Preben Elkjaer proved three things in his career: You don’t have to be short to be a sensational dribbler. You don’t have to be serious to be successful. And you don’t need shoes to score goals.
With his crazy dribbles, tank-like physique and clownish actions Preben Elkjaer was perhaps Europe’s most eye-catching player in the mid 80’s. He led both club and country to unprecedented success and finished twice on the podium of the Ballon d’Or. But how many football fans today are still familiar with Elkjaer?
Far too few. One place where they’ll never forget him though is the Italian city of Verona. It was there that Elkjaer achieved the greatest upset of not just his career, but the entire history of Italian football. In the 1984-85 season not the great Juventus, or AC Milan, or Inter, or Maradona´s Napoli, or even AS Roma managed to win the Scudetto. Instead, it was Elkjaer’s Hellas Verona. The Danish dribbler stole the show by scoring the iconic goal of that campaign against Platini´s Juventus. As he launched another solo, he lost his right boot, kept going, glided past another defender, and scored with his sock. The footage of this famous goal is included in the special video 4Dfoot created for this edition of Forgotten Footballer:
Elkjaer’s exploits changed Italian football. In the past, a single man had been responsible for appointing referees. An easy target for Italian-style influencing by rich presidents of big clubs. For the 1984/85 season, the Italian FA had replaced this practise with a system of random referee appointments. Coincidence or not – it was that year that Verona won the Serie A. Shocked by the result, the Italian FA quickly reinstated their referee-appointer, to the satisfaction of a few wealthy presidents. Since then, no minor side has ever won the Serie A again. It makes Elkjaer’s achievement with Verona all the more extraordinary.
Another place where Elkjaer is still remembered fondly is Denmark. Before he arrived on the scene, the Danes had never even qualified for a major tournament. With Elkjaer leading the line of a great generation, Denmark surprised the world with spectacular performances in both the 1984 Euro and 1986 World Cup. The Danes appeared to actually enjoy playing football, and Elkjaer symbolized their care-free attitude more than anyone. Where others were seen labouring hard to maintain a disciplined work-rate, Elkjaer appeared to laugh his way to success. The crowds loved him for it. His coaches didn’t. On one occassion, years earlier, the German disciplinarian Hennes Weisweiller informed Elkjær that he knew the player had visited a nightclub in the company of a bottle of whiskey and a lady. Elkjaer responded that it was all a lie. It had been a bottle of vodka. And two ladies.
This same boldness that he showed off the field enabled him to take on defender after defender on the field. In Mexico 1986, he scored a hat trick in Denmark’s 6-1 demolition of Uruguay and was voted third best player of the tournament. Denmark went home after the first KO game, but Elkjaer had left his impression on the world.
An impression that, sadly, hasn’t lasted as long as it should have.
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