When Danish dynamite first exploded
When Danish dynamite first exploded
It was a historic day for Ulrik Wilbek, 27 January 2008 in Lillehammer.
The current mayor of the city of Viborg in Denmark became the first person in handball to steer a team to the title at a Men’s EHF EURO having previously won the Women’s EHF EURO.
Wilbek had led the Danish women to the European title in 1994 and 1996, and now, 12 years later in Norway, he was at the helm of the Danish men’s team when they won their first EHF EURO gold.
Of course, it was a historic day not just for Wilbek but for Danish handball in general. The 24:20 win over Croatia in the final gave the men their first gold medal, after the women had already won many trophies.
The triumph paved the way for players like Lars Christiansen, Joachim Boldsen, Hans Lindberg or Lasse Boesen to become national heroes.
After several bronze medals at European and World Championships Denmark were eager to go all the way at EHF EURO 2008, but Croatia were in the favourites’ role, with Ivano Balic on the height of his career.
Denmark were beaten only once in the tournament - by hosts Norway in the opener of the preliminary round. Croatia’s only defeat before the final was a big one: 30:20 against Denmark in the main round. Croatia also drew with Norway, just getting the point they needed to reach the semi-final.
Both semi-final opponents, Germany and France, got stuck in a snow storm on their way from Trondheim to Lillehammer. Both teams arrived several hours later than planned - and both lost their semi-final: France were unluckily edged at the end by Croatia (24:23), while Christiansen scored a buzzer-beating penalty for Denmark to beat 2007 world champions Germany also by a single goal (26:25).
The main breaking point came in the first half, between minutes 22 and 26: Denmark had an 8:1 run to turn a 9:8 deficit into a healthy 16:10 lead.
There was another crucial moment in the second half, with 10 minutes left on the clock, when an incredible save of goalkeeper Kasper Hvidt denied Croatia a goal for what would have been 19:17, while Denmark pulled further ahead (20:16) in the counter-attack.
It broke Croatia’s resistance and their head coach Lino Cervar saw the red card for complaining.
Player of the match: Kasper Hvidt
The EHF EURO 2008 final was probably the match of his life. Danish goalkeeping legend Kasper Hvidt turned around the match almost on his own in the first half, standing like a wall against Balic & Co. Hvidt, who played for Barcelona at that time, was included in the All-star Team.
Two years later, after the 5/6 placement match at the EHF EURO 2010 in Vienna, Hvidt retired from the national team - and was succeeded by young Niklas Landin - though he played for seven more years for several Danish clubs.
Unsung hero: the Danish fans in Lillehammer
Danish handball fans are famous for their voices and songs, the traditional anthem is “Vi er röde, vi er hvide” (We are red, we are white).
But they not only cheered their own heroes after the final: when the All-star Team was announced, they all were shouting “Ivano Balic” for minutes and they gave the Croatian playmaker a big hand when he received his award.
“Though I was really down after losing the final, this moment was absolutely emotional,” Balic said some years later.
“I guess, we will have one, two beers, when we are back in Denmark. To be serious: I guess, hell broke loose already, and we will have handball party like we never had before. When I was standing on the podium, shivers went down my spine, as if I was a little boy,” said legendary left wing Lars Christiansen, who still is the record player and record scorer for Denmark.
Play of the day
The four seconds in minute 50 that removed any doubt: Tonci Valcic broke through the Danish defence but fails against keeper Kasper Hvidt, the ball gets to Lars Christiansen, counter-attack, goal, 20:16. It’s all decided!
Since finally getting their first gold, Denmark have belonged to the absolute top of the world.
In 2011 they made it to their first World Championship final in Sweden, but lost against France after extra time. In 2012 they won the EHF EURO again, in Serbia. In 2013, they lost their next World Championship final, against hosts Spain. In 2014, they made it to the EHF EURO final at home, but were again defeated by France.
The missing trophies were added in 2016 (Olympics in Rio) and 2019 (World Championship, co-hosted with Germany).
Croatia have appeared in most semi-finals of major events since 2008, but failed to win another trophy since their 2004 Olympic title.
On EHF EURO level, Croatia lost two more finals, in 2010 (against France) and 2020 (Spain), each time with coach Lino Cervar on their bench.
For the first and so far only time an EHF EURO tournament ended with three top scorers: France’s Nikola Karabatic (who was also named MVP), Croatia’s Ivano Balic (All-star centre back) and Denmark’s Lars Christiansen (All-star left wing) all scored 44 times. France’s Daniel Narcisse finished very close to the leading trio, with 43 goals.
Photo Ulrik Wilbek © 2014 Uros Hocevar