Heart of Football

Euro Stories: Denmark handed last-minute Euro ‘92 place at Yugoslavia’s expense

Football is historically littered with fairy tale endings and dreams coming true. It’s also partial to its fair share of unwritable scripts.

On 31 May 1992, just 10 days before the European Championships commenced, the seeds of an incredible football journey began to flourish. Prior to the tournament, Yugoslavia had won their qualifying group for the right to enter with a litany of stupendous talent. The year before Red Star Belgrade had lifted the European Cup with the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic, Pedrag Mijatovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic, all of whom played some part in the qualifiers.

Outside the football bubble, however, the breakdown of the Yugoslav state had begun and a series of wars were tearing the region apart. Similar conflicts were occurring involving another qualifying team and this led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most of the consequential countries unified under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and proceeded to compete. 

Yugoslavia were not that fortunate. They attempted to take part as the Federal Republic (FR) of Yugoslavia but their wars at home resulted in their disqualification and replacement by the runner up in their qualifying group – Denmark. 

Denmark’s stellar talent

The Danes certainly boasted some sublime talents of their own, chief among them being Brian Laudrup. The then 23-year-old Bayern Munich winger cemented his legend with a sparkling career across Europe that took in Fiorentina, AC Milan, Rangers and Chelsea among others. Peter Schmeichel had joined Manchester United in the summer of 1991 and was a colossus. Nobody expected them to rival the threat Yugoslavia had posed though.

One notable absentee stood out though – Brian’s brother Michael, arguably Denmark’s greatest ever talent. Given the extremely short notice the Danes were given ahead of the tournament across the water players had to be hastily recalled from their holidays. 

While Brian answered the call, his brother, a stupendously gifted playmaker, refused having fallen out with the coach Richard Moller Nielsen over what he saw as an repressive counter-attacking style. Ironically that very tactic worked wonders for them.

They took the short trip over the bridge to their Scandinavian neighbours Sweden to compete and against all expectations managed to finish as runner up in the group stage behind the host nation, ahead of heavyweights France and England. At the semi-final stage, they fought through a 2-2 draw and a penalty shootout with the reigning European champions, the Netherlands and conquered world champions Germany in the final in Gothenburg. 

From narrowly missing out, to champions of Europe and a matter of weeks. A wonderful football fairytale – unless you’re from Yugoslavia.

[Featured image courtesy of the amazing Nick Rowe – check out his series of CM97/98-inspired images on twitter here.]

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