With the European Championships only a few months away, and seemingly always expanding, the opportunities for ‘minnow’ nations to make an impact increases correspondingly.
In this article we will take a look back at the biggest unexpected overachievers of tournaments gone by, including some winners, some nearly-winners, a minnow nation in the true sense of the word and take a look at their journey and some of the players who made it possible.
A debate is always there to be had over which European Championship success was a greater achievement – Greece’s or Denmark’s – but one thing that can be said is that while Greece’s victory was an outright shock, Denmark’s journey was an absolutely staggering set of events.
Denmark came second in their qualifying group behind an impressive Yugoslavia side and were eliminated, but less than two weeks before the start of Euro ’92, Yugoslavia were disqualified by UEFA due to being placed under UN sanctions after civil war broke out in the country.
Denmark took their place and had just ten days to prepare themselves for a major tournament. Considering all countries now spend numerous weeks training and playing friendlies before a tournament, it makes Denmark’s achievement even more astonishing.
The Dane’s certainly slowly eased themselves into the tournament as it took them three games to score a goal, but an opening 0-0 draw against England and 2-1 win over France took them through to the semi-finals.
They defeated the holders Holland in that semi-final on penalties, with Euro ’88 hero Marco van Basten missing the decisive spot kick after a thrilling 2-2 draw.
After defeating one European juggernaut , they faced another in Germany, who they defeated 2-0 in Gothenburg to record the greatest success in Danish footballing history.
Best player – Brian Laudrup
One half of arguably the greatest pair of footballing brothers in history, the Bayern Munich midfielder oozed class and skill in the Danish attack in their run to the final, much like he did throughout his whole career.
He quit the national setup in 1990 but returned for the finals and earned a spot in the Team of the Tournament, whilst his brother Michael stayed on holiday and didn’t bother showing up to play because Denmark were so unfancied.
Cult hero – Henrik Larsen
Not to be confused with the Swedish legend with a slight variant to the surname, Larsen was joint top-scorer at Euro 92 and scored both their goals in the semi-final versus Holland while also scoring in the shootout.
If his exploits weren’t enough to herald him a national hero, Denmark fans can quite easily taunt their Swedish neighbours by making reference that Henrik Larsson never won a major international honour, while Henrik Larsen did.
Breakthrough star – John Jensen
A relative unknown before Euro 92, like many in the Danish team, Jensen was a Brondby player prior to the tournament but was Arsenal player not long after their success.
His performances in the centre of midfield were noteworthy and he added to his acclaim by scoring the opening goal in the final as he went on to make almost a century of appearances in four years at Highbury.
Leader – Peter Schmeichel
It is no surprise that Schmeichel went on to enjoy a trophy-laiden career in club football after his exploits in Euro 92 in which he led from the back and was a vital part of the system that took Denmark all the way.
Lars Olsen was the captain, but the physical and vocal presence of the Man United goalkeeper and his organisation of the defence proved critical, as was his penalty save from van Basten in the semi-final.
Decisive Moment: Yugoslav War
It is a bit of a dampener over Denmark’s success that it played out essentially to a backdrop of a conflict in which thousands of people were killed.
Had it not been for the atrocities, Denmark would never have qualified and it will also have been a huge disappointment for the Yugoslav side who evidently were an extremely talented side ripped apart by the political turmoil.
Only France amassed more points in qualifying and they also had the top scorer in Darko Pancev.
But ultimately it was a moment of fate completely out of Denmark’s control which allowed them a second chance in which they took full advantage and produced one of football’s greatest ever underdog stories.