This, perhaps, was not the new Europe that the leaders of the continents nations had envisaged when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November 1989. The years between the European Championships of 1988 and 1992 were the most politically tumultuous since the end of the Second World War. At varying points over the course of those four intervening years, the geopolitics of the entire continent had been upturned. Entire countries vanished from the map. whilst others sprung up in their place. The political ideology and practices of the particular form of bureaucratic socialism as practiced to the east of the Iron Curtain was swept from power. And, by and large, this was achieved peacefully.
If the west breathed a sigh of relief that the discredited dictatorships of Eastern Europe opted not to try and cling to power through shows of force that may have reignited the possibility of global conflict, though, that’s not to say that there were no political vacuums left by the toppling of so many governments. If the revolution was velvet in Czechoslovakia, it was blood-splattered in Romania, where thousands died as the Ceaucescus attempted to flee and failed, but even this paled in comparison with events as Yugoslavia disintegrated and collapsed into nationalist and ethnic hatred.
Civil War in Yugoslavia had been a long time coming. This was a country of disparate cultures, religions and societies – a confederation of six effective states held together for convenience by the gravitational pull of the post-war government of Marshal Tito. His authoritarian – if liberal by the standards of Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century – rule managed to keep a lid on simmering and long-standing social and ethnic tensions, but his death in 1980 led to a deterioration in relations between the constituent parts of Yugoslavia which were fanned in the late 1980s by the opportunistic and nationalistic Slobodan Milosevic. As the country began to disintegrate the wars of Yugoslavia began, and these can be divided into three distinct phases. After the succession of Slovenia in June of 1991, The Ten-Day War between the Yugoslav People’s Army and Slovenian police and Territorial Defence ended in truce, after a negotiated three-month moratorium on secession for Slovenia and Croatia. Meanwhile, the Croatian War of Independence began during the summer of 1991 and the bloodiest of all, the Bosnian War, began at the start of 1992.
As Yugoslavia descended into chaos and genocide, a knock-on effect upon the national football team should have been both inevitable and, in comparison with much of what was going on elsewhere, an irrelevance. Football had already had its influence over the descending chaos at its outset. On the thirteenth of May 1990, shortly after elections that saw political parties supporting Croatian nationalism and secession from the federal Yugoslav state win, a league match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade at the Maksimirska Stadium in Zagreb ended in widespread rioting and has come to be regarded as the unofficial start of the Croatian War of Independence. In spite of the rapidly deteriorating political situation in the country, however, Yugoslavia had cause for optimism for the forthcoming European Championships. In 1987, a Yugoslav team containing Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, Robert Jarni and Branko Brnović had beaten West Germany to win the World Youth Cup in Chile, and three years later the first team were only been beaten on penalty kicks by the holders, Argentina, in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup. The following year, Red Star Belgrade, the club at which the paramilitary warlord Arkan cultivated fanatics to fight for the Serbian nationalist cause, won the European Cup by beating Marseille on penalty kicks in Bari. Later that year, they beat Chile’s Colo Colo in Tokyo to become the World Club Champions.
Yugoslavia’s qualifying group for the 1992 European Championships, to be played in Sweden, was tricky, but far from unsurmountable. Vying with Denmark until the very end, they were dependent on the Danes dropping a single point elsewhere – they could only manage a draw in Belfast against Northern Ireland – after the two sides beat each other in their two respective matches in Belgrade and Copenhagen. With a vastly superior goal difference to Denmark going into the final round of qualification matches, Yugoslavia needed a win to be mathematically certain of qualification, although a draw would still leave the Danes needing to beat Northern Ireland in their final match by eight goals in order to sneak through. Denmark kept a slither of a chance of getting through alive with a win against Northern Ireland. Yugoslavia, however, made a comfortable night of their trip to Vienna to play the already eliminated Austria and a two goal win was enough to qualify them for the final tournament.
Or so they thought. Drawn to play against Sweden, France and England, Yugoslavia may have fancied their chances of reaching the semi-finals at least, but events at home would come to overtake them. The Croatian war of Independence had begun during the summer of 1991 following Croatia’s declaration of independence, but by January of 1992 a fragile ceasefire had been brokered by the United Nations. Although sporadic fighting would continue for a further three years, there was considerably greater international unease at the deteriorating situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where another referendum in favour of independence from Yugoslavia at the start of March 1992 led to increased action from paramilitary Serbian groups in the country. This led to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 752, which demanded respect for Bosnian sovereignty and that units of the Yugoslav People’s Army and elements of the Croatian Army withdraw from the country. When this didn’t happen, a second Resolution, Resolution 757, was introduced on the fifteenth of May 1992 to bring further economic and cultural sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which by now only consisted Serbia and Montenegro, which included the limiting of “participation in sporting events in the country.”
On the thirty-first of May 1992, FIFA made their decision and, ten days before the start of that summers European Championships, banned Yugoslavia from international football. UEFA, under obligation to act quickly, invited Denmark, who had been pipped to the post in qualifying, to replace them in the tournament. “I wanted to know why UEFA had let things go this far”, commented Yugoslavian captain Dragan Stojković later, “If they were going to throw us out of the competition, why didn’t they tell us before?” For Denmark, though, this was a golden opportunity. The team wasn’t, as has been suggested elsewhere, dragged back from the beaches to play in the tournament – the team even had the time to fit in a pre-tournament friendly against the former Soviet Union, who were now labouring under the cumbersome name of the Commonwealth Of Independent States following the dissolution of the USSR at the start of the year. Other than the brief flowering of the team that had qualified for the 1984 European Championship finals and the 1986 World Cup finals, however, this was their first qualification for a major tournament and it would be one that they travelled to without much of the dubious burden of expectation hanging over them.
The transitional nature of European politics at the time and the opportunity that this afforded Denmark can be seen from the make-up of the other seven qualifiers. In addition to the Commonwealth of Independent States, Germany was also playing its first major tournament finals since reunification. Sweden, the host nation, were reasonably strong but was in its first European Championship finals, whilst Scotland were also making their debut in the tournament. England had looked tepid in qualifying following their surprise appearance in the semi-finals of the World Cup two years earlier and the Netherlands, the holders, were arguably past their best. Coach Richard Møller Nielsen lined his team up defensively for their opening match against England, and Denmark came through this test with a creditable goalless draw. They followed this up with a disappointing one goal defeat at the hands of the host nation, but results elsewhere had landed kindly for them and they went into their final match against France knowing that a win would almost certainly see them edge through to the semi-finals, depending on results elsewhere.
An early goal from Henrik Larsen gave them the lead against a French side which had won all eight of its qualifying games but failed to beat either Sweden or England in their opening two group matches of the finals. Jean-Pierre Papin levelled for France, but a close range goal from Lars Elstrup with twelve minutes to play gave Denmark the lead again. A Tomas Brolin goal in Stockholm five minutes later ensured that Scandinavia would have two representatives in the finals. The day after this match was played, the Croat Defence Council issued an ultimatum to the Bosnian Territorial Defence, demanding the abolition of existing Bosnia-Herzegovinian institutions, the establishment of the authority of the Croatian Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a pledge of allegiance to it, subordination to the Croat Defence Council and the expulsion of all Muslim refugees within twenty-four hours. It didn’t follow, and the next day, they attacked. A war that would end up costing 100,000 lives – including almost 40,000 civilian deaths – was starting to come to the boil.
Just over 1,000 miles to the north of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, Germany beat Sweden by three goals to two in Stockholm to win through to the finals of the European Championships. This, it was widely assumed, was teeing up a final between Germany and the Netherlands that would be a renewal of a rivalry that was revitalised by meetings at the 1988 European Championships and the 1990 World Cup finals. In Gothenberg, though, Denmark had not been paying much attention to this particular script and another early goal gave from Henrik Larsen gave them the lead. It took until the midway point in the first half before Dennis Bergkamp levelled for the Dutch, before Larsen, with his third goal in two games, gave them the lead again. It looked as if the major upset was on, before a goal from Frank Rijkaard with four minutes left to play took the match into extra-time. Unable to be separated after thirty extra minutes, the two sides moved on to a penalty shoot-out, and here the Danes rode their luck a little. The Dutch goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen managed to get a hand to three of the five Danish penalty kicks, but couldn’t keep any of them out. The Netherlands’ hero of 1988, Marco Van Basten, however, was less fortunate. His kick was saved by Peter Schmeichel and Denmark were through to the final.
Germany, the reigning World Champions, would be formidable opponents in the final, but Jurgen Klinsmann, the German striker, later admitted that his team had been “too complacent” in their build-up to the final, having knocked the host nation out of the tournament in the semi-finals. Again, though, the Danes stuck early and John Jensen, who barely managed double figures in terms of goals scored throughout his career, lashed the ball in from the edge of the penalty area. Germany pushed for an equaliser, but this time the goal wouldn’t come, with an inspired performance from Peter Schmeichel bringing a string of saves to keep the German attack at bay. And with twelve minutes left to play came the moment to tie up the game. Kim Vilfort, who had twice left the Danish team camp during the tournament to return home to visit his young daughter Line, who was critically ill with leukaemia at the time and whose condition was deteriorating, stepped inside two tired German tackles and rolled the ball in off the left hand post the send the European Championships back to Denmark.
It has been said that the party in Denmark in central Copenhagen that night was the biggest public gathering in Denmark since the night of the country’s liberation from German rule at the end of the Second World War, but it is difficult not to reflect upon the 1992 European Championships without a hint of sadness. Line Vilfort lost her battle with cancer several weeks after the finals, and the Yugoslavian Wars would rumble in in different forms, in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo, until 1999. By the turn of the new century, however, the lure of ultra-nationalism was on the wane in Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic was finally ousted from power in 2000. Indicted for crimes against humanity by the United Nations, he died from a heart attack, alone in a prison cell in The Hague in 2006. And at the Maksimirska Stadium, where Croats fought Serbs in May 1990, a monument to the dead from Croatia’s war with Serbia reads, “To the fans of this club who started the war with Serbia at this ground.” Only the future knows whether the ghosts of Balkan republics’ decade of chaos and murder have been exorcised for good.
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