Darko Pančev Second from the left celebrates the victory when winning the Champions league in 1991.
Darko Pančev Second from the left celebrates the victory when winning the Champions league in 1991.

A final painted in contrasts

A story of joy and victory painted against a canvas of European change as well as ethnic conflict

On this day, 12 July 2020, the final of Euro2020 would have been played. It is an opportunity to look back at a highly unexpected final in a time of big changes in European history. The 1992 UEFA EURO football Championship, hosted by Sweden, was unique in many ways. It was played in the year proclaimed as the year of “united Europe“ and the creation of the European Union (EU), but was also a year of crises and war in the countries of former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Also, it was a Championship that will be remembered mostly because of the “Denmark miracle“. Because of the Yugoslav expulsion, Denmark national team (finished 2nd in the qualification group behind Yugoslavia) was allowed to participate in the tournament at the last moment. Danish footballers came to Sweden, some said they came “from the beaches“ and, above all expectations, at the end, they won the Championship, defeating in the final the newly unified German team and current world champions at the time.

Inside Yugoslavia

The 1990–91 season was the last season held in its usual format, with clubs from all federative units participating in the championship. The season featured a violent politically and ethnically motivated incident during the Hajduk Split vs. FK Partizan tie on Wednesday, 26 September 1990 at Poljud Stadium, as described in the “A match to teach the collapse of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav First Federal League’s 1990/1991 season was the 63rd time the competition was contested. The title was won by Red Star Belgrade, in the same year that Red Star became European champions.  It also turned out to be the last season in which teams from SR Croatia and SR Slovenia participated as in June 1991 Slovenia declared independence and Croatia followed suit in October of the same year. This meant that their football associations separated from the Football Association of Yugoslavia so they both started their own football leagues: the 1991–92 season.

The 1991–92 season was the last season held officially under the name of SFR Yugoslavia, even though Slovenian and Croatian clubs have already abandoned the competition to play in their own leagues. Clubs from the remaining four federative units all took part in the competition, but since the Bosnian War broke out towards the end of the season, Bosnian clubs never finished it.

From glory to disintegration

The Yugoslav football team was one of the greatest that the Federation had in its history. The first team increasingly included players who became world junior champions in 1987 in Chile and it dominated in the qualifications for the 1992 European Championship and was expected as one of the main favorites to compete for the prizes. Darko Panchev, one of the best strikers in Europe in the time, was the best scorer of the qualifications, scoring 10 goals in 8 matches. However, SRF Yugoslavia had no opportunity to play at the Championship. By June 1992, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, one after another, proclaimed their independence and the war was already going on in large scales in Croatia and Bosnia. Because of the war, the shortened federation of Serbia and Montenegro was imposed sanctions by the United Nations that, among other things, included a ban on participation in international sporting competitions.

Strange times to be watching football, as Football Makes History developer Igor Jovanovic recalls: “It was bizarre to follow the qualifications for Euro ‘92, which began in the autumn of 1990, because the political turmoil during those two years, until the start of the final in Sweden, was also evident in football. States were disappearing, and with them national teams of the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and East Germany”. The Yugoslavia team’s head coach Ivan Osim also resigned in May 1992 in protest of the violence erupting in Bosnia and Herzegovina and his hometown of Sarajevo.

Sanctioned and banned

On May 30, 1992, the United Nations Security Council passed UN SCR 757 by a 13–0 vote. New sanctions on Yugoslavia included international trade, scientific and technical cooperation, sports and cultural exchanges, air travel, and travel of government officials from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. State assets abroad were also seized. French President François Mitterrand initially delayed the passing of Resolution 757 when he proposed that the sports ban be removed, but instead opted to keep the sports ban in exchange for written clarification that Serbian combatants were not solely responsible for the Yugoslav Wars. In spite of Mitterrand’s amendment, Resolution 757 solely targeted the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, not any of the breakaway states.

Consequence for Euro ’92

Yugoslavia was banned from competing at Euro ‘92 by a decision made on 31 May 1992, a day after the UN resolution and just 10 days before the competition commenced. The team had already made its way to Sweden. Upon arriving in Sweden, the Swedish police ordered the Yugoslavian team to go to Leksand in the middle of Sweden instead of staying in the seaside town of Ystad for their preparations. The reason for this was that the resort in Ystad was close to a refugee camp containing refugees who had fled from the war in Yugoslavia, and the Swedish authorities were afraid of riots among the refugees if the Yugoslavian team was to stay at the nearby hotel.

As a consequence of the ejection by UEFA and the ban on travel, the Yugoslav team had to stay in Sweden for a couple of days until they were allowed to travel back to Belgrade with a chartered flight from JAT, the Yugoslavian airlines. Finally, on the plane, their travels were delayed 10 hours because of problems with getting permissions to refuel the airplane due to the sanctions. Although the ejection did not come as a total surprise, it did cause reactions. To the Yugoslavian players, the ejection from the tournament came as a huge disappointment. Midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic has stated in a later interview that the players were enormously disappointed, but at the same time they were aware that there were others who suffered a lot more because of the war and the sanctions.

Meanwhile, Swedish UEFA president Lennart Johansson received death threats on the street in Stockholm and even had bullets fired against his house during night time. Reportedly, this was a difficult decision. As former football player Dobrivoje Tanasijević, who had also advised the Yugoslav team before the tournament, later claimed that Johansson told him that “it was not a football decision, but a United Nations decision, a political one, and the government ordered him to do it”.

Enter Denmark

Instead of Yugoslavia, Denmark was invited. After a day to consider the offer, the Danish FA accepted the invitation with just ten days to go before the opening game of the tournament, and the players crossed the Öresund with the ferry from Copenhagen without even being recognised by the other ferry passengers. Among the Danes there was a feeling of doubt about whether it was morally right to accept the invitation. Midfielder Kim Vilfort suggested that the Danish FA should donate the money they received for participating from UEFA to humanitarian help in Yugoslavia. But the suggestion fell on deaf ears. The Danish team moved into the hotel in Ystad that originally had been reserved for the Yugoslavian team and travelled around in a bus with the Yugoslavian FA’s logo on the sides.

An unusual situation, as Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel – who stopped a crucial penalty by Marco van Bastern against The Netherlands in the semi-final – recalled: “We could not reach Yugoslavia in the qualifiers, but they were knocked out and we went to the Euro. We played on behalf of Yugoslavia and its citizens; we even had a bus with the Yugoslav coat of arms. Practically, we were Yugoslavia, and that is impossible to explain”.

Rise of the “roligans”

But Denmark did not come from nowhere in 1992. During the 1980’s the Danish national team made its breakthrough on the international scene, qualifying for three consecutive tournaments; Euro 84 in France, World Cup 86 in Mexico and Euro 88 in West Germany. The Danes impressed both on and off pitch. Playing a technical and attacking style of football, the team was soon nicknamed “Danish Dynamite.” Off the pitch the Danish fans became famous for their relaxed and friendly style, and became labelled as “roligans”, a pun on the word hooligan in Danish. “Roligans” – dressed in wigs, foam Viking helmets and red and white face paint – became a contrast to the terrace culture that often characterized international football at the time.

Beating German, overcoming “national trauma”?

The opponent in the final was Germany, Denmark’s rival in the south and to a lot of Danes this final was perceived as a way to get revenge for conflict in the past, including the Second World War and the Second Schleswig war in 1864, which in Denmark was considered a national trauma. The final was played in a much friendlier mood than the conflicts of the past. A lot of people expected that the Danish fairy tale would have no happy ending and that the underdog would have no chance against the German stars. But the team pulled off one of the biggest sensations in football history. The team that should not have been in Sweden at all ended up as the winners.

Personal circumstances

During the year leading up to the match, the final’s match winner Kim Vilfort had been in and out of hospital with his seven year old daughter, Line, who was ill with leukaemia. As the squad prepared for the tournament, Line was again in hospital with her father beside her. Vilfort first joined the squad in Sweden after having been reassured by the doctors that her condition was better. He played the matches against England and Sweden but had to return to Denmark ahead of the game against France. His daughter’s condition had worsened. Without Vilfort in the team, Denmark progressed to the semi-finals. Vilfort was determined to stay with his wife and daughter. Møller-Nielsen, Denmark’s coach had said that his place would be open if he decided to return to Sweden. In the end, Vilfort had to be persuaded by his family to return to Sweden before the match against The Netherlands. Vilfort phoned Møller-Nielsen to announce that he would be returning to Sweden after his daughter had asked him why he did not play the match against France. Back on the pitch, Vilfort scored in the penalty shoot out that took Denmark to the final, and in the final he became the match-winner. An incredible achievement considering the fact that his mind probably was at Line’s bedside at the hospital in Copenhagen. Tragically, her game was a match Kim Vilfort could not help her win. Just a few weeks after she watched her father become the hero of the whole nation, she passed away.

The myth of the “fat vacation lads”

It is an often heard story that the players had to be brought in from the beaches of Denmark and other holiday destinations out of shape after living on fast food and beer. According to Peter Schmeichel the squad looked like “a bunch of fat vacation lads”. This is just partly true. Some of the players were on holiday from their clubs, having ended the season and some players were ready to go on a holiday trip. Brian Laudrup for instance had planned to go on a holiday to New York while the tournament was being played in Sweden. And Richard Møller-Nielsen was supposedly planning on redecorating his kitchen during the summer. But most of the Danish squad was still in the middle of their season when Denmark was called up to participate in Sweden. Thirteen of the twenty players in the squad were playing in the Danish league. In fact, the final round of the Danish season was played just three days before the opening match against England, involving 12 of the players in the squad. Another blow to the myth of the unprepared and unfit Danes is the fact that the squad already was gathered to prepare for a friendly game against CIS when the Danish FA received the invitation from UEFA.

Celebration and scenes of war – a stark contrast

As the Danish team arrived in Copenhagen after their victory, the largest crowd since the liberation in 1945 gathered in the Danish capital to celebrate. Richard Møller-Nielsen and the players, with the exception of Torben Piechnik, who had get on the plane to Mallorca the day after the final as his travel agency refused to reschedule his holiday yet another time, were greeted by more than 300 000 people on their way from the airport to the city centre of Copenhagen. These celebrations could be seen as a stark contrast to the scenes of war in Yugoslavia at the same time. The war in Yugoslavia and the celebrations in Denmark show different faces of nationalism in a time of massive changes in Europe. Either way EURO 92 will always be remembered as the tournament won by the team that should not have been there.

Find out more

If you want to read more about this story you can read these incredible stories by Football culture magazine These Football Times, one is about Denmark’s journey, another one is about Kim Vilfort and one about the Danish coach. BBC also revisited The Danish Miracle. You can also read more about how one the players from Yugoslavia thinks about it now, for example this interview with Slaviso Jokanovic. Watch the final match highlights, and footage of Danish players and celebrations. If you understand Danish or read languages spoken in the countries of former Yugoslavia, you will find even more, including this Danish podcast, or commentary on media organisation B92 or reflections by Saša Ibrulj.

On this day, 12 July 2020, Euro2020 would have reached the final. In 1992 Denmark, which hadn’t qualified, won. While Yugoslavia, a favorite, never made it due to UN sanctions.

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Darko Pančev Second from the left celebrates the victory when winning the Champions league in 1991.
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