No one gave last-minute inclusions Denmark much hope at EURO '92, least of all their coach Richard Møller Nielsen; their glorious triumph left even Peter Schmeichel spellbound.
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It was a light summer evening in Gothenburg and Denmark's footballers had just made history by beating world champions Germany in the EURO '92 final. The homeland of Hans Christian Andersen, that famed writer of fairy tales, was living one of football's great giant-slaying stories but for Peter Schmeichel, the moment of triumph brought a strange sensation. "You are probably going to think I'm crazy but there was nothing. It was emptiness, complete emptiness," says the goalkeeper.
Schmeichel was not alone in struggling to take it in – after all, Denmark's success stunned the whole of Europe. The Scandinavians were the Cinderellas who received a last-minute call to the ball. They had finished second in their qualifying group, one point behind a Yugoslavia side who, a fortnight before the tournament began, were suspended by FIFA as football responded to the UN sanctions imposed after the outbreak of war in the Balkans. Yugoslavia's loss was Denmark's gain.
Schmeichel learned of their reprieve as Richard Møller Nielsen's men prepared for a 3 June friendly against the CIS, the team of former Soviet states who were themselves warming up for the EURO. "It was during lunch between two training sessions that the first rumour came through that maybe Yugoslavia were being expelled. When we came back from the second training session, it was confirmed."
Looking back, he believes the Danes' lack of preparation time actually helped them. "One thing that really worked for us was the fact we never had six months to mentally build up to the tournament, and we never had the long, long training camp before it, so we came in fresh." Schmeichel, then 28, recalls Møller Nielsen's instruction was not "make sure you go and win" but rather "make sure you don't embarrass yourselves". Not a Hollywood screenwriter's idea of a rousing speech but then this side would tear up the expected script.
Their campaign started on 11 June with an encouraging goalless draw with England. "'Happy to be here' disappeared after England. We felt we should have won the game; that we were at least on the same level as England." Their second group fixture brought a 1-0 defeat by their Swedish hosts, inviting one Danish television commentator to declare "Denmark are out" – they were bottom of the group entering their third match against France. "We knew it was going to be extremely difficult because France were the pre-tournament favourites by a very long stretch – they had the team, the flair, the personalities."
At the same time, though, "we knew that if we beat France we were in the semis, and we probably played one of our best games in my time". Denmark took an eighth-minute lead through Henrik Larsen which lasted until Jean-Pierre Papin struck on the hour. Yet the "inspirational" introduction of Lars Elstrup two minutes later proved a masterstroke by Møller Nielsen. With 12 minutes remaining, the substitute scored and Denmark were through. "He was renowned for just popping up at the right time in an impossible situation – and he did."
Schmeichel's own brilliance came to the fore on their last two steps to the trophy. The semi-final against the reigning champions, the Netherlands, produced an enthralling 2-2 draw – "one of the best games of the EURO" – in which Larsen twice put Denmark ahead, only for the Dutch to reply on each occasion. It took a shoot-out to separate the teams and Schmeichel played a crucial part, diving low to his left to palm away a spot kick by Marco van Basten.
Facing Van Basten was never going to faze Schmeichel. "You have to remember, we had gone through 120 minutes against these players – you feel very much on a par because there is nothing to separate you," he explains. "We knew we were up against the defending champions, with some of the best players in the world. It was not going to be easy and the game showed that – we had to go all the way to penalties to separate the teams but we stuck to our guns."
Schmeichel saved his best for the showpiece, though, and before half-time made a superb fingertip save to turn behind a low Jürgen Klinsmann shot. Given the context, he considers it the greatest save of his career. "When all my team-mates saw me saving something like that, they knew I would be in top form."
It preserved the advantage John Jensen's spectacular strike after 18 minutes had given them. "Jensen's goal comes out of absolutely nothing – we were never anywhere near the German goal. Lars Olsen, playing directly in front of me, couldn't move to his right, John Sivebæk could hardly run, so we were really up against it, but then Jensen scores and the whole game is different."
Denmark had to dig deep – Schmeichel thwarted Klinsmann again, tipping over his header in the second half – and with 12 minutes left Kim Vilfort made it two, rolling a low shot in off a post. The celebrations could begin; well, almost. "I think, beyond anything, when it really sunk in for me was when we were in Copenhagen, in the town hall. This is where you think: we actually did this, this is not a dream."
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the UEFA EURO 2012 Official Preview Guide. Click to purchase.