By Floris Koekenbier
Netherlands lock horns with Denmark on Saturday in their Euro 2012 opener in Kharkiv, and it's not the first time that both sides will meet each other at a major tournament. They recently faced each other at the 2010 World Cup, but it's their encounter at Euro 1992 was by far the most memorable.
Oranje started the tournament as one of the favourites after Rinus Michels had replaced Leo Beenhakker as national team coach following a disappointing World Cup in Italy. With 'The General' back in charge, Netherlands were determined to successfully defend their European title ... but a certain Danish fairytale had a twist to the story.
Although Denmark had finished behind Yugoslavia in the qualification campaign for Euro 1992, the Danes were allowed to participate in the tournament after the war-torn Yugoslavs were banned. Reports that the Denmark players were already enjoying their holidays at the beach might be slightly exaggerated, but there's little doubt that their preparation was by no means up to scratch. The general consensus at the time was that Richard Moller Nielsen's men would return home after the group stages.
Celebration time | Denmark qualify for the semi-finals at the expense of France
Things didn't quite turn out that way, though. Denmark made a disastrous start to the tournament with a draw against England, and a defeat against hosts Sweden. They desperately needed to win their last game against France in order to keep their chances of qualifying for the semi-finals alive, and did just that as they stunned Les Bleus 2-1. Lars Elstrup was the hero as he netted the match-winner to fire Denmark through to the next round.
Netherlands, meanwhile were grouped along with Scotland, Germany and CIS. They won their opener against the Scots, before being held to a draw by CIS in their second match. Michels' men therefore needed a positive result in their last fixture against the Germans to secure a semi-final berth. Expectations were low after disappointing performances in their opening group two games, but Oranje finally lived up to the hype against arch-rivals Germany, and cruised to a 3-1 victory.
Frustration | Van Basten struggled against Kohler, and didn't score at Euro 1992
After their morale-boosting win over Die Mannschaft, the semi-final versus Denmark seemed to be a mere formality for Oranje, at least in the opinion of the Dutch. There were little doubts that Netherlands would overcome the Scandinavians and book their ticket for the final. But the team's arrogance only motivated the Danes, who were desperate to cause an upset.
Michels didn't have much information for his players on their semi-final opponents due to their last-minute acceptance into the tournament. The Danes did have a number of well-known players from the Eredivisie, though, such as Elstrup.
"We know how their kit looks. They're a team that prefer to play on the counterattack, and that's not easy to deal with, in particular when you're not fully focused," Michels stated ahead of the match.
And a lack of concentration was exactly what the Dutch showcased at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. Denmark took a surprise lead courtesy of a Henrik Larsen strike. Oranje quickly responded and Dennis Bergkamp restored parity. Nevertheless, the Danes retaliated themselves and Larsen found the net to make it 2-1 before the interval. Frank Rijkaard eventually levelled the scoring again in the dying minutes of normal time after a Richard Witschge corner, thus sending the game into extra-time.
Heads up | Henrik Larsen nets Denmark's second goal of the game
Unstoppable | Larsen celebrates his second goal as the Dutch can't contain the striker
Neither of the two teams managed to find the net in the breathtaking 30 minutes of extra-time. Netherlands created plenty of chances, but the phenomenal Peter Schmeichel proved to be too much of an obstacle. The match went into a penalty shoot-out, and it was here that Oranje's spot-kick demons were born. Marco van Basten, who hadn't scored yet at Euro 1992, stepped up to take the Dutch's second penalty, but the AC Milan striker's attempt was kept out by Schmeichel.
Shortly after, queue Kim Christofte to take the decisive penalty. The Dane sent Hans van Breukelen the wrong way, thus sending Denmark into the showpiece. Netherlands. meanwhile were left shell-shocked: How was it possible that this team had eliminated the mighty Dutch?
No way through | Schmeichel beats Van Basten to the ball after a dangerous cross
Denmark's reward was a date against Germany in the final, and the whole of Europe predicted a win for Die Mannschaft as it appeared almost impossible for the Danish Dynamite to pull off yet another shock.
One would expect that the Germans had learned their lesson from Oranje's lacklustre performance in the semi-finals, but Berti Vogts' men failed to heed the warning signs. Despite the energy-sapping 120 minutes of football against the Dutch, Denmark seemed rejuvenated for the final, despite the absence of Henrik Andersen due to injury, and their poor preparation for the tournament.
Yet another superb performance from Schmeichel, who frustrated the Germans time and time again, helped Denmark to the European title, as their counterattacking football paid off handsomely. John Jensen opened the scoring before the break as Germany continually struggled to contain their frustrations. Jurgen Klinsmann, Andreas Brehme and Stefan Effenberg all failed to keep their composure and lead their side, and the world champions were booked five times. Kim Vilfort put the match to bed just a little over 10 minutes before the final whistle.
Denmark had done the unthinkable and made history in Gothenburg. Every Danish team since have been compared to the heroes of 1992. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will ever produce another generation capable of winning a major international trophy. Twenty years after their last success, they have another shot at the title, and Netherlands, as well as Germany, are again one of the obstacles they will have to overcome.
Danish delight | A jubilant Brian Laudrup shows the fans the trophy