Game by game, the impossible has seemed just a little bit more possible. Every tournament Denmark have entered since winning the Euros in 1992 have been prefaced with a “surely-it-can’t-happen-again” feeling in the country, a resignation that lightning does not strike twice on the international football scene.
Yet here we are with Denmark a mere two games from repeating what the heroes from 1992 did. Can they do it? Absolutely, according to the man who scored the most goals for Denmark in Sweden that summer 29 years ago, Henrik Larsen.
“I really think they can do it,” he tells the Guardian. “It’s only two games. Anything can happen. For us back in 92 it was just such a massive experience to come back to Denmark and drive around in a double-decker bus and celebrate with all the fans. I would just love for this group of young players to experience what we did.”
There is one major similarity between the two Denmark teams: their biggest star was and is missing. But for very different reasons. In 1992 Michael Laudrup was not there after a falling-out with the coach, Richard Møller Nielsen. In 2021, Christian Eriksen cannot be part of it after suffering a cardiac arrest in the opening game. Thankfully he seems in good health and the country has been boosted by that, but Eriksen cannot help the team on the pitch.
There are differences too, the main one being that in 1992 Denmark did not actually qualify for the tournament. But because of the war in Yugoslavia the Danes were called up at short notice as a replacement.
The Danish league finished just five days before the first group game in Sweden. Some players travelled from that while others where holidaying around the world when the call came. “We took the ferry to Sweden on Monday and then we trained a bit,” Larsen says. “But it was nothing like a normal preparation for a tournament. It was very relaxed and very informal. I called it the National Lampoon training camp. And frankly we all thought it was going to be three defeats and then holiday time.”
Larsen ended up being Denmark’s top goalscorer with three, which was enough to share the Golden Boot with Tomas Brolin, Dennis Bergkamp and Karl-Heinz Riedle. “I had four shots and two headers on goal that tournament so it wasn’t too bad,” Larsen says.
The former midfielder, who won 39 caps and was given the nickname Store Larsen (Big Larsen), believes that a strong team spirit is key to the success of the Danish national team down the years. Things may have been relaxed back in 1992 but they were a group who enjoyed each other’s company and who worked for each other.
It is the same with the 2021 version. They are happy together, and that includes the players who are not playing. The former Huddersfield defender Mathias Zanka Jørgensen, now with FC Copenhagen, has not played a single minute but is still an integral part of the squad. He is the dressing room DJ and an important, experienced player who is there to guide the younger ones. And it was him walking by the side of Eriksen’s stretcher that horrible night against Finland.
The players are enjoying themselves. They return to a have dinner together after every match. Even if it is 2am. “History shows we are getting far in some of these tournaments while having fun at the same time,” Larsen says. “Many of the other teams perhaps have too many individualists. Just look at a team like France where they clearly have had issues within the group, not only this year but other tournaments too. Denmark is more of a group. We are more social. That’s important when you’re together for a month.
His mind turns to the weeks in Sweden in 1992. “We went for a swim and trained a bit,” he says, admitting that they perhaps had a bit more fun than Kasper Hjulmand’s side. “We played crazy golf. We went to McDonald’s and the Germans were looking at us with envy. They were drinking milk while we had a couple of beers.”
A couple? “OK, probably more like nine or 10 and staying up until 6am once,” he says. “But like with this team, it was the team that was the star and that is a big advantage. We were hard to play against. The Germans told us after the final that we were just constantly within half a yard of them and on them constantly. We chased them and chased them and were all over them. That worked well.”
Denmark needed to win their last group game in 1992, and did so, 2-1 against France after Larsen had scored. In Euro 2020, Denmark again needed to win their final group fixture and emerged 4-1 winners against Russia. “Sometimes it’s better to be pushed against the wall. It makes you play more freely. You know you just have to go out and win. There are no other options,” he says.
After this summer’s victory in the quarter-final against the Czech Republic the Danish team returned to their base in Elsinore – a small city north of Copenhagen – and were welcomed by thousands of Danish fans, dressed in red and white and singing the national anthem and football songs.
People in Denmark have come out in their thousands too, gathering in fan parks and town squares to watch the game together. The scenes have been wild, a combination of pride and joy at the end of Covid restrictions contributing to a party feel around the country.
People are feeling free for the first time in more than a year and the team will take on England with freedom too. They have nothing to lose. They were practically out of the tournament after what happened to Eriksen and the defeat to Finland on that night. They could have gone out and no one would have blamed them or criticised them.
But they fought back and in the meantime have won the hearts and minds of the majority of the football world. They are now up against 60,000 fans at Wembley, the vast majority of them supporting England, but Larsen is still optimistic.
“Before the game I think it’s about 60-40 in England’s favour,” he says. “I think it will be a draw after 90 minutes and then we will see. It will be tougher for England the further the game goes on if it does not look as if they will win. Maybe it will go to penalties and they don’t have a great history of that. Just ask their coach.”
He says the last bit very much tongue-in-cheek but is serious when it comes to Denmark’s chances to win the tournament. He – and they – have the belief. Maybe lightning can strike twice after all.