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Shadow of triumph: Danish football hero Lars Elstrup's inner struggle

BY Carsten Fog Hansen and Jens Rasmussen

24th Jan 2024 Sport

4 min read

Shadow of triumph: Danish football hero Lars Elstrup's inner struggle
Despite becoming a football hero for both the Danish national team and Luton Town, Lars Elstrup struggled with performance anxiety and depression, even during the 1992 European Championship final and victory
In their new book The Unhappy Hero: A Revealing Insight into the Turbulent Life of Lars Elstrup, Danish Darling and Luton Town Striker, Carsten Fog Hansen and Jens Rasmussen take a close look at how a Danish football hero felt huge psychological pressure despite his success. After helping Denmark to a surprise victory at the 1992 European Championship and rescue Luton Town from relegation, Lars Elstrup left top-level football in 1993 for a fresh start and a spiritual path.
However, after joining the cult The Heart of the Sun, he discovered he could not escape his demons and mental health struggles. The book examines the emotionally turbulent life of a scandalous football figure, who battled both on and off the pitch. In this extract, it looks at the shadow of triumph that hung over Elstrup during the 1992 European Championship final, as Denmark surprised the world but the number ten didn’t feel like celebrating.

1992 European Championship

Danish football fans at the Euro 2012 tournament
The nation is in a state of collective ecstasy and wants more, and the sports press covers the event extensively. But for Lars, a transformation occurs, as sudden as it is overwhelming.
Dark thoughts are once again penetrating his mind.  

The sudden shift: Lars' descent into darkness amid national ecstasy

“There was suddenly a shift from the previous games where I felt ready to play, felt I had good legs, and felt good enough. And it happened during the four days between the semi-final and the final against Germany,” says Lars.
"For Lars, the final will remain a sad and hazy memory of the horror and fear that have plagued him"
He cannot pinpoint exactly when the gloom clouds his mind. During a night’s sleep in the luxurious yacht hotel? While having breakfast in the restaurant? Under the shower after a training session? Out on the training field? He doesn’t know. He just feels it as it is: utterly overwhelming and darkening. And he can feel that it radically disrupts his mental balance.
For Lars, the match against Germany will remain a sad and hazy memory of the horror and fear that have often plagued him. But it happens right in the middle of the greatest triumph ever experienced by the Danish national team. A football match watched by virtually the entire Danish population and millions of football enthusiasts worldwide.

A tumultuous final: Wrestling with gloom on the sidelines

The final for the European Championship has not yet kicked off, but for Lars, it’s already over.
Whereas Lars has been frustrated in previous matches for not getting the chance to start, he now feels relieved when the coach announces the starting line-up with Povlsen and Brian Laudrup up top. Lars is fortunately relegated to the bench. And that’s exactly where he wants to be when he has to be present at the stadium.
Far enough away from the centre of events. Not involved in the greatest sports event in Danish history. On the bench, he still feels the intrusive anxiety of making sudden mistakes. But on the bench, he cannot make those mistakes. And nobody is looking at him. All eyes are focused on the game on the field. And he’s not there. And hopefully, he won’t have to be.

The inner turmoil: Indifference and anxiety during Denmark's climactic battle

For Lars, it’s all just the same. He doesn’t care about the result of the match right now. He doesn’t have the energy or focus for it. The only thing that matters to him is to stay safely on the bench.
“I really don’t care if we win or lose, as long as I don’t have to go on the field,” he says. “And I’m afraid that we’ll fall behind because then I might have to go on the field, just like against France.”
But Lars doesn’t have to worry about that. His former teammate from Brøndby, John “Faxe” Jensen, puts Denmark in the lead after 18 minutes with his legendary long shot.
"I really don't care if we win or lose, as long as I don't have to go on the field"
The Germans press and press, and Schmeichel and his defence have to resort to all kinds of manoeuvres to fend off the impending equaliser. It’s all about defence now.
Lars doesn’t feel good, but he can breathe just a little easier. And even more so when Vilfort, in the 79th minute, holds off two Germans in a counterattack and shoots the ball low into the net via the post. Flemming Toft, the commentator, lets out a loud “hutlihut”, a nonsensical word that has since become a part of the Danish vocabulary. Denmark are leading 2-0, with a measly 12 minutes remaining.
The victory is almost secured. All that remains for Denmark is to maintain their defensive and destructive discipline against the increasingly resigned Germans. For that purpose, Denmark’s creative and goalscoring number ten requires no effort, and that fact warms his heart. It’s his personal joy. His inner hutlihut.

Contrasting emotions: Celebrating a national victory while battling personal demons

European Championship trophy
The subsequent celebrations in the seconds and minutes after the final whistle are of historical magnitude for Denmark. But for Lars, the scenes of celebration, the presentation of the European Championship trophy, and the lap of honour are things to be endured.
Lars’s emotions are in an almost absurd contrast to what surrounds him. Victorious Danish players, the coach, and team managers, and ecstatic and happy fans in the stands.
UEFA’s Swedish president, Lennart Johansson, proclaims Denmark as “EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS 1992” over the loudspeakers, and captain Lars Olsen and later the other players proudly lift the trophy amid a rain of camera flashes. The stadium explodes in more jubilant outbursts.

The aftermath: Reflecting on the victory and the unseen struggle

“Just after the match ended, I thought I should sneak down to the group of celebrating players,” Elstrup says as he begins his recollection.
“And then we went on a victory lap, where Schmeichel was out at the fence to celebrate with the travelling Danish fans. I continued to sneak around, chatted a bit with the other substitutes, but I couldn’t show any particular joy.
"Schmeichel was out celebrating with the Danish fans but I couldn't show any particular joy"
“When we received the trophy, Flemming Povlsen stood there and cried with happiness. But I positioned myself at the back with the others who hadn’t played much or at all.
“Actually, I just wanted to go back to the hotel, where I could feel safe.”
unhappy hero
The Unhappy Hero (Pitch Publishing) by Carsten Fog Hansen and Jens Rasmussen is available now in hardback
Banner photo: Denmark celebrating their Euro 1992 victory. Lars Elstrup, back row, sixth from left (credit FIFA)
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