Greatest Underdog Stories – From beach to European champions

It is hard to find a fairytale in football that would trump Denmark’s triumph at the European Championship in 1992.

The Danes had failed to qualify for the competition, but after Yugoslavia were disqualified from the tournament due to the Yugoslav wars, the Danes – runners-up in Yugoslavia’s qualifying group – were invited to take their spot in Sweden, completing the eight-team line-up in the continental championship.

At the tournament, Denmark were placed in Group A along with neighbours and hosts Sweden, France, and England. It was as difficult a group as a team could get. The Danes began their campaign with a match against the Three Lions on 14th June and came away with a scoreless draw to put their first point on the board.

Denmark followed it up with a 1-0 loss at the hands of Sweden which severely dented the Danes’ chances of progression to the next round. To have any hope of qualifying to the knock-out rounds they needed to dispatch France in their last group stage game.

Henrik Larsen put the Danes ahead early in the match with his eighth minute strike past Bruno Martini. The score remained in favour of Denmark going into half time break, but then Jean-Pierre Papin scored an equalising goal for Les Bleus. However, 66th minute substitute Lars Elstrup scored 12 minutes after coming on to the pitch to ensure a 2-1 win for his team.

That result, combined with Sweden’s 2-1 defeat of England the same day, ensured that Denmark qualified to the semi-finals as runners-up behind their neighbours, as Les Bleus and England exited the competition without either of them winning a single game.

Denmark were pitted against the then reigning European champions Netherlands in the semi-final and were up against a team that had the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullitt and Frank de Boer amongst others.

What the Danes lacked in individual quality was made up by their fierce desire to win. Larsen, a substitute turned goalscoring hero in the win over France in the group stage, started the game and it took him just five minutes to fire his team into the front. However, the Dutch came right back into the game with a Bergkamp strike 18 minutes later.

Larsen grabbed his second goal of the game in the 33rd minute to ensure his team went into the break 2-1 up. With just four minutes left before the final whistle, the Danes appeared on the verge of the summit clash before Rijkaard struck to bring the scores level at 2-2 and force the game into extra time.

The two teams stayed locked at 2-2 in extra time, to push the game into penalty shootout. The Danes scored all their kicks to qualify ahead of the Dutch following a Van Basten miss.

They met Germany in the final, where everyone expected their fairytale to end, but a goal in each half from John Jensen and Kim Vilfort respectively ensured a 2-0 win for the Danes to complete one of the most remarkable underdog stories in not just football but all of sport.