Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Denmark 1992 and Portugal 2016, not so different yet viewed differently

In 1992, Denmark achieved the seemingly impossible - they won Euro 92 in Sweden, a tournament they hadn't even qualified for and were only competing in by virtue of Yugoslavia's enforced withdrawal. In 2016, Portugal achieved the highly unlikely  they won Euro 2016 after finishing third during the group stage and ensured that France failed to win a major tournament which they were hosting for the first time since the 1960 European Nations Cup.

Denmark had narrowly missed out on qualification for the eight-team Championships in 1992, finishing second in their qualification group, one point behind Yugoslavia. Of course, due to the outbreak of civil war in the country, Yugoslavia were not allowed to compete in Sweden – and so their place went to the Danes.

The rest, as they say, is history. An adventure so incredible took place, with so many subplots that it could have been written for a movie...which it inevitably became. The story of Richard Møller Nielsen and his team was portrayed in Danish movie Sommeren '92, released last year. 

At the time of writing it is on Netflix and well worth a watch. For the purpose of this article, though, the point being made is that Denmark, officially speaking, shouldn't have been there.

Kasper Barfoed's Sommeren '92 (Summer of '92) tells the tale of Denmark's 1992 heroes. Source: Meta Film YouTube channel.

The reason that point is made is because nobody, as far as I can see, ever used it as a stick to beat Denmark or Møller Nielsen with after they won. Yet since Éder's extra-time shot flew past a bewildered Hugo Lloris to give Portugal a 1-0 win over France, a similar argument  "they shouldn't be there has been used by some to discredit the triumph of the Portuguese in the Stade de France.

While Fernando Santos' side had little trouble in qualifying for Euro 2016 
 they finished seven points clear of second placed Albania  they struggled in the group stage of the tournament proper and eventually reached the last-16 as one of the best third placed teams.

Criticism of the expanded 24-team format of Euro 2016 has cropped up throughout the month of June and the manner of the Portuguese victory will only add to that. It's certainly a far-cry from the eight-team competition Denmark won, fittingly, 24 years ago.

The conventional format of any group stage in a modern day major tournament at club or international level sees just the top two of any group progress, yet the increased number of teams competing in France required the addition of the four-best third placed teams to make up the last-16. In light of Portugal's victory, this has irked some fans who felt they shouldn't have even reached the knock-out phase having drawn all of their group games.

Denmark manager Richard Møller Nielsen and Portugal manager Fernando Santos. Sources: worldsoccer.com and alchetron.com.

Denmark shouldn't have been there in 1992, but their story is a fairytale in comparison to the apparent travesty of Portugal winning their first ever major tournament in France. Yet these two sides actually have a lot in common, starting with the fact just stated: for both, these wins represented a first major triumph on the international stage.

The second is that the style of play adopted by both sides wasn't lauded as the best brand of football ever played at a major tournament. It can be easy at a glance to lump Møller Nielsen's champions in with the Danish Dynamite side of the 1980s, but the 'other' Class of '92 operated differently to Sepp Pontiek's team.

While Pontiek preached the 70s Dutch philosophy of Total Football, Møller Nielsen  who acted as assistant to Pontiek after a spell as Denmark's U21 coach preferred a more rigid, defence minded style of play. After seeing his country fail beautifully so often, he opted to win ugly. In Portugal boss Santos, he would have found a like-minded individual.

A Seleção only scored 11 goals in qualifying for Euro 2016, the second-joint lowest tally of any of the automatic qualifiers (Wales and Romania also only scored 11, while Albania netted just ten times). And though they scored four goals in the group stage in France, three of those came in a crazy 3-3 draw with Hungary in their final match.

The only other time the Portuguese managed to find the net more than once in a game was during arguably their best performance of the whole tournament, the 2-0 win over Wales in the semi-final. It was also the only time they won a match in 90 minutes in France. Their record in regulation time reads: P7 W1 D6. Denmark's from '92 reads: P5 W2 D2 L1.

Highlights of Denmark's 2-0 victory over Germany in the Euro 92 final. Featuring Martin Tyler, whose voice I feel was added in well after the fact. Source: UEFA.tv YouTube channel.

Despite having one of the world's best players and potent goal-scorers in Cristiano Ronaldo 
who added more records to his collection at Euro 2016, including becoming the first player to score at four separate European Championships Portugal, like Denmark, ultimately relied on a defensive strategy to carry them through the tournament. The Danes conceded four goals in five games in Sweden; Portugal conceded five in seven.

The mention of Ronaldo also brings to light another slight similarity (very slight) in that the triumph of both sides was ultimately completed without their best respective players. Portugal benefitted from the services of their superstar throughout Euro 2016 until he left the field injured in the final against France after a Dimitri Payet challenge, which forced a tactical reshuffle from Santos.

Micahel Laudrup and Cristiano Ronaldo were their sides' talismans. They both had no onfield say as their respective nations closed in on their greatest triumphs. Source: laststicker.com.

Denmark, however, were without their talisman Michael Laudrup long before Euro '92 after he fell out with Møller Nielsen over the manager's style of play. Laudrup's brother Brian, perhaps seen as the least successful of the two given Michael's CV, also left but reconciled with the Danish coach in time to be a part of his nation's greatest footballing hour.

The ironic thing is an argument could be made that the presence of both Ronaldo and Michael Laudrup may have prevented their respective countries from achieving what they did. For Laudrup, his inability to compromise on his view of how the game should be played meant that he was never going to be a fully effective cog in Møller Nielsen's machine. 

For Ronaldo, it maybe applies less given his presence throughout the tournament, but his enforced withdrawal so early in the final made Santos rethink his gameplan and ultimately allowed the tournament to be won by something he hitherto hadn't utilised to great effect: an otherdox centre-forward, otherwise known as Éder.

Éder becomes the unlikeliest of heroes as he scores the goal which secures Portugal the Euros. Source: Oz Relative YouTube channel.

Yet, despite all of these similarities, the triumphs of Portugal and Denmark will probably always be viewed in black and white by neutrals (because obviously the nations themselves and their fans will hardly care how their trophies were won). The nature of Denmark's late involvement automatically gives their story fairytale status without even digging deeper into the other intriguing subplots.

However, Portugal deserve tremendous credit. That they finished third in their group is irrelevant and they shouldn't be criticised for something they can't control. All 24 teams played in the same format, had the same advantages. France have only themselves to blame for failing to exert the same authority on the final that they had in previous games.

Finishing third and reaching the knock-out stages has been hailed as an achievement in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In qualifying, Hungary finished third and reached the finals via a play-off and they proved to be one of the tournament's many, it has to be said, surprise packages.

Lutz Pfannenstiel expresses his viewpoint that Portugal should no longer be in the tournament before the semi-final against Wales. Source: France 24 English YouTube channel.

Maybe Portugal don't deserve the fairytale tag, even after achieving something sides boasting legends like Eusébio (who the Portuguese squad paid a touching tribute to on the plane home from France) and Luis Figo couldn't. However, they do deserve to be acknowledged as worthy winners by virtue of the fact that they won – and by that same virtue, they, like Denmark in '92, deserved "to be there."

No comments:

Post a Comment