World Cup Countdown: 6 Days to Go – What if Jesper Olsen Hadn’t Made ‘That’ Costly Error?

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In 1931, Winston Churchill stepped out onto a road in New York City without looking to see whether anything was coming. Unfortunately, a taxicab was driving down the street and it couldn’t avoid hitting him. Fortunately, both for Churchill and for the freedom of the western world, he survived the accident. 55 years later, Jesper Olsen would also fail to look what he was doing. To him, however, fate would not be so kind.

Until the dawn of the 1980s, Denmark were one of the also-rans of international football. They’d never qualified for the finals of a World Cup and their solitary appearance at the European Championships, in 1964, was barely deserved, given that they only had to beat Malta, Albania and Luxembourg to get there. Then, suddenly, the stars aligned. 

A gifted new generation of footballers came of age and, in Sepp Piontek, the Danes found a coach capable of harnessing their talents. This new group announced themselves by qualifying for the 1984 European Championships ahead of England, crucially beating them at Wembley 1-0. At the subsequent finals they acquitted themselves admirably, reaching the semi-finals after a five goal trouncing of Yugoslavia and recovering from a two goal deficit to beat Belgium.

The Danes built on that achievement by qualifying for the 1986 World Cup finals, topping their group ahead of the top-seeded Soviets. Selected in the squad for Mexico were players who plied their trade for many of Europe’s top clubs, ranging from Juventus and Bayern Munich to Liverpool and Manchester United. Indeed, only seven of the squad played in the Danish league, and most of them would not get to kick a ball at the World Cup. 

Denmark’s globetrotting stars included Morten Olsen, an accomplished sweeper; Preben Elkjær, a stubbled getter of goals, and Jesper Olsen, a waifish left-winger. Chief amongst their talents, however, was the incomparable Michael Laudrup; a player gifted enough to be spoken about in the same breath as Cruyff, Platini and Baggio. 

To understand how many fine players Denmark had at their disposal in 1986, consider the plight of Jan Mølby. He was the creative heart of the Liverpool side that won the domestic double that season, famously inspiring their comeback against Everton in the FA Cup final by creating two goals and playing a key role in the third. Yet he was almost an extra in Mexico, only making the Danish starting eleven once in the four games they played.

The prospects of Denmark making a mark on the 1986 World Cup were not helped by being drawn into that tournament’s ‘Group of Death’. To progress they would have to get the better of West Germany; successive finalists in three World Cups between 1982 and 1990; Uruguay, the reigning Copa América champions and Scotland, a doughty side under the leadership of Alex Ferguson. In the event, they made short work of them all. 

A goal from Elkjær put the Scots to the sword and then came the victory that really made the world sit up and take notice: a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay. The South Americans had arrived as one of the favourites to take home the trophy, but they were undone by a majestic display of attacking football. Elkjær secured a deserved hat-trick, but the pick of the goals was scored by Laudrup, who waltzed his way past a succession of bewildered Uruguayans before sliding the ball home. Next up were the West Germans, and while they weren’t battered like the Uruguayans had been, they were still clearly beaten. Another fine victory, but this was one with a sting in the tail.

With just a couple of minutes remaining, and the outcome not in doubt, Frank Arnesen inexplicably kicked out at Lothar Matthäus after being tackled from behind. A red card and an automatic suspension duly followed, forcing Pointek into reorganising his highly impressive midfield. 

Even more ominously, Denmark’s opponents in the second round were to be Spain, the nation that had ended their European Championship campaign in the semi-finals two years earlier. That game finished 1-1 after extra-time, necessitating a penalty shootout. Both sides scored their first four penalties and, uncharacteristically, it was Elkjær who became the villain; sending his strike high over the bar. Spain scored the remaining penalty, leaving the Danes to rue what might have been. Denmark would now have a chance for revenge, but it was an opportunity they would fail to take. And in some style.

Spain had recovered from an opening defeat to Brazil to reach the second round with straight-forward victories over Northern Ireland and Algeria, neither of whom had impressed. Denmark’s coruscating form inevitably made them favourites to progress and all appeared to be going to plan when Jesper Olsen put them in front after half an hour of play with a deftly-taken penalty.

Then, with the game trickling into half time, the aforementioned winger committed perhaps the gravest offence in the history of Danish football. He collected the ball from his goalkeeper just beyond the right hand side of the penalty area, neatly dummied his way past a Spanish forward and then, without looking, played it back to where he thought the goalkeeper was. Only the Danish goalkeeper wasn’t there. Instead, the ball landed straight in the path of Emilio Butragueño, who pounced to score; Olsen immediately finding out just why the Spaniard was nicknamed ‘The Vulture’.

The Danes simply weren’t the same after that. It was almost as if Olsen’s heinous error reminded them that they were mortal, that they weren’t the unstoppable force that the group matches had led them to believe they were. Their match against Spain should have been the next stepping stone on the way to ultimate glory. Instead, it became the Butragueño show. 

The Spanish striker scored a further three goals in the second-half as the Danes chased the game, leaving huge holes in their defence that he eagerly took advantage of. One of his teammates also had the temerity to get on the scoresheet, but it was only from a penalty that Butragueño had won. The result was a surprise; the 5-1 scoreline simply shocking.

Sadly, Denmark’s World Cup was over, but Spain’s wouldn’t last much longer either. They succumbed to Belgium in the quarter-finals, who were then dismissed with relative ease by Maradona’s Argentina in the last four. 

Perhaps if Jesper Olsen had been a little more diligent, and Denmark had taken their lead into half-time, the Danes could have controlled the second-half and continued their progress. If they had, then maybe Maradona wouldn’t have had his moment of glory at all; his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal being no more than a curious footnote to World Cup history, rather than the pivotal moment it eventually turned out to be.

Simon Turner is the author of ‘If Only: An Alternative History of the Beautiful Game’ published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonaturner100.

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