Denmark is at their best when the rest of the world is watching. They were “pulled” off the beach (or, at the very least, from their vacations) to step in as a last-minute replacement for Yugoslavia at Euro 1992, and they defied the odds to win it all. Nearly 30 years later, at Euro 2020, they have recovered from the traumatic circumstances surrounding talisman Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest to reach the final four, and their storey is far from over.
Denmark’s late call-up in 1992 cemented their status as Europe’s favourite underdog. This year, their semifinal match against England on Wednesday — stream LIVE, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+ (U.S.) — will be played in front of a partisan crowd at Wembley Stadium, and after Eriksen collapsed on the field nearly three weeks ago, there appears to be only one option for the neutrals.
The bookmakers have England as the clear favourites, but Denmark, a country of less than 6 million people, knows that anything is possible in the European Championships. They are already aware.
“We came in late [in 1992], and perhaps there was some sympathy for us,” Johnny Molby, a member of Denmark’s squad 29 years ago, tells ESPN. “It’s the same right now in that everyone feels a little sorry for Denmark.”
Yugoslavia had already arrived in Euro host country Sweden in 1992 when they were kicked out due to civil war at home and UN sanctions. Denmark had failed to qualify for the eight-team tournament after finishing second in their qualifying group behind Yugoslavia, but they were quickly invited to make up the numbers, and their plans to watch the games on TV were quickly cancelled.
“A few days ago, there was some talk that it might be possible,” Kim Vilfort, a striker for Denmark’s 1992 team, tells ESPN. “There wasn’t much debate about whether or not it was the right thing to do. The discussions were quick, and then it was, ‘OK, we go.'”
The Danish FA was only notified officially on May 30, 1992, the day before the final squads were due to be submitted to UEFA. Manager Richard Moller Nielsen was given an extra few days to name his team, and they took the field in Malmo on June 11 against England, who were World Cup semifinalists two years ago.
“We were laughing,” Molby recalls the moment he and his teammates learned they would have a week to prepare. “We were in good physical condition, but there was no pressure on us, and everyone was at ease.”
A goalless draw with England was followed by a 1-0 loss to Sweden, but a 2-1 win over France in their final group game — secured by a late goal from Lars Elstrup — was enough to qualify for the 1992 semifinals.
After defeats to Finland (understandable given Eriksen’s cardiac arrest during the game) and Belgium at Euro 2020, the pivotal victory came against Russia. Denmark has since defeated Wales 4-0 in the last 16 and the Czech Republic 2-1 in the quarterfinals to set up their meeting with England.
Look back at the events that led to Denmark and England meeting in the 2020 Euro semifinals.
“Getting a good result against France was the moment we started believing something special could happen,” Molby recalls of the 1992 campaign.
“France had [Eric] Cantona and [Jean-Pierre] Papin, who made an excellent team. It’s the Danish mentality, I believe: when you’re the underdog and you start to get good results, Denmark becomes a dangerous team to play against. Everyone’s confidence grows, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to play against [us]. It happened in 1992, and it is still happening today.”
Despite the fact that Denmark reached the semifinals this year without Eriksen, the 1992 team also lacked a key player. They made history despite missing one of their best players, forward Michael Laudrup, due to disagreements with Nielsen, who was known for favouring defensive organisation over attacking flair. Brian Laudrup, Laudrup’s brother, had only recently returned from a serious knee injury when he was named to the tournament team alongside Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.
The Netherlands, who had won the World Cup four years earlier in 1988, were defeated on penalties in the semifinal after a 2-2 draw – Schmeichel saving the decisive spot kick from Marco van Basten – before facing reigning World champions Germany in Gothenburg.
Denmark took the lead after 18 minutes thanks to John Jensen, who later joined Arsenal. Vilfort made it 2-0 with Germany desperately attempting to equalise and forcing Schmeichel to make two outstanding saves.
The game took place just days after Denmark voted to leave the European Union.
“It was a special moment and a special time in Denmark,” Vilfort says, according to ESPN. “It was something that brought the entire country together, which is difficult. Football is one of the few things that can do that. People in Denmark claim to remember exactly where they were on June 26, 1992. That’s what everyone says, even people who don’t know anything about football!”
If July 11, 2021 is to be remembered in the same way, Kasper Hjulmand’s team must first defeat England, then either Spain or Italy in the final.
“It’s possible,” says Vilfort. “A semifinal against England at Wembley Stadium will be difficult, but it will only be one match. The Danish team is full of confidence. It will be more difficult than in 1992 because there will be four knockout matches, whereas we only had two, but anything is possible. Denmark is not the favourite, but people like to see the underdog win every now and then.”
Even if Denmark falls short of replicating the class of ’92, they have already won in many ways. Eriksen has been released from the hospital and is doing well, according to the team. Lifting the trophy on Sunday is a distant second to their star midfielder’s health. Anything else that happens after this is a bonus, and Hjulmand believes the experience has brought the group closer together.
“When Christian collapsed, everything changed,” Hjulmand said after the 4-0 victory over Wales. “We were put in a different situation: I am grateful for everyone’s help, as it was exactly what we needed at the time. I respect the boys. They’re fighters.”
Molby drew some additional parallels between the Danish squads of 1992 and 2021.
“It was a big surprise for everyone in 1992,” Molby says. “It demonstrates what team spirit and confidence can accomplish. We had it, and Denmark has it again. We were well-prepared and knew exactly what to do. We faced teams with potentially better players, but we had the best team.”
“The Danish people are very proud of the team, and they have a lot of support,” he says. “England faces a difficult test at Wembley, but anything is possible. That was demonstrated in 1992. It’s fantastic for a small country to send a signal to Europe that we can do something like that.”