World Cup 2018: The intriguing parallels between Croatia and Denmark, both eager to improve on milestone debuts

Tim Rich

There is much that unites Croatia and Denmark. They have similar populations, their finest player shone at Tottenham and they have never bettered their first World Cup.

Ever since Croatia arrived in Russia, they have cited the triumphs of 1998, led by Davor Suker, Slaven Bilic and Robert Prosinecki, as inspirations.

They finished third in France and they believe themselves to be a better team than they were 20 years ago. Dejan Lovren was nine years old, living in Germany as a refugee, when Croatia beat the Netherlands at the Parc des Princes to secure third place. “I can still remember my mum screaming in the house when we scored,” he recalled.

While Croatia have revelled in the memories of 1998, there has been less said in the Denmark camp on the Black Sea coast about the Danish Dynamite that exploded in the group stages of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

In part, it is because Denmark eclipsed the flair and swagger of Laudrup, Elkjaer and Olsen that saw Uruguay demolished 6-1 and West Germany beaten 2-0, six years later when a side that had not even qualified for the tournament – but was let in by the civil war devouring Yugoslavia – became European champions. In part, it is because they know they are not as good.

While the Croatian media has published pictures of the country’s armed forces posing with flags and the message – One Heart, One Soul, One Croatia – the reaction in Denmark to the World Cup has been rather more muted.

They have, after all, beaten only Peru and in Moscow they played out perhaps the worst match of this World Cup; the scoreless stalemate against France.

“I knew Denmark was a picky football country when I arrived,” said the team’s Norwegian manager, Age Hareide. “The Danes like to call themselves the Brazilians of Scandinavia but I think it is good to be unbeaten in 17 matches, which we are, so what do people want? Even if we had won against Australia, I think people would still have been critical.”

What marked out the Danes of 1986 was their sheer exuberance. While the Croatian triumphs of 1998 were driven by the fierce nationalism of a country born from civil war, the Danish victories in Mexico were the product of a determination to prove they were more than just talented amateurs.

They were a better side and they played better football even than the boys who won Euro 92. Morten Olsen, Soren Lerby, Frank Arnesen and Michael Laudrup had all won their national championships in the month before Denmark left for Mexico.

Denmark celebrate their unlikely Euro 1992 win (Getty)

They were spearheaded by Preben Elkjaer, who liked cigarettes, drink and women. When his manager at Cologne, Hennes Weisweller, accused Elkjaer of being seen in a nightclub with a woman and a bottle of whisky, Elkjaer corrected him. He had been drinking vodka and there had been two women.

However, in Sepp Piontek they had a manager who would drill them hard. He replaced the usual team base, the Hotel Marina in Copenhagen, with an institution that had more in common with an army boot camp.

Just as Croatia’s success in France were based on a fine performance in Euro 96 that saw them reach the quarter-finals, so it was with Denmark. They had beaten England at Wembley to qualify for the 1984 European Championship which ensured one of the finest of all the Euros was not broadcast by the BBC. Denmark reached the semi-finals in Lyons, only to lose a penalty shoot-out to Spain. Elkjaer missed the fateful spot kick.

Two years later, in Mexico, they won all three group games. In the Neza stadium, located in the drearily vast suburban sprawl of Mexico City, Scotland were beaten 1-0, Uruguay, who were then a byword for cynicism, were annihilated and the Germans swept away.

The Danes thrashed Uruguay 6-1 in 1986 (Getty)

It was the victory against the Germans that demonstrated just how carefree they were. In a parallel dilemma to the one Gareth Southgate faced before England’s defeat to Belgium in Kaliningrad, Piontek, knew that whoever won would face a round-of-16 game against Spain. The losers would face Morocco. Denmark went all out to win.

They were leading 1-0 against Spain when Jesper Olsen, under no pressure, passed straight across his own area to Emilio Butragueno. For years afterwards, any idiotic mistake in Denmark was known as “doing a Jesper Olsen”.

In the second half, Denmark were destroyed, 5-1. The Germans beat Morocco and made the World Cup final. In Denmark what was recalled was not that they had failed but that they had done so gloriously.

There is only one member of Hareide’s side that could compare with the team Piontek possessed and that is Christian Eriksen. The responsibility on him in Nizhny Novgorod appears enormous. No man in this World Cup has run more than Erkisen’s 36 km. He the only Danish player in Russia to have had more than one shot on target.

The responsibility on Christian Eriksen's shoulders is enormous (Getty)

“In order for Christian to strike he needs us to play in a certain way,” said their midfielder, Thomas Delaney. “Against France we had already decided we would play more calculating football which did not allow him the time and space to show his qualities. We haven’t been satisfied with the way we have expressed ourselves on the pitch and Christian has perhaps suffered for that.”

Martin Braithwaite, who finished last season at Bordeaux after failing to break through with Middlesbrough, pointed out that while Denmark have suffered in this campaign, everything has gone right for Croatia. That might be one of the few advantages Denmark possess on Sunday night.

“If things, don’t work out for us during the game, we won’t be surprised because we have already experienced that,” he said. “If the Croats go behind, we don’t know how they will react because it has not happened to them before. Even they don’t know how they will react.”