The birth and passing of the eloquent and rich, but all-too-short, story of the Danish Dynamite team were both delivered at the feet of Jesper Olsen. In a qualifier for the European Championships of 1984, Denmark were playing an England team managed by the late Sir Bobby Robson for the first time. Olsen’s stunning last minute equaliser declared to the world that, here was something special. Here was a team that would pick up the baton left by the ‘totaal voetbal’ of the Dutch 1970’s vintage, and run with it, tinting the orange flame with the explosive pace and dribbling skills of red and white dynamite.
Two short years later however, in the Mexico World Cup of 1986, Denmark faced Spain in a quarter-final match. Leading 1-0 after a Jesper Olsen penalty, and seemingly in a fairly comfortable position, Danish goalkeeper Hogh played the ball out of his area to the same player. Olsen dallied on the ball for a while, and then decided to play a blind pass back to his ‘keeper. Some years later, Olsen declared “I shouldn’t have played that pass. It’s just one of those things you can’t change. If it had happened in the group stages, we would have played another game, and it could all have been forgotten. Of course, it’s unfair that I will be remembered for such a thing, but that’s how it is. It’s mainly in Denmark people still talk about it so maybe it’s good that I don’t live there.”
Unbeknown to Olsen however, Spanish striker Emilio Butragueno had read his intentions much better than Hogh. Just as with the vulture that gave him his nickname, Butragueno swooped to collect the ball and roll it into the empty net for an equaliser. “But Jesper, Jesper, Jesper, that’s lethal” screamed Svend Gehrs, commentating on the game for Danish TV. He was right. Although the Danes started the second half strongly and Preben Elkjaer had a couple of near opportunities, in the moment of that back pass, much as his scintillating goal against England had revealed the magic, the error meant the spell had been broken. As the Danes poured forward seeking to rectify the error, Spain picked them off time and again on to deliver a thumping defeat. The feet of Olsen had neatly bookended the story of the ‘Danish Dynamite’ team.
Although Danish football fans often refer to the day the team defeated Russia 4-2 in 1984 as ‘The Game,’ it was a group game in Mexico that defined the outstanding footballing talents of of Denmark for me. Watching it, I found it difficult not to join in with the ‘Roligans’ – the Danish fans – renditions of “We are red. We are white. We are Danish dynamite!” But it wasn’t only me that was impressed. After Michael Laudrup had netted one of the goals, ITV’s John Helm declared “The boy’s a genius!” and a Mexican TV commentator was moved to remark “Senors, Senores, you have just witnessed a public fiesta of football.”
The Danes had been placed in a ‘Group of Death’ situation with Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany, and would play their opponents in that order. A scrappy 1-0 victory over the Scots did little to herald what was to follow in their second game, to be played against the South Americans.
Back home in England, the game was to kick-off at 11.00pm, and as my eighteen month old daughter had been tiring out both my wife and me, sleep was looking an enticing prospect. As the wife, whose birthday it had been the previous day, was already upstairs asleep however, I took the opportunity for a bit of peace and quiet and watched the game. A dozen years or so previously, my footballing beliefs had been shaped by the Ajax and Dutch national teams of Cruyff, Krol, Hulshoff and the pioneers of total football. This was how I believed the game should be played, but although that team had burnt brightly, it had now also burnt out. I was waiting for the successors to turn up. The Danes were about to do that very thing in a game that I would always remember.
The Danish team were already uber-cool in their halved shirts that you just can’t get replicas of any more. I’d dearly love to have one. Managed by Sepp Piontek, a German whose varied career had even taken in a year long stint managing Haiti, they had become a much talked about team. Jet-heeled players with a penchant for dribbling, high voltage play and a beauty and the beast front pair of Preben Elkjaer and young Laudrup.
Uruguay had earned a creditable 1-1 draw with the Germans in their opening group game so, after beating Scotland, a win for Denmark would guarantee their qualification. As the game got under way however, it seemed that the South Americans would don a hard-faced attitude for this game. Perhaps fearing the quixotic nature of the Danes, a more physical approach was deployed.
Inside the first few minutes, a downed Laudrup was introduced to a boot in the face as the referee innocently followed the play. Retribution was to be swift and sweet however. After evading a couple of lunging tackles, the young striker found his partner in the penalty area, and Elkjaer drilled the ball home to put the Danes ahead. With the comparatively bland victory over Scotland as the hors d’oeuvres, the main course was looking massively appetising as the Danes put on a show of flowing football.
Adroitly adopting their roles as party-poopers, the Uruguayans sought retribution of their own in an entirely different way. A couple of minutes after the goal, Bossio chopped down Laudrup and duly received a yellow card. Apparently keen to complete the set as quickly as possible however, only six minutes later he seized his chance by delivering a robust challenge on Frank Arnesen that was so late it was nearly in the next game. Yellow became red, and it was ‘Adios, Senor Bossio!’ I’m not sure ankles can breathe sighs of relief, but if they could, an audible one would probably have been emanating from Michael Laudrup’s socks at the time.
Despite having the estimable skills of Enzo Franciscoli on the pitch, Uruguay sank further into sullen defence and sought to close the game down. It was a tactic that was not going to prevail. Not in this game. Not against this team. The first goal had lit the fuse of the Danish Dynamite. An explosion was bound to follow. As the Danes poured forward in escalating attacks, Elkjaer had a goal disallowed, and two penalty appeals were waved away. One being as dubious as the other was obvious!
The dam was going to break though and five minutes before the break, Soren Lerby broke from his own half and played the ball wide to Elkjaer. The striker simply out-gunned his marker for pace and power, screaming down the line with the ball before hooking it back across the box as Lerby arrived to take the return and bury it into the net. There was still time for a penalty decision as generous in judgement as the response to the Danish claims had been miserly. The spot kick was duly converted by Franciscoli to give false hope of a comeback.
The best moment of the game came early in the second half. Laudrup picked up the ball some twenty-five yards or so from goal. Spinning away from a defender, he danced through the Uruguayan defence, sashaying left and right, before dummying the goalkeeper and rolling the ball into the empty onion bag for his signature goal and prompting Helms’ remark of his genius. It was now show time. Elkjaer netted a rebound for the fourth and then completed his hat-trick before in almost stop-frame motion Jesper Olsen scored a delicious sixth.
It would be easy to ramble on and on wallowing in the memories of other thrilling snippets of action, but suffice to say that after the game, even curmudgeonly Brian Clough was moved to describe the performance as “gorgeous.” As ever, Old Big Head had it right. Two games later, the Danes had joined the Dutch as one of the best teams never to have won the World Cup. Olsen made his “lethal” mistake, and Butragueno donned the guise of pantomime villain to burst the bubble.
Jim Smith, the old football manager who’d had as many clubs as Tiger Woods used to say that whenever he felt a bit down, he’d put on a video of one of Brian Clough’s teams in action to remind him of why he loved football. If you find yourself in that sort of predicament, you can follow Jim’s advice. Alternatively, treat yourself to a YouTube viewing of Sunday, 8 June 1986, in Neza 86 Stadium – here’s a link to a highlights version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFzFKmbBJfI, and enjoy the day that Danish Dynamite exploded in a glorious display of the beautiful game.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘touchlinebanter’ website).
- “Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team” by Lars Eriksen, Mike Gibbons and Rob Smyth