It could be defined an Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale from a footballing slant. Yet, the echoing victory by Denmark football national team at Euro 1992 was characterised by a quite dramatic prologue and had no happy ending.
The format of the European Championship, held in Sweden, scheduled a final stage with eight participating teams, split into two groups. Yugoslavia was among them, as they won their qualifying round with one point ahead of Denmark. But something irrecoverable occurred.
The civil war in the Balkans blew up, with Yugoslavia coming out such dismembered that it would exist no longer as an unified nation. The conditions for taking part in the European Championship lacked. Another team had to be retrivied, as there was only one week to go before the start of the competion, and Denmark was the picked one.
Manager Richard Møller-Nielsen immediately picked up the phone, for players had to be called one-by-one whilst they were already on holidays. Michael Laudrup’s name was displayed on the list but the Barcelona star did not accept, as he had never hit it off with the national team manager. His refusal echoed in Møller-Nielsen’s ears and would echoe for a long time. Instead, Laudrup’s younger brother, Brian, agreed to join the other team-mates. Brøndby halfback Kim Vilfort did it, too, in spite of his 8-year-old leukaemic female child. Finally, the team arrived in Sweden, in that European Championship from which it was initially excluded.
The Danish inspired tenderness, as they spent the days before the kickoff gulping down pints of beer. Finally, time to play football arrived soon and the first match was scheduled in Malmö against England. What was announced as a foretold defeat, in the end, became a missed opportunity, as Denmark did not concede chances to Graham Taylor’s national team and were even close to win.
It would not be the only surprise. The second match, a Scandinavian derby against Sweden in Stockholm, ended with an 1-0 victory by the hosting country courtesy of a goal by Parma striker Tomas Brolin. Denmark impressed and did not perform as a simple supporting actor, though. Having checked the tables, the Danish could still dream to qualify for the semi-finals.
Eventually, this would occur without Kim Vilfort. He had to pack his suitcase and cross the strait between Zealand and Scania in order to stay at his little Line’s bedside, for her health deteriorated. Before coming back home whilst feeling a pang, he ensured his team-mates he would be back as soon as possible.
Once again, Malmö. Once again, another major European national football team. All chances to move forward in the competition relied on the decisive match against France, leadered by Éric Cantona. Forward Henrik Larsen, whose Italian experience in Pisa had been disappointing, scored after eight minutes, but the most exciting moments of the match came out in the second half. Jean-Pierre Papin, who had been awarded the Ballon d’Or the previous year, equalised within a quarter of hour. Then, former Luton Town striker Lars Elstrup went onto the field and soon enabled Denmark to take the lead again. This was the goal that led the Vikings to the semi-finals, just to the detriment of France.
The harshest opponent appeared to Denmark on the way to the final match. Møller-Nielsen’s team had to face Holland, the reigning European champions and, above all, main favourites for the victory. The semi-final was staged in Göteborg, where Vilfort joined again his team-mates. As many football fans predicted, the score changed almost immediately. Quite surprisingy, it was Denmark to end the goalless balance. Again, it was Larsen, too hurriedly labelled as a lemon, to net.
Punctually, striker Dennis Bergkamp tied, but Larsen scored his personal brace just past the first half-a-hour. AC Milan pillar Frank Rijkaard finally leveled four minutes ahead of the end of a match which the Netherlands had portrayed as a training session.
The semi-finalists entered into extra time and Denmark gritted their teeth and resisted until the penalty-shoot-outs. The Dutch team was a huge, orange stain attacking consistently and banging into the wall erected by Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, a lonely man facing 11 opponents. Despite his XXXL-size, the Danish giant gracefully flew to deflect crackerjack Marco van Basten’s shot from the penalty spot. The “Swan of Utrecht” sadly ended up to be no more than an ugly duckling. On the opposite side, Denmark did not miss the target. Larsen, Povlsen, Elstrup, Vilfort, Christofte; five goals out of as many penalty kicks. It was utterly hard to believe, but Denmark reached the final match, against solid and newly-unified Germany.
Nobody could threaten the Danish side any longer, though. The Scandinavians ruled the Göteborg game and scored with a dazzling shot by central midfielder John Jensen while turning into the 20th minute. Then, Denmark wisely decided to make Germany let off steam in the struggling pursuit of the equaliser.
When a dozen of minutes was still separating the Vikings from a sensational triumph, a lethal counterattack was magnificently finished by Kim Vilfort, the man who played with his hearth in his mouth.
Euro 1992 split his figure into two different parts. For Vilfort as a footballer, it was the peak. For Vilfort as a man, it was a personal tragedy, as little Line died a few weeks after the Euro triumph.
However, nobody knows what is going on high in the sky. Line still continues to tell everybody what her father and his team-mates achieved in that summer.
And yes, there might be a really fairy element also in this dramatic story.