they had triumphed against expectations.

"Ten of the players we had in the squad either played for or had previously played for Brondby. A year before the Euros, Brondby had got to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup - that was a big thing for a Danish club.

"Quite a few members of the squad had also been played for the Under 21s and the Olympic team, who had qualified for South Korea in 1988.

"We had fantastic spirit. The team wanted to win and that's a very good thing when you're at the highest level. When we were under pressure against Germany, it was the spirit that helped us.

"We didn't have the best players, but we had the best team."