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Best teams never to win a World Cup: Denmark 1986

Gabriele Marcotti profiles countries who performed exceptionally well at a World Cup only to, for one reason or another, fail to go all the way.

Having covered Brazil in 1950, Hungary in 1954, Netherlands in 1974 and Brazil in 1982, the series concludes with a look at Denmark's 1986 World Cup team.

Why were Denmark great in 1986?

You may think they don’t belong here because of their relatively early exit. They’re not on a par with the other four in this series, sure. But before it all came crashing down, Denmark were spellbinding, a team capable of combining physicality and technique like few others.

And to think that Denmark had never even qualified for a World Cup before Mexico '86. Indeed, they had had a professional league for less than a decade. But a generation of intelligent, gifted players came together at the right time. It may have been a quirk, but the squad included players from the champions of Holland, England, West Germany and Italy: evidence that these were guys who knew how to win. Two years earlier, they took Spain to penalties in the semifinal of the European Championships. They could play, too. Michael Laudrup was 21 and the golden boy of the European game. Up front, Preben Elkjaer Larsen was a lightning-quick powerhouse and a deadeye goalscorer. Frank Arnesen and Soren Lerby were clever and dynamic in the engine room. At the back, 36-year-old Morten Olsen was the defensive leader in the old-school sweeper role.

German manager Sepp Piontek had the rare skill of putting them through punishing training sessions -- three-hour tactical sessions were not uncommon, nor was altitude training while wearing oxygen masks -- without breaking their morale. This allowed them to play at a different speed when needed, and to outwit opponents strategically, when needed.

The draw put Denmark in the toughest World Cup group, with Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany. They weren’t fazed. The thing about them was they could beat you with workrate and muscle or speed and technique. They relied on the first against Scotland, a hard-fought 1-0 win settled by the ferocious Elkjaer. Then came a 6-1 pounding of Uruguay. Elkjaer bagged a hat trick and set up another two goals, but Laudrup stole the show with a gliding, elegant run that saw him beat three opponents.

West Germany, who would go on to reach the final, were next and Denmark summarily dispatched them 2-0 in a riveting wide-open game. Both teams would go for the jugular and Denamrk simply outslugged, outworked and outplayed their opponents. They were the highest scorers and, along with Brazil, the only team with three straight wins. And they had done it in the toughest group. Already the hipsters’ favorites, public opinion began to see them as potential, if not likely, champions as well.

What went wrong?

If you’re going to fall, fall hard. That may not have been Piontek’s message, but that’s what happened. Against Spain in the last 16, Denmark took the lead through Olsen’s early spot-kick and probably should have added to their tally. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Jesper Olsen did the unthinkable.

Having received possession in the right-back position, he turned past the Spanish striker Julio Salinas and then, instead of advancing up the flank or clearing it up the pitch, he hit a blind, square pass across his own area. Two mistakes in one, of the kind even little leaguers are taught not to do. Emilio Butragueno pounced and it was 1-1. Conceding the goal before half-time was soul destroying enough. Doing it in such a silly way made it worse. Yet the second half began well, with Elkjaer going on one of his turbo-charged, tank-like runs and nearly making it 2-1. However, against the run of play, Butragueno materialized in the box, as he so often did, and made it 2-1. That’s when the wheels came off. Piontek sent on another striker and the Danes furiously stormed forward. All that did was make them vulnerable to the counter-attack and Spain scored another three times, sealing a 5-1 scoreline.

Hindsight would have suggested it was way too early to throw the kitchen sink at Spain. Denmark were in control, the second goal was a bloody nose, but they had Spain on the ropes. Instead, they grew desperate, went all-in and were punished in the harshest way.

What happened next?

Jesper Olsen, as you’d imagine, received much of the blame and the side never really kicked on. Elkjaer succumbed to injuries, which is part of the reason why he never reached Marco van Basten-like status. However, just to prove that fate can sometimes balance out its cruelty with kindness, six years later they became European champions at a tournament they weren’t even supposed to be in.

A last-minute replacement after civil war in Yugoslavia forced the Balkan nation to pull out, Denmark went on to win the tournament despite fielding a side that was several notches below the '86 team. Right-back John Sivebaek was the only survivor from Mexico; Laudrup should have been there too, but he quit the national team after falling out with coach Richard Moeller-Nielsen.

Thus, a Denmark team good enough to win at all collapsed in 1986, while the ultimate underdogs triumphed in 1992. That’s why we play the games.