In 1992 Europe was changing, and that was also felt on the football arena. A united Germany participated for the first time in the European Championships, while the dissolution of the USSR had meant that they participated as a composed team of “Community of Independent States”. But more directly the events unfolding in Europe affected directly on one of the participating teams. Denmark had in their qualifying group ended behind Yugoslavia, who at the time had one of the strongest teams in the world. But in 1992 the terrible civil war that was tearing apart this southern European country was in full force, and UN sanctions meant that the Yugoslavs, who had qualified ahead of Denmark, were not permitted to participate. Instead, Denmark were called in hastily; players were recalled from their summer vacation to go to neighboring Sweden to play three matches against England, Sweden and France, in what pretty much everyone, including the Danes themselves, considered to be lost matches beforehand. The hosts were highly motivated with a strong side that had prepared long for the tournament. England were hoping for Euro success finally, while France had a team of superstars under Michel Platini, that most people considered favourites for the title.
But Denmark surprised everyone: they opened with a respectful 0-0 against England, which they could have won. They then lost 0-1 to Sweden, and when most people thought Denmark were out of the tournament, they pulled the sensation in their last group match, defeating France 2-1 and thus making it to the Euro semi-finals behind Sweden.
Despite the Danish team being somewhat unprepared for the tournament it was not a wholly inexperienced side. They were missing their superstar Michael Laudrup, who had refused to play under coach Richard Moller Nielsen, but had his brother Brian Laudrup, from Bayern Munich, as one of the technically most gifted players in Europe. In goal Denmark had Manchester United's Peter Schmeichel, widely considered one of the best in the world, and a solid defense of experienced players around Trabzonspor's Lars Olsen, who captained the side. Other of the experienced players from the side were Borussia Dortmund's Flemming Poulsen, Brondy's John Jensen, FC Cologne's Henrik Andersen, or the AS Monaco veteran John Sivebaek.
The Netherlands were huge favourites before the semifinal match. As defending champions they had made it to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup, only to lose to the later champions of Germany, and the final of this tournament was widely expected to be a clash between the two giants. They had already faced one another in the group stages, where the Dutch had won 3-1, and after defeating Scotland and tying the CIS, they had every reason to be confident against the Danish minnows. The side had the AC Milan trio as its dynamo: captain Ruud Gullit, Frank Riijkaard, and the best striker in the world, Marco Van Basten. In defense FC Barcelona's Ronald Koeman was also a powerful free-kick taker, and the young Dennis Bergkamp from Ajax Amsterdam gave the team further attacking power.
The Netherlands were rightly considered to be one of the best teams in the world, and they also entered the pitch as a team that had won beforehand. But the Danes, without the pressure of expectation, were ready to give everything in a match that became an epic struggle.
The Dutch team had barely settled into the match when Brian Laudrup got through on the right side, and from the back line centered into the Dutch area. At the far post a completely unmarked Henrik Larsen from Lyngby, could easily head the ball in behind Hans Van Breukelen to the surprise of everyone present. While the goal may have given the Danes some belief, the Dutch side quickly shook the initial shock and put pressure on the Danes. 18 Minutes after the Danish goal, Dennis Bergkamp equalized for the Dutch when he received the ball from Frank Rijkaard at the edge of the Danish area and patiently placed the ball in the furthest corner of the Danish goal. But the Danes were unshaken, and ten minutes later the Danes went ahead again. Henrik Larsen was again the unlikely hero when he received a loose ball headed out of the Dutch area and resolutely took a shot.
Denmark were sensationally ahead 2-1 at half-time, deservedly, playing with a solid defense and a dangerous counter-attack. In the second half the hard-fighting Danish defense were tested again and again, and when the Dutch finally got through, their shots were saved by a splendid Peter Schmeichel. As the minutes ticked away it seemed as if they might pull the sensation, but four minutes before time Frank Rijkaard equalized for the Dutch when he hammered the ball in at close range after a corner kick.
Denmark continued fighting heroically in extra time, even pulling a few chances, and one man down when Henrik Andersen got his knee-cap destroyed in one of the most horrific TV injuries in modern football. In the end, both teams were dead-tired when the match ended, and it went into penalty shoot-out. Two great goalkeepers faced each other. On the Netherlands second kick, Peter Schmeichel saved Marco Van Basten's shot. A good save, but as Schmeichel later said, it was luck. And with some cool and much luck, the Danes scored on their subsequent shots until it came down to Kim Christofte's last shot. A cool and soft shot almost at the center of goal totally confused Van Breukelen, and the Danes had pulled out one of the most unlikely surprises in modern football, making it to the final, where they completed the sensation by defeating the German world champions 2-0, showing that their victory against the Dutch European champions had been no coincidence.
Gothenburg, 22nd June 1992
Nye Ullevi Stadium
Referee: Emilio S. Aladren, Spain
Netherlands-Denmark 2-2 (AET)
Penalty kicks: Netherlands-Denmark 4-5
Netherlands: Hans van Breukelen; Frank de Boer (Wim Kieft, 46), Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Adri van Tiggelen, Ruud Gullit, Rob Witschge, Jan Wouters, Dennis Bergkamp, Bryan Roy (John vant Schip, 115), Marco van Basten. Coach: Rinus Michels
Denmark: Peter Schmeichel; Henrik Andersen, Kim Christofte, Lars Christian Olsen, Torben Piechnik, John Sivebaek, John Jensen, Henrik Larsen, Kim Vilfort, Brian Laudrup, Flemming Povlsen. Coach: Richard Møller Nielsen
0-1 Larsen (5)
1-1 Bergkamp (23)
1-2 Larsen (33)
2-2 Rijkaard (86)
Van Basten missed for the Netherlands