Denmark 3 Belgium 2
European Championship group stage, Stade de la Meinau, Strasbourg, 19 June 1984
Pop isn’t the only thing which eats itself. In football, pretty much everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. Yet there has never been a match quite like the one between Belgium and Denmark at Euro 84. It was a genre-bender that could have been enjoyed equally by characters Danny Dyer, Kevin Keegan, Jerry Bruckheimer and Frank Skinner: a warped fairy tale that had extremes of aggro, romance, drama, comedy and football brilliance.
What sets the match apart even more – even 32 years later – is that most of the aggro occurred between teammates. Nine of the players were at Anderlecht and what happened when they came up against each other in Strasbourg gave new meaning to a club v country row.
Even before the tournament they knew their match would probably be decisive, especially as it was the final group game. “It’s amusing right now, but I doubt that any of us think that it is amusing when it gets serious,” said Morten Olsen, the Danish captain and Anderlecht sweeper. “It can’t be very nice having to battle against your club mates for something as attractive as the European Championship.”
It was attractive and exclusive. Between 1980 and 1992 there were only eight teams in the tournament, which meant considerable jeopardy in qualification. Italy, the world champions, won only one of their eight qualifiers for Euro 84 and finished fourth behind Romania, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. In Group 6, Northern Ireland won home and away to the reigning European champions West Germany yet still did not reach France, while the Netherlands missed out when Spain – needing an 11-goal win in their final game – miraculously and mysteriously beat Malta 12-1.
Denmark were given little chance when they were drawn with England and Hungary, who had set a new World Cup record by beating El Salvador 10-1 in 1982. The Danes had only ever qualified for one major tournament, Euro 64, and the only teams they beat to reach that were Malta, Albania and Luxembourg. Their first qualifier for Euro 84 was at home to England, playing their first game under Bobby Robson. Although Denmark needed a gorgeous last-minute solo goal from Jesper Olsen, in which he demonstrated his peerless sleight of hip, to earn a 2-2 draw, even Robson said that England had been battered.
A year later Denmark won 1-0 at Wembley, a landmark victory for their emerging side, and went on to qualify at England’s expense. Belgium comfortably won a relatively easy Group 1, which also included Scotland, Switzerland and East Germany. They were European Championship aristocracy – semi-finalists in 1972, finalists in 1980 – and, like Denmark, had an exceptional generation who were mercifully described by nobody as “golden”.
A bribery scandal that broke early in 1984, relating to a Standard Liège match two seasons earlier, meant that a number of Belgium players were suspended, including Eric Gerets and Walter Meeuws. Both were regulars in the defence – as was Michel Renquin, who chose to play in the Swiss Cup final with Servette rather than go to the European Championship. Guy Thys needed almost a completely new defence.
It showed. After beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in their opening game, they were walloped 5-0 by the hosts France, with Michel Platini scoring the first of his two hat-tricks in the group stage. Denmark had lost 1-0 to France in the first game, when the great Allan Simonsen – still Denmark’s only Ballon d’Or winner, back in 1977 – suffered a cruel leg-break in his first major tournament match. A few days later they thrashed Yugoslavia 5-0, which put them ahead of Belgium on goal difference. It was a group game in name and a knockout game in nature: with the hosts France already through to the semi-finals, there was only room for one of Denmark or Belgium to reach the last four.
Anderlecht were not Belgian champions – Beveren pipped them – but they had reached the final of a very strong Uefa Cup (including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Inter, Atlético and Celtic) before losing to Spurs on penalties. That said, it was later confirmed that the referee had been bribed during their semi-final win over Nottingham Forest. Eight of their players started the match at the Euros, six for Belgium, two for Denmark, with another – Denmark’s Kenneth Brylle – on the bench. This was unusual back then, but Denmark had a jump start on globalisation. Fourteen of their twenty-man squad played overseas; the other seven teams had only five overseas-based players out of 140.
“We are all professionals and can’t take anything else into account,” said Franky Vercauteren. “Morten Olsen and Frank Arnesen are two of my very good friends in Anderlecht, but if it is necessary I will commit one of the ‘professional’ fouls on them. They have to be stopped legally or illegally. I know that Morten has the same view. We’ll drink a beer and chat about things afterwards. Nobody bears a grudge in this business, unless somebody goes over the top and sends a man to hospital. But that won’t happen, at least not intentionally, tonight.”
There were other Danish players based in Belgium, including the centre-forward Preben Elkjær. He played for Lokeren, whose rivals were Beveren, whose former goalkeeper was the feisty Jean-Marie Pfaff. He and Elkjær couldn’t stand each other. “Belgium in those days were a very good team,” says Elkjær. “I’m married to a Belgian, and many of us were playing against teammates. You just can’t lose a game like that.”
What followed was like a training game – an Anderlecht training game. “I expected it to be a little bit nasty,” says Per Frimann, the young Anderlecht midfielder who did not make the Denmark squad. “The mentality at Anderlecht was that you played tough in training. There was a very good winning energy – I had never experienced that before. These were top players who really wanted to win. They were clever guys and they were good guys but they were also very competitive. They didn’t back off. And everything started with the training. Part of what happened with the Danish national team also came from this spirit.”
That spirit manifested itself after 12 seconds in Strasbourg, when Vercauteren committed the first foul of the match on Klaus Berggreen. Arnesen later said he had heard from Belgian journalists and players that Thys, the manager, had “told the players that the only thing they had to do was butcher us from the start.” Not that Denmark were innocent bystanders. In the second minute Elkjær left a passing elbow on Rene Vandereycken, who soon after left a foot in on Søren Lerby when the ball had long gone.
Vandereycken was on the ball more than anyone in the early stages and was trying to run the game in more ways than one. He was constantly waving his hands at the East German referee, Adolf Prokop, though he was not alone in trying to influence the official. Prokop did not lose control of the match, because he did not have it in the first place. The players made it desperately difficult for him. Many of them seemed determined to win by foul means or fouler.
In the 13th minute Vercauteren’s tackle on Berggreen unwittingly sent Elkjær through on goal. Pfaff charged from his line and jumped towards the ball with both feet off the ground. Elkjær got there first, knocked the ball round Pfaff and was sent flying. It looked a clear penalty, though Pfaff instantly wagged his finger in an attempt to smooth Prokop’s decision-making process. By then Prokop had already waved play on. Denmark had another penalty appeal rejected soon after, following a thrilling dribble from Arnesen. He ignored Vandereycken’s sliding tackle, nutmegged Michel de Wolf on the edge of the area and fell over after a collision with the last man Walter De Greef. There was a tangle of legs, though it was hard to discern if there was any intent from De Greef. It looked a fair decision.
The first half was a stop-start affair in more ways than one: every time the game stopped, the players started on each other. “Regrettably it must be said that much of the play by both teams, especially the first half, reduced football to a level where it was almost worthless,” wrote David Miller in the Times. “The fouling, mostly obstruction by blatant tripping with no thought of the ball, by two teams rich in skill and intelligence, was instant, incessant and often more cynical than in the World Cup final.”
Belgium were the more brazen offenders: when Vandereycken clearly hacked Arnesen on the right wing, both he and Jan Ceulemans repeatedly made the universal signal for a dive. Arnesen and Vandereycken were roommates at Anderlecht, with an unusually strong bond: they both suffered serious injuries upon joining the club and helped each other through their rehabilitation. Vandereycken was a constant source of encouragement in Arnesen’s attempt to be fit for Euro 84. He was also white-line fever on legs. “I was not a nice person on the field,” said Vandereycken. “But having a player like that is so important. I would like to have a Vandereycken in my team.”
There were a few Vandereyckens on both sides. Morten Olsen needed stitches after being elbowed by Vercauteren, his Anderlecht teammate, as they jumped for a high ball. The actual football was generally dictated by which team needed a goal. The situation in the group – and the fact that, unlike a knockout game, there was no recourse to penalties – meant that one team always needed to score to avoid elimination. Early on, that was Belgium. Nico Claesen, the diminutive forward who later went to Spurs, lobbed an overhead kick not far over the bar, and Ole Qvist had to beat away Erwin Vandenbergh’s snapshot.
Belgium took the lead in the 26th minute, when Vandereycken’s inswinging free-kick skimmed off the head of Olsen and flashed across the box to Georges Grün. He cushioned it towards Ceulemans, who was loitering 15 yards from goal. As Ceulemans controlled the ball, it spun awkwardly off the pitch. With his right foot planted, he stretched his left leg as far as possible so that he could get just of his around the ball to drag a stiff-sinewed shot in off the near post. It was a deceptively superb finish.
Arnesen had a goal disallowed almost immediately, a lovely chip on the run from Lerby’s pass. Arnesen was onside but Elkjær, slow to retreat, was in an offside position. This was a time when Bill Nicholson’s comment – “if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?” – generally applied to offside and the fact that Elkjær was not directly involved was irrelevant.
Belgium’s goal ended any stick-or-twist dilemma for Denmark, who started to become more of an attacking threat. Even Jens Jørn Bertelsen, the little defensive midfielder who scored only two goals in 69 international appearances, had a long-range shot that was saved by Pfaff.
All the while, Vandereycken was trying to ensure that a full set of Danish players visited the turf on his watch. When they were running back upfield after a Denmark corner, Vandereycken slyly tripped Berggreen, a gesture of admirable pointlessness. A couple of seconds later, as the camera concentrated on a battle for possession by the touchline, it was possible to discern in the background an arm clouting Vandereycken around the head and sending him to the floor.
Even the brilliant teenagers, Michael Laudrup and Enzo Scifo, were dragged down. When they went for a 50-50 ball, an accidental collision left Scifo down holding his face.
Denmark were in big trouble when Belgium scored again six minutes before half-time. The goal came out of nothing, from a throw-in just inside the Denmark half on the left. It was flung down the line to Vercauteren, who headed it infield away from Bertelsen and then, as it bounced up, drove a spectacular lob over Qvist.
When Denmark kicked off, they needed to score two goals in 50 minutes to reach the semi-finals. Within 20 seconds they had a penalty. After fine play from Laudrup, Elkjær tried a Cruyff-turn in the box and went over De Greef’s leg. It looked soft, certainly compared to the one Elkjær was denied earlier in the match. “Preben Elkjær,” said Pfaff after the game, “is the world’s biggest actor.”
The penalty was taken by Arnesen. At the best of times he ran with the urgent pitter-patter of a man in dire need of the nearest Armitage Shanks and here he couldn’t get to the ball fast enough. When he did, he sidefooted it high into the net. The immediacy of the goal meant that Denmark’s task never really felt unmanageable, though it might have done had Ole Rasmussen not made a vital interception from Ceulemans just before half-time.
Belgium brought on a midfielder for an attacker at the break, with Internazionale’s Ludo Coeck replacing Claesen. Within two minutes they had a great chance to make it 3-1, when Denmark’s cavalry charge offside trap failed and Vandenbergh ran on to Ceulemans’s superb first-time pass. He was an accomplished finisher – and is the only Belgian to have won the European Golden Boot – but he sidefooted his shot too close to Qvist, who had charged to the edge of the area to make the defining save of his career.
The match continued to oscillate between football and fouling. At the other end Elkjær tripped Leo Clijsters, whose momentum took him into a forward roll. As he did so he thrust his leg up into Elkjær’s thigh to trip him. Elkjær bounced up, collected the ball and shaped to volley it at Clijsters’s face. As Clijsters flinched, Elkjær gently flicked the ball up and ran off. The word razz probably wasn’t in the dictionary then, but this was, at least in context, a relatively playful incident; the two players shook hands a few seconds later.
Sepp Piontek, Denmark’s German manager, then decided to try his last throw of the dice – even though there were 34 minutes remaining. He brought Brylle, the young Anderlecht striker, on for Rasmussen. Piontek almost patented the tactic of replacing a defender with an attacker if his side were one goal down early in the second half. It backfired spectacularly at Mexico 86 when Denmark – 2-1 down to an inferior Spain side in the second round, having breezed through the Group of Death – were shredded on the counter-attack and lost 5-1.
The margins are scarily fine in major tournaments and here Piontek’s decision had an instant impact. Within four minutes of coming on, Brylle scored with his first touch in tournament football. The goal was made by the inevitable Arnesen. He may have been playing in central midfield for once, but he still found time to demonstrate his ingenious wing-play. Like so many of his teammates he had a devastating change of pace and there were few players in world football with as many imaginative ways to beat an opponent; one speed-shuffle against West Germany at Mexico 86 in particular took the breath away. This, by contrast, was all about economy: from the moment he approached Vandereycken on the left corner of the box, he needed just three touches to create the goal.
The first dragged the ball slightly to the left, tempting Vandereycken to prepare a slide tackle; the second, perfectly weighted, pushed it towards the byline and allowed him to scoot away from Vandereycken; and with the third he stood up a lovely left-footed cross that took Pfaff out of the game at the near post and allowed Brylle to jump between De Greef and Coeck and head into the net from a few yards. Brylle had bitten the hand that would feed him; later in life he changed his nationality to Belgian.
In the minutes after Brylle’s goal, the game put the ‘asbo’ in ‘Strasbourg’. De Greef was booked for a challenge on Elkjær, and Arnesen was very late on De Wolf, even if his instant apology seemed sincere. De Wolf took his frustration out on Laudrup’s right leg.
It is easy to imagine Vandereycken’s internal monologue at this point. When Arnesen swerved past him once again, just past the halfway line, Vandereycken scraped his studs across Arnesen’s knee. It was an appallingly high challenge, especially as the ball had not left the floor – and that this was the same knee that had kept Arnesen out for so long. With friends like that, who needs friends?
Vandereycken immediately signalled that he had won the ball, a preposterous lie. As Arnesen screamed with a combination of pain, outrage and confusion, Olsen charged towards Vandereycken. He smashed the ball in his direction, just missing him, and then shoved him over. Olsen was one of the most serene footballers around, yet even he had lost it. “Vandereycken is a great guy,” said Olsen in the marvellous film Og det var Danmark. “We all forgot we were club mates. We played for our countries. Now, my own reaction surprises me. If I had a gun, I’d have shot him.”
Vandereycken was booked, one of only two yellow cards in the match. (By contrast, the semi-final involving Denmark and Spain, a much gentler game, brought nine yellow cards and a red. It was refereed by George Courtney.) There were times – particularly in that furious spell after Brylle’s goal – when the match looked like a Quentin Tarantino set, with bodies strewn everywhere.
Grün staggered around holding his face, being held upright by Pfaff, after accidentally head butting his teammate De Wolf, and Vandereycken tried to use Berggreen as a deckchair on the edge of the box. Berggreen was then floored by a two-footed tackle by Coeck, while Vandereycken wrapped his hand around Berggreen’s face and pushed him over. On it went: Vandereycken fouled Arnesen yet again and, summoning the unyielding righteousness of the guilty, indicated another dive. Scifo threw the ball at Arnesen’s back when he was on the floor. Piontek decided to protect Denmark’s no-goal lead, and Arnesen’s bone structure, by replacing him with the young defender John Sivebæk.
When the Belgian substitute Eddy Voordeckers went on a storming run from the halfway line, Lerby tried and failed to trip him from behind. Ivan Nielsen got the job done with a brazen foul just outside the area and followed it with an even more brazen complaint that he had won the ball.
The moment of the match came in the 84th minute. It was a microcosm of the match, too, a mixture of skill, human spirit and unapologetic brutality. Elkjær picked up Nielsen’s clearing header and realised nobody was near him. So he turned and started to run, and he kept running until he had scored the greatest goal of his career.
Elkjær had support only from Laudrup, with three defenders back. He got past the halfway line and tried to sprint between De Greef and Clijsters, who stretched to make a successful slide tackle. The ball hit the heel of De Greef and looped back to Elkjær, whose deft half-volley moved the ball forward at an angle. Then he flicked it the other way, past De Greef, to move through on goal, and as Pfaff tried to put him off, maim him or both with a diabolical foot-first challenge, Elkjær stretched wearily to dink the ball into the net. Pfaff’s studs cut his thigh open but Elkjær was so lost in the moment that he didn’t realise: he cashed in the last bit of energy in his legs to run a few yards in celebration before rolling over in a clumsy cartwheel and lying on his back, waiting to be buried under adoring teammates.
He scored smoother goals – not to mention a World Cup hat-trick – but this was his finest moment in a Denmark shirt, because of the significance and manner of the goal. It was Elkjær in excelsis. As with his most famous club goal, scored without his right boot for Verona against Juventus in 1984, nothing in the world was going to stop him. He was the personification of determination – which was even more impressive given that he could have been a poster boy for smoking. As well as demonstrating considerable heart, the goal was a masterpiece of skill and improvisation. “Unbelievable!” said Svend Gehrs, the Danish John Motson, as the ball drifted into the net. “That man is fantastic!”
In the mid-1980s, before Marco van Basten reached his elegant peak, Elkjær was the best centre-forward in the world. He was the inspiration for Verona’s staggering Serie A win in 1984-85 and he finished third, second and joint fourth in the Ballon d’Or between 1984 and 1986.
When play restarted, and the adrenaline hit started to subside, Elkjær felt the pain in his thigh, noticed a huge gash and started waving angrily to the sidelines. Medical science was less sophisticated back then: somebody ran on sheepishly, dabbed a sponge in the vague direction of Elkjær’s thigh and scarpered.
Belgium needed two goals and knew they were done, but there was still time for another chapter in the ongoing hate story between Elkjær and Pfaff. As Elkjær chased a through ball, Pfaff charged a long way out of his area. Elkjær, sensing that Pfaff might want to give him a matching gash on the other leg, jumped out of the way – and in doing so knocked his boot against Pfaff’s head. It looked accidental, though Vandereycken didn’t think so. A performance of heroic misanthropy peaked when he completely misplaced his excrement: he gave the referee the thumbs up, then clapped him, all the while wearing a huge false smile.
It seemed that Vandereycken had lost an important part of his brain, somewhere in a field in Strasbourg. In fact, he was just in character. When the final whistle went, he embraced Elkjær and some of the other Danish players.
Denmark celebrated with the naive disbelief that had characterised their run ever since they drew 2-2 with England in the first qualifier. On Danish TV, Gehrs described them as “this unconquerable team of optimists”. They were no angels, and played their part in the more deviant elements of this match, but their game was largely characterised by the charming innocence that is usually only evident when a team or nation are exploring uncharted territory.
There was not even a token attempt to seem impartial on Danish TV. When they cut back to the studio, the host Hans-Georg Møller tooted a horn, whipped a comedy Danish cap onto his head and said: “How about that?” to his co-hosts.
Gehrs went straight to the TV studio to interview a number of the players. That was the plan, anyway. Only Bertelsen, the little Duracell bunny, had enough energy left. He broke off from a question about his club future to send a message to Simonsen. “There is something that falls close to my heart which is that we miss one of our steady guys down here and we think a lot about him at home,” he said. “About wee Allan who I am absolutely sure would have loved to have been here. We send our regards to him.”
That was not the only bittersweet element to the victory: Elkjær was told straight after the game that his grandfather had died a few days earlier. Elkjær’s wife decided to keep the news from him until after he’d played. The parents of Boris Becker did something similar during his famous Wimbledon victory a year later. Becker said he would never have won Wimbledon had he been told. The story of Denmark’s 1980s side could be similarly different.
With that Denmark team, the final whistle was rarely the end of the match. They had what was known as the “third half”, the post-match socialising. There were five days to the semi-final, so Piontek let his players off the leash and they sat around drinking and eating with Danish fans at the team hotel. There is one picture of Laudrup, Nielsen and Jan Mølby eating burgers so big that Laudrup can barely fit his into his mouth. Arnesen sat at the bar strumming his guitar and the only thing that had an ice bath were the beers. “It was a lovely night,” said Olsen. “We drank beer and wine, but nobody crossed the line.”
The locals were fascinated by Denmark’s refuelling habits. “What a third half,” said L’Équipe. “The Danish players are really healthy. After the deciding win over Belgium they held an all-night party. And that didn’t hurt them. Their manager Sepp Piontek gave them a 5am curfew and the win was celebrated appropriately. Some players were spotted in the hallway at 6am. Breakfast was served at midday and lunch at 5pm.”
Piontek was unhappy with such reports. “There is no point in sending the players to bed at 1am after such a big game, rather than, say, 5am,” he said. “That’s fine by me. It’s also OK if they drink 5, 10 or 15 beers and smoke some cigarettes. The players just have to keep the agreements. And if that means breakfast at 11, then they have to show up. And they did. What’s upsetting me is that foreign journalists are snooping around our hotel and searching for ‘scandals’.”
Denmark’s fairy tale ended in the semi-finals, when they lost a penalty shoot-out to Spain, the team who would become their nemesis. They would have met Belgium again in the quarter-finals of Mexico 86 but for that shocking 5-1 defeat to Spain. Instead Belgium went on to the semi-finals, where they lost 2-0 to Diego Maradona.
At Anderlecht, life went on as normal. What happened in Strasbourg stayed in Strasbourg. “There aren’t any problems,” said Arnesen a few months later of his relationship with Vandereycken. “We talked about it just after we got back from our summer holiday. He played for Belgium. Afterwards, you can think about it but not during the game. I guess he had also become tired of me running past him all the time.”