The charm of Mexico 86
While talking about the glory days of Denmark Football, without a second thought, the Euro triumph in 1992 comes first and after the Euro 2020, this story would be cited in years to come, but in between the fetas of Euro 1992 and 2020; the story of the dazzling Danes in Mexico 1986 is forgotten most of the times.
The Denmark of Mexico 86 played the brand of football which Brazil displayed four years ago in Spain.
While Laudrup called them “Europe’s answer to Brazil”, most went for what was probably an even more flattering comparison: they are the only side to have been widely compared to the Dutch team of the 70s. In that respect, Denmark were both derivative and thrillingly futuristic.
The Danes played with style and borrowed heavily from the Dutch team of 1974 to implement their philosophy. A handful of the squad left Denmark for Ajax as youngsters and quickly immersed themselves in a possession-based system built around awareness, movement and intelligence.
The Guardian stated, “And even though time has not been kind to their array of tomboy mops, matted thatches and cock-rock mullets, they were seriously cool in a languorous, quintessentially Scandinavian way. Yet unlike the Dutch, they were not ostentatious. Self-deprecation was the norm, and they revelled in their role as underdogs.”
“This was the beauty and the beast of Danish Dynamite: it was a love affair with chain-smoking, beer-drinking everymen who were actually top professionals at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but the considerable joy was tinged with the subconscious fear that the folksy, light-hearted Danish attitude was always going to stop them getting right to the top.”
They scored goals for fun, usually through the wonderful Preben Elkjaer and relied on the pace, guile and imagination of Arnesen and Michael Laudrup to craft the openings.
Even the jersey of the team earned the votes of the fans worldwide and complimented the elegance of the players wearing it.
As the 42 described, “A white v-neck design with black trim, red and white halves on the body, a subtle pin-stripe was a neat twist and offered something fresh and unique. It was effortlessly cool.”
Denmark could also rely on the incredible support of a dedicated fan base. The Roligans (named after the Danish word for quiet) were colourful, calm and charming and were a suitably affable support group for a brilliant side.
Denmark’s journey really began in 1984 when they reached the semi-finals of the European Championship.
They thrilled in the group stage, losing their opening game to eventual-winners France before thrashing Yugoslavia and scraping past Belgium in a thriller. With Arnesen and Elkjaer providing the goals, it was ironic that the latter’s missed penalty in a semi-final shoot-out with Spain cost the Danes a place in the decider.
But the side had momentum, although their qualification campaign for the 1986 World Cup was a little haphazard. From eight games, they lost twice and they went from a defeat to the Soviets and a scoreless draw at home to Switzerland to battering Norway in Oslo and racking up four against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
Having suffered a 3-0 defeat earlier the previous year in Copenhagen, Eoin Hand’s side were bamboozled on two separate occasions and former Irish striker Mickey Walsh remembers being in awe of the Scandinavians’ style and unique approach.
Denmark qualified for Mexico along with the Soviets and were drawn in what’s remembered as the very first Group of Death. They faced an ominous collection of teams in West Germany, Uruguay and Scotland but remained unaffected.
Sepp Piontek’s “Danish Dynamite” side were a revelation. FIFA’s technical report said they “played the most spectacular football during the tournament.”
The midfield comprised Soren Lerby, an unyielding warrior who was so hard that he played without shinpads, the wonderfully incisive Frank Arnesen and the two unsung, blue-collar heroes, Jens-Jorn Bertelsen and Klaus Bergreen. Jesper Olsen and Molby stars in English football, struggled to get a regular game.
The defence was marshalled by Morten Olsen, who almost accidentally discovered the libero role in his thirties and took to it so well that arguably only Franz Beckenbauer has performed better in that position. Olsen, who played international football into his forties, read a game as if he had written it.
All excelled in the ‘contra’ system devised by their German coach Piontek. The fluidity of their play, allied to sublime individual ability, prompted a multitude of comparisons to Holland’s Total Football side and made them everyone’s second team during Mexico 86.
“He came with a lot of German discipline but also knew he had Danish players – they also need some of their own responsibility and he found a good balance between discipline and freedom,” said Morten Olsen on Piontek.
Elkjaer said, “The spirit we had is like Spain today, or Holland in the Seventies – we wanted to play the ball around and let the opposition do the running – but the system was our own: it was 3-5-2, and in Holland, they play 4-3-3.”
“It was a very positive style because we were not able to just defend – of course, we would go back when we didn’t have the ball but we didn’t go back with 10 players.”
“One of the reasons we were so popular is that we were very accessible to the media. We liked to have visitors from the press, and I think that approach was very helpful, because all the foreign journalists said, ‘Oh, they are very nice’. And they wrote nice things about the team, the players, and the feeling that was surrounding the team. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of humour. The Danish mentality is different from many other countries: the fans and the players were there to enjoy themselves.”
Taking Mexico 86 by storm
While the Soviet Union were emerging as one of the giants of the tournament during the group stages, Denmark were waiting to showcase their talent and skill.
Denmark had reached the semi-finals of Euro 84, having coolly eliminated England in qualification, but this was their first-ever appearance at a World Cup; they were drawn alongside West Germany, Scotland and the South American champions Uruguay, whose manager Omar Borras coined the phrase ‘The Group of Death.’
In their first game against a Scottish side managed by Alex Ferguson (Jock Stein had died suddenly the previous September), they were forced to wait an hour before making a breakthrough. But Elkjaer picked up a pass from Arnesen in the area, bustled through one challenge and drove his shot past Jim Leighton and into the far corner via the upright. The Danes were up and running.
They hit their stride in their next assignment against Uruguay. They were a goal in front after just eleven minutes when Laudrup teed up Elkjaer who finished it low to the net from an acute angle.
Shortly before the break, Elkjaer turned provider and pinged in a superb cross from the right side that fizzed along the six-yard area and found Lerby at the far post who easily applied the finishing touch. But, the South Americans responded in first-half injury time with a penalty from Enzo Francescoli and it gave the Danes some food for thought ahead of the second period.
Shortly after the restart though, Laudrup conjured a moment of individual brilliance (more on that later) to give the Danes a decisive 3-1 lead and from there they never looked back. Elkjaer added two more and finished with a hat-trick while Jesper Olsen scored too. Denmark thumped Uruguay 6-1.
Elkjaer’s third came from an Uruguayan attack that broke down on the edge of the Denmark area. It was end-to-end. It was a firm statement of intent. It was great to watch.
After the win over Uruguay, a Mexican TV commentator said, “Senors, Senores, you have just witnessed a public fiesta of football.”
In the aftermath of the same game, the great Swedish writer P.O. Enquist said, “They should dedicate a green field in heaven to Laudrup and Elkjaer. We, the spectators, will come to this heaven and cheer them after this divine evening.”
After the first week of the tournament, The Guardian’s David Lacey opined that they were “at the head of a distinguished list of European candidates” to win the tournament. Yet it was in the final group game, against West Germany, that things started to unravel.”
Next up was an assignment against the Germans and prior to the game, the Danes met to discuss their approach. A win or a draw would ensure a knock-out round clash against Spain. A loss against Franz Beckenbauer’s side would mean an easier game against Morocco.
But Denmark wanted to knock down another heavyweight. And their manager Piontek was a former German international. They wanted to win. And they did. But it came at a cost.
Olsen scored from the penalty spot and John Eriksen also popped up with a goal midway through the second half but, in the 89th minute, it was a case of disaster for Denmark.
With the game won, Arnesen was challenged from behind by Lothar Matthaus. Arnesen retaliated and, having already picked up a booking earlier in the game, he was sent off.
It was silly and reckless and he knew it. His reaction to being dismissed said it all. He fell to one knee and placed his head in his hand.
In an instant, the goodwill surrounding another impressive victory against a high-profile side was evaporated. Now minus a key player, Denmark knew they would be up against it in the next round.
Not only would Arnesen be sorely missed, but his replacement Jesper Olsen would start in his position on the right of midfield and play one of the most infamous backpasses in football history.
The defeat against West Germany could have helped them to face a softer opponent in the Round of 16 and that blessing fell on the Germans.
“I didn’t hear anybody talk about losing the game at the time,” said Elkjaer.
“It’s just impossible for a player to go out and say, ‘We don’t have to win today’. It’s certainly not the Danish way. Piontek didn’t say anything about that; if he had we would have said, ‘Are you crazy?’ So we won 2-0. What can you do? Anyway, we were fairly sure that we would beat Spain because we were a better team than them.”
“The truth is that we felt we could take them all.”
Emilio Butragueno dash Denmark dreams
Denmark started brightly.
Olsen scored from the spot again shortly after the half-hour but the hero quickly turned to villain and Denmark paid for their possession-based system.
Just ten minutes later, Denmark had a goal-kick. As Lars Hogh assessed his options, Olsen dropped back into the area to pick up the ball but was shadowed by Julio Salinas. Still, Hogh played a risky pass.
Olsen dummied away from Salinas, created some space and made his way towards the right flank. Instead of looking for a teammate further up the line or try to play a pass into the channel, Olsen inexplicably sent the ball back across his penalty area, hoping Hogh was there.
Emilio Butragueno was and tapped into an empty net.
After the break, Spain grabbed a second. Butragueno scoring with a close-range header following some non-existent Danish marking at a corner. Denmark changed their formation and quickly lost their shape and discipline.
With twenty minutes left, Butragueno was left one-on-one and won a penalty that Goicoechea converted. Butragueno scored two more before the end. Spain won 5-1.
The dream was over!
“At 2-1 and 3-1 it became an all-or-nothing game and then we were open and too easy to counter-attack,” said Elkjaer.
“Before that it was an even game and we could have won as well. Nobody in the team blames Jesper Olsen; it’s part of the game. Afterwards, we were in shock, because it was impossible with our team that we could lose 5-1. That is the worst thing about it. You can lose a match against Spain – anyone can lose against Spain – but 5-1 is ridiculous. That, for my taste, was too much.”
“This Danish attitude started creeping in after the group stages, where players thought, ‘Oh well, we’ve made it this far, we’ve done brilliantly and nobody can blame us’,” said Piontek in Tynd Luft.
“At the end, there was something missing in their frame of mind. This transition to: ‘We can and we must!’ Perhaps it hadn’t succeeded as well as I thought.”
“The problem for us was that it was our first World Cup, in the hardest group, and we won it,” said Elkjaer.
“So then you get to content, and the team thinks, ‘Oh, even if we go the next game we can still go back and say it was a success’. That was what happened. If you play for Germany, England or Italy, only if you win the World Cup can you go back and say it was a great success.”
The great Denmark unit of Mexico 86 is forgotten because everyone remembers those who reach the pinnacle of glory, but nevertheless, that Denmark of Piontek was the first great Danish side to announce that they exist and can dazzle in world football.
Inputs from: 42, FourFourTwo and The Guardian