our first World Cup is an experience that stays with you forever. Like the first film you saw at the cinema or the first single you bought, it’s part of a range of formative cultural experiences that help draft the early sketches of the person you will become. As the pioneer, it also offers the visceral thrill of the unknown in a way later tournaments can never quite replicate.
I was just shy of nine years old at the time of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The kick-off times at that tournament had been scheduled with a European audience in mind, but one with a much later bedtime than I had. My parents had rented a VCR just before that tournament, which removed that problem for me; matches could be recorded overnight and then replayed for my entertainment the following day. One of the first matches captured for future viewing was Denmark against Uruguay in Group E.
What I saw when I caught up with the game the next day blew my tiny mind. Denmark annihilated Uruguay – the reigning South American champions no less, and twice former winners of the World Cup – 6-1 in Neza. The emphatic margin of victory was overshadowed by the manner in which it was achieved. Compared to what I had seen so far in in the Canon Football League, this was like watching football through a kaleidoscope.
Denmark were devastating, individually and collectively. Preben Elkjær scored a hat-trick, while his striking partner Michael Laudrup sashayed through for a brilliant solo goal. The captain Morten Olsen strutted around at the back; Søren Lerby was relentless in midfield; and Frank Arnesen twisted the blood of the Uruguayans with his dribbling. There is the caveat that Uruguay were reduced to 10 men after 19 minutes, but by then Denmark were already in front and looking ominous.
After Laudrup made it 3-1 in the second half Denmark could have declared, particularly in the face of some ruthless tackling, but they were having far too much fun. They kept piling forwards in search of more goals and found them, handing Uruguay their worst ever defeat at the World Cup. Fluid bouts of possession seamlessly became sudden and incisive surges at goal, while celebratory oles from the crowd enhanced the sense of occasion. When Elkjær left the pitch at full time, one Danish fan handed him a bouquet of flowers.
The World Cup has never had more captivating debutants. Denmark attacked relentlessly, celebrated goals with childlike enthusiasm and were sporting the most iconic kit in the history of the tournament. They had already beaten Scotland prior to facing Uruguay and made light work of West Germany shortly afterwards. Group E had been dubbed the group of death before the tournament; the Danes had the time of their life. Then, 10 days after the Uruguay game, came the end. Denmark were walloped 5-1 by Spain in the second round and knocked out of the tournament.
It was one of the earliest indications that life would not always work out the way I wanted it to. Denmark’s high-octane attacking philosophy now worked against them as Spain mercilessly exposed them on the break. I couldn’t comprehend the result at the time, but it makes perfect sense now; burn brightly, explode, and then disappear. For the team immortalised in song as “Danish Dynamite” by their fans, there really was no other way to go out.
I watched that trouncing of Uruguay again and again until the recording was eventually taped over a few years later. It was immensely satisfying to reconnect with the game much further down the line and find that my memory had not tipped a bowl of sugar over it. Denmark had performed with extravagant skill and at blistering speed. It is strikingly futuristic while simultaneously providing a wonderful hit of nostalgia.
Denmark did not win that World Cup, but they did win something else: entry into an elite pantheon of teams whose impact on the tournament was so profound that it transcended the fact they did not lift the trophy. It’s an intangible reward, but one worth celebrating. And if you’re lucky enough to see such a team as an impressionable kid, it never leaves you.
Michael Gibbons is the co-author of Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team with Rob Smyth and Lars Eriksen.