As the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson, it’s fitting that Denmark wrote the European Championship’s ultimate fairytale.
To give you an idea of just how unawares the Danes were caught when they received an 11th-hour call-up to replace war-torn Yuguslavia at Euro 92, manager Richard Moller Nielsen was about to start decorating his kitchen, while captain Lars Olsen drove all the way to Scandinavia from Turkey, where he was playing for Trabzonspor.
After a year at Manchester United, Peter Schmeichel was already proving himself a world-class goalkeeper, but with their best outfield player Michael Laudrup refusing to play - along with Jan Molby - after falling out with Moller Nielsen during qualification, most believed Denmark were there to make up the numbers. Indeed, they’d been chosen by CIS (formerly USSR) as warm-up opponents as a kind of poor man’s Sweden, who were hosts.
If reaching the final and ultimately beating a recently-unified Germany to claim the title was unlikely, the identity of their matchwinner was inconceivable.
A defensive midfielder who had scored just one goal in 47 internationals – he would end his career with four in 69 – and only a handful for Brondby, John ‘Faxe’ Jensen – so nicknamed because as a youth player he was showered by more experienced teammates with their favourite brand of beer – was, it seemed, the only person who had prepared for his big moment. “I remember the manager had said to me before the game that if I have a chance to take a shot, then I should go for it,” he recalled.
First, though, the Danes had to weather an early storm. “The first 20 minutes of football were the hardest most of us had ever faced,” said Jensen. “The Germans were all over the pitch and we couldn’t get into our play.”
After some tough tackling by Jurgen Kohler and Kim Vilfort by the corner flag, the ball broke to workhorse centre-forward Flemming Poulsen, who cut the ball back to the edge of the box where Jensen, without breaking stride, hit the truest of drives. It was still rising as it flew past Bodo Illgner at the near post, the World Cup winning goalkeeper having barely had time to set himself.
Ecstasy to tragedy
Largely off the back of this goal, Jensen was signed by Arsenal to replace Leeds-bound David Rocastle, but the Gunners soon realised what all of Denmark already knew: his goal – let alone a wonderstrike – was a collector’s item. “Shoooooot!” came the increasingly ironic calls from the North Bank, and shoot Jensen did, but only once in four seasons at Highbury did he find the net.
If the story surrounding Jensen’s goal was amusing, Denmark’s clincher carried far more poignancy. A stalwart of the ‘Danish Dynamite’ team that dazzled at Euro 84 and Mexico 86, the aforementioned Vilfort was a far more frequent scorer. But the midfielder had other things on his mind during the tournament, leaving the Denmark camp several times – including to miss the group game against France – to visit his seven-year-old daughter, who had leukaemia.
He scored in the penalty shootout against reigning champions Holland in the semi-final and again in the 78th minute of the final, his smart turn and shot from the edge of the box sealing victory. Shortly after the Denmark celebrated victory at Copenhagen’s town hall in front of a million delirious Danes, Line Vilfort passed away.
Proof that not all fairy tales have a happy ending.
Jensen gives Denmark the lead
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