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Nigeria Finds Something Rotten in Denmark

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 29, 1998; Page C1

 Allan Nielsen of Denmark (right) and Mutiu Adepoju of Nigeria compete for a loose ball in their second-round match on Sunday.
(Michel Lipchitz/AP)
SAINT-DENIS, France — Just when it seemed that all was unfolding according to form in the 16th World Cup, Denmark rose up Sunday night with an astounding 4-1 victory over Nigeria, which had been considered the best team ever to come out of Africa. That's right, Denmark. With a modest World Cup history of only one previous appearance, the Danes stunned a Stade de France crowd of 80,000, including their own fans, who seemed to view their team's quick double strike in the opening minutes with disbelief before celebrating the improbable rout that was quickly underway.

Denmark scored just 2 minutes 9 seconds after the kickoff and again in the 12th minute against a team that appeared done in by overconfidence and what had always been perceived as its weaknesses — a porous defense and marginal goalkeeping. Talk about overconfidence: Just a few days ago, Nigeria's jovial and well-publicized, well-traveled coach, Bora Milutinovic, half-kiddingly said: "We've got a very important match coming up in Nantes" — a reference to a possible quarterfinal meeting Friday with Brazil.

But this time, the shrewd Bora was caught looking ahead and was left out in the chilly northern France night with his first disappointing coaching performance after successful runs in the last three Cups with Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States. Denmark joined the final eight for the first time and got the date with Brazil, while Africa's last hope in France failed to match Cameroon's quarterfinal finish of 1990.

Denmark was long viewed as a second-rate soccer country until the mid-1980s, when it put together an attractive squad even though the country had no professional soccer. The Danes made the second round of the 1986 World Cup finals, only to be clobbered by Spain, 5-1. This time, Denmark played quite unspectacularly in a weak Group C in the first round with a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, a 1-1 tie with South Africa and — not exactly roaring into the round of 16 — a 2-1 loss to France. Their three goals total in the group games was one goal fewer than their output Sunday night, and the 1-1-1 record was good enough to finish second in the bracket.

Between its Cup appearances, Denmark dropped a hint that it was improving with a surprise victory in the 1992 European championships in Sweden, beating Germany, 2-0, in the final. Denmark was a last-minute entrant in that event following the exclusion of war-torn Yugoslavia. In this World Cup, Denmark was given little chance against the Super Eagles, who had scored the most dramatic comeback of the tournament in beating Spain, 3-2. Now, Nigeria became the tournament's biggest upset victim.

"We played the old Danish way," said a happy Bo Johansson, the winning coach. And what was the old Danish way? "Well," he said, "we played a couple of excellent games in Mexico in 1986." How did he account for the unexpected rediscovery of the old Danish way? "Suddenly that is impossible to explain," he said with a laugh.

Michael Laudrup, 34, who goes back to the 1986 team, said Saturday after a practice at the Stade de France, sounding very much the dependable captain: "Even if Nigeria is the favorite and is a good team, it doesn't mean that we're coming to play a minor role. If I thought that the Nigerians would win, I wouldn't see any point in going out there to play. We saw today that Italy didn't have it so easy against Norway, supposedly a weaker team."

But few were listening to Laudrup. They heard only Milutinovic. Bora had built a reputation for a quirky excellence over the years, so no one was terribly startled when he fielded a starting lineup with no attackers and seven midfielders. Call it the 3-7-0. It seemed nervy of him to play without a striker in a game Nigeria had to win — and therefore had to score in — to advance to the quarterfinals. But most figured that one or more of his Super Eagles would come flying out of midfield and act like a striker.

What a turn of events when, as if propelled by a cool evening that had to help Denmark, Laudrup broke down the right side alone. He easily dropped the ball off to fellow forward Peter Moller, starting his first game of the tournament, for the easy opening goal. Shortly, Laudrup rolled a short free kick to Moller, who knocked a wicked shot under the leaping Jay-Jay Okocha into and off the hands of unsteady goalkeeper Peter Rufai. Laudrup's younger brother, Brian, was positioned in front to clean up as Rufai tumbled forward in futile pursuit of the ball.

Denmark's fans, clad in red and white, could not believe how dominant their team was, and their voices echoed in the packed but otherwise quiet arena. The second half proved even more embarrassing to Nigeria and Milutinovic.

By the time Denmark's excellent goalkeeper, 34-year-old Peter Schmeichel, was touched for a score by reserve Tijani Babangida, the Danes had opened a 4-0 lead on goals by reserve Ebbe Sand and midfielder Thomas Helveg. Sand set a World Cup record by scoring only 16 seconds after the ball was put into play once he had come on the field. He was set up by a deft lob from Michael Waldrup. Sand was surrounded by Heintze, Colding, Helveg and Nielsen, which sounds like a Copenhagen law firm.

So what does this biggest upset of the World Cup mean for the tournament?

"We have to keep trying," Johansson said. "Nigeria can't try anymore. We will play against the best team in the world. So far we know we are not the best team in the world. But we will give Brazil a tough game."

Denmark's victory eliminated a potentially attractive match between Brazil and Nigeria — although Brazil figured to win it, anyway. In Denmark, Brazil appears to have found an easier path to the semifinals. Even Johansson said, when asked how Nigeria managed to score its lone goal: "We are not that good."

In defeat, Nigeria failed in its quest to advance for all of Africa. "We realize that every African to expect us to beat Denmark to reach the quarterfinals," Milutinovic had said earlier.

After smiling at the kickoff, Milutinovic was glum late Sunday night. The Yugoslavian-born coaching vagabond had put his best lineup on the field, after using seven reserves in a meaningless loss to Paraguay — which may have put Nigeria's first-stringers off stride. Vaunted striker Daniel Amokachi still was injured, but his absence could hardly be deemed decisive. "I think we lost concentration after the 2-0," said Bora, a man of many languages, speaking in English. "It was very difficult to come back with something different. I am not happy to finish the World Cup this way. Now I go with my family. My future is my family. I'm a very happy man."

He didn't looked happy. And he certainly sounded as if he was saying goodbye to his fourth World Cup team and was available for hire for his fifth. The Nigerians were heading home, and he was staying for the rest of the World Cup. But Bora protested. "My English is not good, but I never say goodbye," he insisted.

Being in France, Bora, let's just say, au revoir, Nigeria.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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