Book Review: Danish Dynamite
Danish Dynamite by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons
Published by Bloomsbury
Our latest book review looks back to one of the great World Cup sides – one which co-founder of our site Lanterne Rouge remembers staying up late to watch through wide eyes as a seventeen year old in the 1986 World Cup. Damian Mitchell gives us the lowdown on the new book authored by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons and you can follow Damian on twitter here.
On the eve of another World Cup, conversation can turn to great World Cup teams of the past: which really stick in the consciousness? Not just winners, but the XIs that were truly thrilling, that played the game with such a passion and attacking intensity that fans watching were able to forget the travails of their own team. The Denmark of 1986 was one such side – a squad that has lived long in the memory, despite not actually managing to win anything, and now the subject of a new book.
In a recent series for ESPN, Gabriele Marcotti named the five greatest teams to never win a World Cup – Brazil 1950, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, Brazil 1982 (described by the aforementioned Lanterne Rouge in the new book Falling for Football – ed.) and Denmark 1986. Against such luminous company, the Danish may appear an incongruous choice. This was a team without World Cup pedigree and a nation whose professional domestic league was at that point less than ten years old. Yet, they captured the hearts of football fans everywhere – they had the players, the attacking style, the wonder goals from Elkjær and Laudrup, the kit (lovingly recreated on the cover of Danish Dynamite) and the famous result – 6-1 over Uruguay at Mexico ‘86.
Largely in chronological order, Danish Dynamite takes us through the rise of this Danish team with great verve and with a clear passion for the subject. We are taken from the amateur days – as recent as the late 1970s – through a hugely significant sponsorship deal with Carlsberg that kicked off the development of football in the country, allowing professionalism, or at least the makings of it, to be allied to emerging talent. Sepp Piontek’s appointment in 1979 started to turn that potential, most of it attacking, into notable results against the best teams in Europe. Bobby Robson, the incumbent England manager, watched them defeat a star studded French side 3-1 and proclaimed them ‘the best team I have seen for 10-15 years’.
Dynamite’s authors pinpoint a 1-0 win at Wembley during qualification for the 1984 European Championship as a hugely significant moment in the growth of the team and evidence of the Danish Dynamite era really taking hold. It is said that 80% of the Danish population watched the game while the Wembley crowd chanted ‘what a load of rubbish’. In reality, however, expectations needed to be realigned – Denmark were now beating the best. In one of many enjoyable asides to the main narrative, the book reminds us at this point that those pre-professional, and pre-glory, days were not completely left behind – in north London, goalkeeper Ole Kjær made a stunning save in injury time from Luther Blissett and, 36 hours later, was back at his full time job at a sports shop in Ebsjerg.
Danish Dynamite takes great pleasure in describing the goals and the heroes of the Danish team with leading scorer Elkjær seeming to embody the blend of physicality and skill that characterized the unit. His hat-trick against Uruguay cemented his hero status and announced him to a wider world, but really they were his 34th, 35th and 36th goals for Denmark – in just his 58th cap. His partnership with the silky Laudrup was the envy of other nations.
Like many of this Danish side, Elkjær was also a success at club level: a transfer to Verona in 1982 led to the club’s first ever championship in his first season. In a vital match away at Juventus, he cut in from the left, losing his boot in a desperate challenge from the defender, side stepped another, before passing the ball into the net with his bootless foot.
Of course, with success, there was beer. The Carlsberg sponsorship and subsequent famous results might have helped, but the Danish players are said to have had a taste for a night out. The abilities of Sepp Piontek, that tough German manager, to curb these habits whilst retaining the attacking spirit and abandon on the pitch, is identified as perhaps the greatest reason for their relative success. Even so, there are plenty of alcohol soaked stories to be found within the pages here. Memorably, following the 3-1 victory over Italy that is seen to have started the Danish Dynamite era, Piontek ‘let’ the players have a few beers as long as they met curfew. Sure enough, they left the bars and went back to the hotel and up to their rooms. Piontek, perhaps thinking this was too good to be true, checked upstairs only to find the players had simply gone straight out the windows and back to the bar.
The key – and perhaps the most fascinating – section of the book, however, is the account of the team’s exploits at Mexico ‘86. It’s written partly as a history of the team – their tactics, their relationships, their ups and downs, but also an account of the memories of watching them live, the fan reactions, the perceptions in England and across Europe, and the visceral excitement of taking in these Danish performances. We are lucky enough to be able to watch back performances like the 6-1 vs Uruguay on YouTube – highly recommended, I might add, and indeed one feels driven there after reading the breathless descriptions of the goals within these pages.
A hint at why this team has endured in fan’s memories for so long can be found in the description of the roligans – the Danish fans. There are symbolic moments: the breathless 4-2 win over an excellent Yugoslavian side in 1984 in a game that kicked off early on Danish national holiday (referred to as The Game, here); the roligans bus, decorated in national colours, that followed the team around Mexico; the Danish World Cup single, Re-Sepp-Ten, which remains the fastest and biggest selling single in Danish history. Inspired by the music video of Re-Sepp-Ten, the cover of Danish Dynamite refers to the players as ‘rock stars in a polyester kit’.
Danish Dynamite seeks to remind us of why we love football – the excitement, the goals, the personalities. Yes winning is the goal, but the journey can often be the most memorable part.