Denmark 4 USSR 2
World Cup qualifier, Idrætsparken, Copenhagen, 5 June 1985
The weather. That's one of the first things they all mention: the players in the only Denmark side ever to defeat the mighty and mysterious USSR, the fans present at the Copenhagen ground that afternoon in 1985, or just anyone who watched the game live on TV. And even though 5 June 1985 was a bit like that perfect summer day which never materialises outside your memories — clear blue skies and a damp breeze almost too warm for early June— it seems like the weather most of all serves as a metaphor for something too big to grasp for a small nation still somewhat befuddled by the greatness of its own football team.
The Swedes — 1958 World Cup finalists and traditionally Denmark's superiors on the field — were more accustomed to success and had little trouble distilling the experience into words: Cars Stenfelt, chief football writer of the daily tabloid Expressen, travelled to Copenhagen and was in raptures the next day: "This was a football feast of fantasy and artistry that made us tremble with joy… This match will one day become a classic, with its beauty and power, its playfulness and perfection." Almost quarter of a century later, in 2009, he revisited the match in the same paper, rating it "the best game of football ever played on Scandinavian soil."
What no soul could even begin to imagine, however, was this: as the Austrian referee Horst Brummeier blew the final whistle with 90:06 minutes played and let loose an unprecedented roar of bliss in the national stadium, he also wrapped up the last great home performance by Preben Elkjær, Michael Laudrup, Frank Arnesen and the rest of the Danish Dynamite team that Fifa's Technical Committee would praise a year later for "the most spectacular football of all" during Mexico ‘86.
And after that World Cup, nothing would ever be the same again. That's how many Danes still feel, even if Richard Møller Nielsen's next generation squad pulled off that shock Euro 92 victory six years later: 1992 was the best party ever, the underdog winners made us enjoy ourselves immensely for a while. But Sepp Piontek's side of the 1980s gave us something even bigger — a legacy. The thing is, that legacy came with a thinly veiled curse that haunts Denmark's national team even today. And 5 June 1985 is right at the core of it.
The spectacle was hard for the Danes to process because we were so used to being shit. Up until the eighties, Denmark had never played in the World Cup, and only competed in the European Championship in 1960 and 1964, when it wasn't really a tournament like we know it today. From 1976-79 Denmark were managed by a man named Kurt Nielsen, who was employed part-time, resented contemporary training methods and could only be reached by phoning the tacky small-town pub he tended with his wife. He would select the squad with the ‘help' of a committee of officials representing the various local football associations, and that committee had the ability to veto his decisions. The national team hadn't, in other words, seen a real leader for decades, a Denmark manager who believed in the players and who actually wanted to win.
All that changed in July 1979, when Sepp Piontek took over from Nielsen. The 39-year-old German, who had formerly been in charge of St Pauli, Werder Bremen and Haiti, immediately began transforming the team, away from the profound lack of ambition that was deeply rooted in the Danish competitive soul. Through the decades, amateurism had been the ideal in the Danish Football Association (DBU). An antiquated notion prevailed, that the game was more pure or real if played by people who paid their bills by doing something else. And the DBU meant business, too: professionals were simply not allowed to play for the national team — not even if they were called John Hansen (top scorer in Serie A in 1950 and a scudetto winner with Juventus in 1951-52) or Harald Nielsen (Serie A top scorer two years in a row for the 1963-64 champions Bologna, as well as the most expensive player in the world at the time). Only in 1972 were the best Danish players allowed to represent their own country (in that first game, Denmark were slaughtered 5-0 by Eusebio's Portugal).
Piontek's appointment coincided with the coming of age of a golden generation of Danish players: Frank Arnesen (Ajax, Valencia and Anderlecht), Søren Lerby (Ajax and Bayern Munich), Morten Olsen (Anderlecht), Klaus Berggreen (Pisa and Roma), Jan Mølby (Liverpool) and, not least, the attacking duo of Michael Laudrup (Juventus) and Preben Elkjær (Lokeren and Verona). These players were used to winning, and saw no reason why that habit shouldn't apply to the national team, too. Piontek quickly booted out the squad's old, complacent, beer-guzzling clique, but even his new darlings were tainted by the cosy times under Kurt Nielsen the pub owner. When Piontek watched his boys ordering drinks and enjoying themselves on the flight home from a 2-0 defeat in Italy in 1980, he relocated the national team's training camp from the posh seaside town of Vedbæk to the concrete wasteland of Brøndby for two years. That was how appalled he felt about the players' lack of disappointment and regret.
When Denmark faced the USSR five years later, the team had played its way back to the yachts and the pretty girls in Vedbæk: Denmark qualified for Euro 84 in France, where the team defeated Yugoslavia 5-0 and Belgium 3-2 in two extraordinary games which saw Piontek's revolution of a team through to the semi-final. There, Denmark's nemesis for the next 10 years, Spain, won on penalties. Denmark were, in other words, flat out unlucky not to be in the final against France; clearly something very special was developing with Piontek and his ambitious pack. The nation, though, was still trying to cope with being good at football: in a television debate shortly after Euro 84, one of the more distinguished participants said in a rather self-absorbed tone, "The best thing about that European Championship was that we didn't win it." Had that happened, he reasoned, the football ‘hysteria' would have been too much to bear for any sane person. Luckily, the players didn't listen to the yelps from the ivory tower. Going through to the World Cup was a real possibility and since the USSR had stumbled against Switzerland and Ireland, a victory would put Denmark top of its group with a game in hand and four games left to play.
"Before, we would have had more respect for the opponent," remembers Per Frimann, the right-winger for Denmark in 1985 who still sports a charming, boyish grin. "Earlier, we'd say, ‘Let's do our best and try to nick the victory.' But now, we looked at ourselves as a winning team, and we'd say, ‘We can control events here, and we can deliver what's necessary to beat, well, even the USSR'— and they were among the very, very best in the world."
June 5 is Constitution Day in Denmark and, as tradition dictated, people took the afternoon off that Wednesday in 1985. The match was scheduled for four o'clock, which made the prime minister Poul Schlüter and his fellow politicians move their traditional outdoor Constitution Day speeches forward. But even then, very few listeners showed up. "The competition from the football match was too great," as the national channel DR TV phrased it in the evening news.
Carsten Werge, back then a young, gum-chewing newspaper journalist, today a stout, outspoken and loveable TV pundit, still remembers the day vividly. "I arrived at Idrætsparken several hours before the game and went for a walk in the park surrounding the stadium," he said. "Just to breathe in the atmosphere. It was a magical day — it was as if everybody knew in advance that something fantastic was going to happen."
Inside the stadium, the moustached Denmark midfielder Klaus Berggreen felt the vibe, too. "When we strolled onto the field before the game to check out the pitch, there was a noise like I had never experienced before," he said. "People were ready. They had downed a few beers, and it was a lovely summer's day. And maybe they had a belief that this team had a fair chance of beating the Russians."
A month earlier, Denmark had comfortably defeated East Germany 4-1, and many fans as well as reporters had Per Frimann down for man of the match. But to his profound disappointment, Frimann was left on the bench for the USSR game, to the benefit of Manchester United's Jesper Olsen. That attacking right side of Olsen and Berggreen would become instrumental in the course of the game and Frimann took it all in from his seat. The most telling story of the build-up to the game, however, is framed by the dark-grey plastic of a 1980's television set. As Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær positioned themselves to kick off, the camera attached itself — how could it not? — to Elkjær's ridiculously cheeky face. The Verona forward was the arrowhead in Denmark's attempt to defeat the USSR for the first time. But he was not afraid of the opposition. He was grinning at Laudrup. He was actually looking forward to what lay ahead.
There was enough to be afraid of. The previous eight fixtures against the Soviets had all ended with some degree of spanking: 1-5, 2-5, 0-3, 0-6, 1-3, 0-4, 1-2, 0-2. Or 5-30 on aggregate. And this was the USSR of Belanov, Demyanenko, Baltacha, Aleinikov, Protasov and Dassaev — managed by Eduard Malofeev but essentially forged by the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Belanov, Demyanenko and Baltacha would go on to win the European Cup-Winners' Cup with Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kyiv 11 months later. Dassaev was arguably the best keeper in the world at the time, aptly nicknamed ‘the Cat'. And the whole team benefited from the mystique generally surrounding everything Soviet. "The players were perceived as some kind of machines, who could run insanely far at an incredible speed," remembers Klaus Berggreen, "All we heard from over there was that they were training more and harder than everyone else. I guess that was why we looked at them as this big monstrosity that would be extremely hard to handle. Maybe, we thought, we could match them technically and tactically. But we probably didn't think we could hang in there physically."
And the Soviet team did little to shake off their robot image, even though a couple of the players were photographed in sombre-faced shopping mode outside the sports equipment store Frank Arnesen Sport in Strøget, the main pedestrian street of Copenhagen, the day before the match. "When it got down to communicating with them or talking to them, everything was shut down completely," said Per Frimann. "The air was ice cold."
In 1985, Denmark's relationship with the Soviet Union was complicated. On the one hand, Denmark was a founding member of Nato, so strictly speaking, we were facing the enemy himself that June afternoon. It was the free world against the enslaved masses. On the other hand, the parliamentary situation in Denmark was hopeless. The conservative prime minister, Poul Schlüter, a smooth operator also known as ‘the Perfume Salesman', was in office thanks to the centre-left party De Radikale. They would, however, conveniently switch sides whenever foreign policy in general and the nuclear arms race in particular were on the agenda. That meant that Schlüter's minority government would often travel to Nato meetings to promote proposals passed not by the government itself, but by the opposition — the social democrats, the communists and De Radikale.
This would be known as ‘the footnote policy', as most of these proposals opposed Ronald Reagan's strategy to transform western Europe into a missile launching ground in response to the Soviet Union's nuclear build-up east of the iron curtain. These footnotes in Nato's decisions made it clear that Denmark didn't wish to contribute to the nuclear arms race in any way, and that ‘the alternative majority' in the Danish parliament believed in disarmament rather than some kind of nuclear balance. When Malofeev's team travelled to Denmark, the country very much perceived itself as the peace-loving, chummy Viking accidentally squeezed in between the US and the USSR.
But this was football, and the David and Goliath imagery appealed to the tabloids. On the day of the match Ekstra Bladet displayed a large cartoon featuring a smiling Viking, having just stabbed a big, Russian, starry-eyed bear to death with his sword. This was not coincidental, the journalist Carsten Werge believes. "It was a very unusual front page for its time, very aggressive, really," he said. "And when even my [centre-right and business-orientated] paper, Berlingske Tidende, started mustering an interest in football around that time, it was probably because we were facing the Russian bear — which had to be skinned. There was a lot of politics in this, even if we say today that we could separate things. The hell we could."
Kick-off. Four in the afternoon. In the history books, the official attendance matches the capacity of Idrætsparken: 45,700, most of them standing. But Preben Elkjær begs to differ in his account of a spectacle far more impressive than today's more blasé audience at internationals. "Everybody was dressed in red and white," he told the daily broadsheet Politiken in 2005. "And they may say 45,700, but I can tell you for sure that Idrætsparken has never been that packed either before or since. The real count was way above 50,000. And the atmosphere was fantastic — just like the Russians were. They were really, really good."
Nevertheless, the Danes managed to set the tone of the game. Per Frimann watched from the bench (which was a real bench back then) and still remembers the opening moments. "After the kick-off, the ball is played back to our defence line. Then out to the left wing to Frank Arnesen, who immediately goes for the challenge — and gets a free kick just to the left of their penalty area. From the very first second the game had that kind of energy."
The free-kick was wasted, and the USSR soon showed just how gifted they were. Michael Laudrup fumbled on the right near the Soviet penalty area. The ball was passed short to Oleh Protasov, still in the first third of the pitch. He let it go to Hennadiy Litovchenko in the centre circle, who bewildered the Danish midfield strongman Søren Lerby by passing the ball first-touch around him and straight to the feet of a teammate already in position on the right wing — without even looking in that direction. Further combinations led only into the arms of the keeper Ole Qvist, but Denmark had a warning of what was to come. Malofeev preached "sincere football" and set himself up as an ideological counterpoint to Lobanovskyi, but this was the Colonel's heritage — rehearsed patterns ensuring that the players knew where to pass the ball even before it was passed to them.
But in the next minute or so Lerby and Arnesen almost broke through. This was football played at astonishing tempo: it was clearly going to be fun.
The Soviets were manifestly not comfortable with the Danish aggression. Tengiz Sulakvelidze hoofed a long ball over the touchline and the Danes started building again. During the attack, Ivan Nielsen, the full-back, risked a sliding tackle eight metres from the Soviet penalty box, presenting the ball to Elkjær — who tried lifting it over Sulakvelidze with a cartoonish heel kick. He didn't get past the square-jawed Georgian, but he was circling in on him — and had found his spot: just outside the box, on the left.
Again, a long ball from the Soviet defence. Morten Olsen, the Danish libero, snuffed out any danger by tunnelling the ball between Protasov's legs to the other full-back, Søren Busk. But Malofeev's team would not be mocked, and they began to use their physicality. As Klaus Berggreen feared, he was knocked over pretty effortlessly a few times. Jesper Olsen, too, was discreetly removed from both ball and centre circle by Ihor Belanov, as if by a silent, world-weary hitman. But the Danes kept up the pressure, and suddenly, snatching possession after a piece of overconfident short passing among the Soviet back line, the holding midfielder Jens Jørn Bertelsen found himself 12 yards from goal, one on one with Dassaev. He had plenty of time to take aim and he went for the left corner — the ball mischievously slid a yard wide. Bertelsen, the anonymous and trustworthy distributor, who personified the Danish team's blue-collar ethic, slammed both hands into the grass. He was the wrong man to get such a chance at that stage in the match. Finishing wasn't his game, and Elkjær knew this: he patted the back of Bertelsen's head understandingly — "Nice try. Next time, leave it to me."
Those opening minutes served as an abstract for the game. Soon afterwards, Michael Laudrup let us know that he was on the pitch too, with some nice skills before a low shot wide of target. Moments later, the left-back Anatoliy Demyanenko — 15 years later voted the third-best Ukrainian player ever — received the ball on the halfway line, jetted up the left flank and released a missile aimed diagonally towards Qvist's top right corner. Qvist tipped it wide and the Denmark captain Morten Olsen pointed a dissatisfied finger at the right side of his defence, barking orders.
Elkjær. Laudrup. The powerful Soviet left side of Demyanenko, Sergey Gotsmanov and Protasov. The initial Danish inability to stop them. Berggreen's struggle. The themes of the match had been sketched in a perfect overture. Then, in the 16th minute, it was time for the first movement.
Breaking a Soviet attack right on the edge of his own penalty area, Berggreen started a wave of Danish proto-tiki-taka through the middle. 15 seconds later, Berggreen took the ball again, this time on the halfway line, playing Bertelsen through the inside-right channel. Bertelsen the janitor found himself facing goal once more, just outside the penalty area on the right. But this time, probably to his relief, he had three white Soviet shirts between himself and Dassaev, as well as Elkjær and Laudrup. He passed across the middle, where Laudrup seemed to have taken a step too many towards goal. Laudrup, though, managed to shovel the ball on to Elkjær, who had returned to his favoured spot just outside the box, a bit to the left. Sulakvelidze, however, had read the whole thing, and got in front of Elkjær to toe the ball away. But it ricocheted back off the shin of a colleague to Elkjær, catching Sulakvelidze unprepared. Luck can undo the most careful preparation. Three ox-like, grunting steps deeper into the penalty area, and Elkjær's left foot thundered a merciless angled shot into the bottom-right corner. Elkjær's 28th goal in his 48th international: Denmark 1 USSR 0.
Nothing really changed, though, in terms of the pattern of the match. Demianenko and Yuri Gavrilov came again on the left and, as soon as the celebrations had died down, the Danish co-commentator Tommy Troelsen cautioned, "We have to be very careful for the next 10 minutes. Because nothing in football is more depressing than going ahead in a fixture as important as this — just to get done by an equaliser. So — the next 10 minutes: calm and quiet above all."
Preben Elkjær obviously didn't hear that, and even if he had, it was apparently too late. Luckily, something must have annoyed him that morning. "Preben's strength," said Bergreen, "as well as his weakness, was his giant ego. Whenever we neared the penalty area, there were only two things in his head: the ball and the goal, and he just had to get it in there. He would try to score in situations that no one else would. But he was especially good when he was fired up. If you'd wanted him to play a poor match, you would have run around at training next to him, chit-chatting, getting his temper down. But if you kicked him in the Achilles and got in his face a bit, he would emerge as one of the best strikers in the world."
At that point, the camera caught Sepp Piontek, anxiously chewing gum on the sideline. And he had reason to be worried. Laudrup the prodigy gave the ball away to Gotsmanov, who found Ihor Belanov with a perfect ball through the middle. Qvist saved the situation only by handballing outside the box — unnoticed by the referee. "Incredible that he doesn't blow the whistle," said the commentator Svend Gehrs, who had no idea that he was about to immortalise himself.
Elkjaer beats Dassaev from a narrow angle to make it 2-0 after 19 minutes
Qvist started the counter-attack right away, as if to cover up his illegal save. Bertelsen. Morten Olsen. Arnesen. And a long ball up to Elkjær, who needed to beat two Soviet defenders, Sergey Aleinikov as well as Sulakvelidze, to get near Dassaev's goal. He stepped on the ball, and what followed remains an iconic moment in Danish football history, probably even more so than John Jensen and Kim Vilfort's goals in the Euro 92 final — certainly it is the favourite goal of Frederik, crown prince of Denmark. Just as he had come to a standstill on that favourite piece of grass to the left of the D, every muscle in Elkjær's trimmed body exploded. There was no warning, but Aleinikov remained passive, perhaps in disbelief or perhaps certain that it could never lead to anything. But the tank-like Sulakvelidze now knew his enemy. He tried to keep pace, as Elkjær entered the penalty area, creating an angle too narrow for himself. "He goes past Sulakvelidze," the commentator Gehrs shouted, as the massive Georgian was unsentimentally pushed aside and Elkjær released another left-foot daisy-cutter. Dassaev was not prepared for the shot. No one was prepared for the shot. It was quite near the Cat's feet and he dived down to block it. But too late. The shot was too fast and too unexpected. The ball was already in the net: 2-0 with 19 minutes gone.
Elkjær fell to his knees and swung his fist as if surprised himself that this had really happened. When he got up again, his body stretched out like a bow, Jesper Olsen jumped on him like a longing girlfriend just reunited with her soldier fiancé on a station platform.
"It's a completely insane angle to shoot from!" Svend Gehrs raved into the majority of Denmark's living rooms — the match was watched by more than half the country. Utter those words now to any Danish thirtysomething, and you'll get a knowing smile. He'll know what you're referring to.
That second goal has always been kind of a mystery. How could the defence and Dassaev let that happen? "Honestly, Dassaev needs to get that one," the co-commentator said. Were they not properly prepared for Preben Elkjær Larsen, scudetto winner a fortnight earlier with Verona and voted third-best player in Europe six months before? Maybe Tengiz Sulakvelidze himself can provide part of the answer. When Denmark faced Georgia in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, Danish TV3+ sought out the former USSR defender in Tblisi for an interview. In it, he disclosed what seems to be a fatal error by Malofeev. "Before the game, in the dressing room, the manager gave us the Danish team sheet," he said. "We could see that Preben Larsen was not among the starting eleven. The whole team let out a sigh of relief."
This was the cock-up: in Italy and most of the rest of Europe, the Danish forward was always referred to as Preben Elkjær Larsen, Preben Larsen-Elkjær or sometimes just Preben Larsen. But in Denmark, nobody — not the fans, not the media, not even the DBU — called him anything but Preben Elkjær. Even today, many football fans don't know his actual surname, Larsen. That's why the name Larsen apparently didn't feature on the team sheet given to the Soviets. And as Elkjær was actually doubtful before the game due to a minor injury, the USSR camp leapt to the conclusion that he wasn't even in the squad for the game. But Sulakvelidze, of course, soon knew better. "One player turned out to be best on the pitch," he said. "The manager realised it was Larsen. Malofeev then blamed me for the goals: he claimed to have given me the task of man-marking Larsen, but my teammates backed me up. They said, "You didn't even know that Larsen was playing!" Then the manager got furious."
Sulakvelidze gave a husky laugh. "To stay in the clear, he made me, the Georgian, the scapegoat, when he wrote his report to the sports committee in Moscow. That game had serious consequences for me." Sulakvelidze wasn't capped again until three years later, when he was part of the USSR team at Euro 88. By then Malofeev had long since been ousted for the return of Lobanovskyi.
After the second Elkjær goal, Gehrs started to believe. "Denmark's team is not just one of the best in Europe," he said. "We are actually world-class. And so are these fans."
When you looked at the spectators, it really was an awesome sight. Everyone — not just the hardcore fans — was wearing something red and white, or waving a flag. It had never been like this in Idrætsparken before and it hasn't been like it since, and the atmosphere at the game has since been elevated to some kind of mystical experience. And the noise! "We couldn't communicate at all!" said Berggreen with a happy smile on his face. "It was far out. It was... it was great."
How did it come about? The weather, of course. The whole country was eagerly following a team still on its way up. And the players were remarkable. But another factor played a part: the Heysel tragedy had happened only a week before. Frits Ahlstrøm, the sports editor of the daily broadsheet Politiken and later Uefa's head of communications, was present at both games. "The TV commentators were seated just in front of me [at Heysel]," he said. "One of them was Johan Cruyff, who was there as an expert pundit for Dutch TV. When the Juventus fans were crushed, and the wall came down, this happened right before our eyes. I remember Cruyff — his face was grey, just like... like the ash from a cigar. We were paralysed. Because we were powerless."
The week between the two games saw T-shirts printed sporting slogans such as, "We're gonna smash the Russians — but only on the pitch." And Carsten Werge, then a junior journalist, is convinced that there is a connection. "I believe that the atmosphere in Idrætsparken is inseparable from what happened just days before at Heysel," he said. "At the time, we bragged that we had the best fans in the world, which was probably true, even if they were also the most inebriated. I believe that the atmosphere before, during and after the game was in part an answer to the terrible images from Heysel. It was as if the Danish fans said. ‘Let's show them how to throw a goddamn party instead!'"
2-0 and the crowd was buzzing all right, deeply in love with its team. But as far as the action on the field was concerned, the score could just as well have been 0-0. The CCCP shirts were still throwing themselves at the Danish box and, in the 23rd minute, Aleinikov and Andrei Zygmantovich, who had just come on for Litovchenko, elegantly passed their way through the centre. Zygmantovich eventually presented Gavrilov with the ball just outside the area and he struck a hard and precise shot. Not quite precise enough, though: Qvist made a beautiful but fruitless dive as the ball hits the base of the right-hand post and bounced back into play, before being cleared by Morten Olsen.
But that was the final warning. Three minutes later, Demianenko raided again down the left flank and released Protasov on the edge of the box. He turned around smartly and hammered the ball into the top right corner: 2-1.
On the video, in the build-up to the goal, you can see Jesper Olsen jogging around on the periphery of the action. This was the Soviets' third dangerous breakthrough on the flank he was supposed to be helping close down; something had to happen. "After Protasov's goal, I was told to start warming up," recalls Per Frimann. "I could push aside my disappointment, because I had a pretty strong feeling that I would come on. I knew that Sepp wanted me to start the game, and had been talked out of it by Morten Olsen, who had a great influence on Piontek's decisions. But with the game developing like this, Jesper Olsen didn't fit into it."
The USSR continued to gain ground. Zygmantovich provided pace on the right wing, but the danger was still coming from the other side. A cross from Boris Pozdnyakov was picked up by Gavrilov, who rolled it to Gotsmanov, storming ahead of him on the left. Klaus Berggreen was faced with two Soviet players with his supposed backup, Jesper Olsen, nowhere in sight. Gotsmanov took aim and, with the outside of his left foot, curled the ball onto the same post Gavrilov had hit minutes earlier. "We need Jesper to be more alert," said the co-commentator.
The trouble was that Denmark played a risky and extremely demanding 3-5-2 formation. This meant that the Danish midfield could be overwhelming for opponents when moving forward — but also that the midfielders had to take great responsibility when defending. First and foremost Klaus Berggreen on the left and Søren Lerby on the right, but also their more fragile and technically savvy counterparts: in this case Frank Arnesen and Jesper Olsen. Maybe Piontek thought that the Soviet team would be more cautious in an away game, and thus played the skilled but delicate Jesper Olsen. But as Malofeev's USSR went with an extremely fluid 4-4-2 formation, with their backs rocketing up and down the lines and Aleinikov helping out in defence, often transforming the formation to something more like 2-6-2 when attacking and 5-4-1 when defending, the Danes kept finding themselves overmanned. Demyanenko, Gotsmanov and Protasov kept working Klaus Berggreen on that left side — and continued to do so for the rest of a first half packed with an almost unbelievable amount of action.
Elkjær tried to score with a backheel, but Dassaev saved. He kept out a Berggreen header that was bound for the top left corner, and further long-range shots from Lerby and Laudrup. Gotsmanov shot just wide, again from the left. With great swagger, Ivan Nielsen backheeled a long ball away. Lerby put a simple header straight into the arms of Dassaev. Morten Olsen kept roaming about near the Soviet corner flag on the Danish right. It was a half without a single dull moment. "A nice but by no means comfortable lead," Gehrs said at half-time.
During the break, the Danish players admitted they were baffled by the opposition. "You know what, when we sat down in the dressing room, we agreed that we would never be able to cope with this pace," Elkjær said. "We had never experienced anything like it." Laudrup agreed: "We talked about their pace game, which was completely new to us — and in the second half it got even tougher. The Soviet Union had an amazing team. It worked like a machine, playing a form of total football."
Klaus Berggreen was too exhausted to talk. "We were by no means confident that we were going to win," he said. "We were ahead, yes, but the Russians had been as good as us, if not better. We were extremely focused — and there's not as much talk during the interval as people think. First of all, you're tired. You sit in a corner, sip a little tea and try to gather some energy. Then Sepp did his little pep talk, and off we went again."
Well, almost all of them. Jesper Olsen didn't come out for the second half. Instead, it was Per Frimann in his position. Within seconds, he preyed on a Soviet misunderstanding to rush the ball forward along the right touchline. He slipped it to Laudrup, but Elkjær mistimed his run for what would have been an easy opportunity. The Frimann substitution, in other words, made a noticeable impact right away. Less of a dribble wizard and more of a breakthrough player, Frimann had the work ethic to cover for Berggreen when he ventured on one of his sorties. "Per was the kind of guy you could trust if you made an arrangement with him," Berggreen remembers.
A minute or so into the second half came a minor incident in the game involving the Danish libero; something that still makes Per Frimann's eyes glow. "It's Michael Laudrup leading the ball forward on the break. And right next to him you'll see... Morten Olsen joining the counter-attack! We're not comfortably ahead or anything, but there he is. That's how we thought football should be played," he said, with no small amount of pride in his voice.
The match carried on at the same frantic pace. These two teams were not just battling for goals, but doing so with grace. And pace, technique and physique. "They're frighteningly fast, the Russians," Gehrs said.
And then, out of nowhere, came the fourth goal. Qvist, goalkeeper and part-time policeman, sent a Hail Mary flying high above the pitch. Laudrup and Elkjær were up there, in the company of Aleinikov and Baltacha. Aleinikov gained control and tried to pass it to Sulakvelidze, but Elkjær stuck out a long leg and snatched the ball. He tried to round Baltacha, but was stopped, mid-dribble. Instead, the ball rolled on to Laudrup just to the left of the penalty spot. He then made a fool out of Aleinikov with an early version of the foot-to-foot dribble that would become his trademark and placed the ball into the top right corner, out of Dassaev's reach. With 16 minutes of the second half played, the score was 3-1, and Gehrs was flying: "He's only 20 years old, but he is playing like an old, shrewd national team giant."
"I remember that goal," says Berggreen, "because we thought it was pretty funny that Preben actually passed the ball inside the area. When you watch the replay, you can tell that it's a dribble gone wrong, but we told him anyway, ‘Preben, if you passed the ball more often, maybe some of us would score more goals... But that's what he did in that situation — at least, that's what he tried to make us believe afterwards."
The crowd was ecstatic and started chanting, "Sejren er vor" ("Victory is ours"). Gehrs reacted promptly: "No it isn't! Not yet." But Denmark were in the driver's seat. Three minutes after Laudrup's goal, Lerby won a tackle in his own half. He let it go to Laudrup, just past the halfway line. Laudrup ran towards goal, with Lerby just left of him, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid facing not the Bolivian army but a Soviet defence bewildered by the extremely varied Danish game. No one knew whether to meet Laudrup or man-mark Lerby. Laudrup kept the ball tight to his feet while rushing toward the penalty area. Finally, Baltacha and Sulakvelidze dived towards the ball, but too late. Laudrup released a shot exactly from the curved line of the D. The ball took a low, straight course, kissed the right post and found rest in the back of Dassaev's net.
"It may sound completely crazy," Berggreen says, shaking his head, "but even at 4-1 we didn't feel that the game was won. Those Russians just kept on coming. They didn't understand that they had lost."
Indeed they didn't. Four minutes after Laudrup's second goal, Ivan Nielsen made what looked a clean tackle on Belanov, but a free kick was given nonetheless. Gavrilov chipped it in from the right and, after two headers — more than half the Soviet team was scavenging about near the Danish goal area — Gotsmanov thundered in a half-volley from 10 yards. Until the goal, the crowd was almost smug, singing "Sejle op ad åen" ("Sailing Up the Stream"), an old deadpan Danish party song. Gotsmanov's shot killed the chanting in a nanosecond, transforming it to uneasy muttering. And things got more hairy in the final 20 minutes.
The machine found its groove again. Belanov was unmarked, but Morten Olsen dived to block the shot. The Danes looked exhausted, rarely moving past the halfway line. Elkjær tried a futile shot from 40 metres and missed a good opportunity on the break a few minutes later. Frank Arnesen blocked a long shot on the goal line. Sepp Piontek ranted in the direction of Henrik Andersen, who had been brought on for Arnesen as a defensive measure. Pozdniakov and Kondratyev went for the same headed chance but got in each other's way. Michael Laudrup, nicknamed ‘The Ambassador' for his gentleman-like conduct throughout his career, resorted to a blatant handball, catching a Soviet pass. In those days, that wasn't even a yellow. But Denmark were being squashed under the Soviet advance.
And then, in the 87th minute, came Berggreen's moment. "That situation is pretty wild," remembers Per Frimann. "He sees so clearly that it might develop to set up a simple tap-in."
"Yes, I saw it coming," Berggreen himself said. "And then I ran."
Three minutes from time, the Soviets conducted the most beautiful attack of the whole match. A throw-in from Zygmantovich to Pozdniakov just outside the penalty area. He played it inside the box to Kondratyev, who charged to the right, before backheeling it to the re-emerging Zygmantovich. One touch, and he passed it across goal to Aleinikov, who calmly patted the ball towards the open goal. The Danes had been outplayed as they'd never outplayed the Soviets at any point in the game. The celebratory mood was strangled as a stadium held its breath. The last three minutes were going to be hell. But then, from behind Aleinichev, a man in a red shirt with the number 2 on his back came racing into the frame: Klaus Berggreen, who had hit the Soviet wall more than once but had his revenge. A second before the ball crossed the line, he diverted it round the post for a Soviet corner. Berggreen was still entangled in the goal net when Ole Qvist came rushing and gave him a bear hug, as if he had just scored at the other end of the pitch. He might just as well have.
Every machine has its limits and that was the Soviet national football team's. Springs popped out of Malofeyev's mechanics, seen in a malfunctioning pass from the magnificent Zygmantovich straight into the back of Aleinikov, standing just two metres away. And then it was over.
"The feast is perfect, the triumph is complete. It's no longer a question of whether Denmark will make it to the World Cup in Mexico," the uplifted Swedish reporter Cars Stenfeldt wrote, "but merely which medal the team is going to take home. Too much praise? No, not to us, the overjoyed eyewitnesses."
What's remarkable about the players' own reactions after the game is that they were in awe of the Soviet team they had just beaten. In a TV clip from the dressing room after the game, Per Frimann said, "They played what I would like to call real modern football. They used the wings, they came fast through the middle, they played one-two combinations and deep balls through the corridors. It was a huge experience."
It was almost like an impossible love affair, a Romeo and Juliet story with the curtain separating the Capulets and the Montagues, at least from the Danish players' point of view. They were so fascinated with the Soviets after the game that, for a moment, they almost forgot they had won. But they could, like everyone else, only ever admire the philosophy and strategy of Lobanovskyi and Malofeev from a distance.
The victory was the boost that Denmark needed to make it to the World Cup. In the end, Piontek's team won Qualifying Group 6, as well as its group in Mexico. Denmark impressed the world with victories over Scotland (1-0), Uruguay (6-1) and Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany (2-0), before imploding against Spain (1-5).
That is the shadow that Danish football will probably never be able to escape. The legacy makes it forever debatable which team you prefer: the beautiful losers of 86 or the pragmatic champions of 92. Most other nations — and surely any small nation — would have no reservations about preferring the team that took home what is likely to be the country's only major triumph. But we do. We love the feeling we all had on 26 June 1992, but we don't really love the team itself. We will never really be happy unless Frank Arnesen, Morten Olsen, Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjær, Søren Lerby and Jens Jørn Bertelsen put their kit back on and somehow all become 27 again.
And in the same way, the national team's self image still suffers from the shadow of 86. We saw this in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the team — managed by Morten Olsen — tried playing as ambitiously as the team that beat the Soviet Union, but with players of nowhere near the same calibre. Christian Poulsen is no Morten Olsen, and at times — not least in the nerve-wracking match against Cameroon — it was physically painful to watch. Denmark didn't make it past the group stage, and lost to a quick-footed but mediocre Japan in the last game.