Tears, toil, triumph, thankfulness – Denmark’s Journey at Euro 2020

July 9, 2021

Denmark’s journey at this year’s Euros came to an end on Wednesday as they bowed out of the competition at the hands of England in a 2-1 defeat at the semi-final stage.

But this piece isn’t a detailed analysis of their loss. Rather, it’s a look back on the road they took and the emotions they invoked in all of us. It’s a note of gratitude from just another football fan.

Going into the tournament, Denmark were already considered as one of the so-called “dark horses”. They had a coherent squad of players who were well used to each other’s personalities and playing styles right from the youth setup. In a group of Finland, Belgium and Russia, with all of their group-stage games set to be played at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, home, getting into the knockouts was not considered an insurmountable task.

But nothing could have prepared them for what transpired in their first match against Finland.

The feeling of jubilation and excitement that surrounded Parken that evening soon turn to shock and horror when Christian Eriksen conspicuously fell to the ground in what we now know was a cardiac arrest. Everyone realised immediately that something grave had happened, and the Danish players quickly surrounded their comrade to offer privacy as their medics rushed onto the pitch.

A grievous tornado engulfed the stadium, and soon the entire footballing world, with the 29-year-old at its centre.

As minutes passed with no updates, visual or otherwise, tears began to flow for the onlookers as the mind began to wander towards the worst-case scenario. The players that encircled Eriksen looked ashen-faced as they ill-managed to look at what was happening just behind them. Spectators and the teams’ staff gazed from afar with their heads in hands, incredulity rampant and palpable. Eriksen, barely visible underneath his encirclement of privacy, lay motionless as the medics looked hasty in applying chest compressions.

As they would go on to tell us afterwards, “he was gone”.

Time stretched infinitely in those moments as the footballing world came together to latch onto whatever hope it could muster. The match, in that instant, didn’t matter. The Euros didn’t matter.

Football didn’t matter.

And then, life prevailed.

Christian Eriksen, revived at the first CPR attempt, was stretched out of Parken that now echoed with fans of both contingents complementing each other in chanting his name. An event no one would anticipate or ask for ultimately united the world in celebrating what was now a 40-yard screamer into the top corner from Life herself.

Also Read – A word on Christian Eriksen…

As Eriksen bettered in a hospital adjacent to the stadium, epiphanies emanated from all corners of the world, reinforcing the good old adage of football being “the most important of the least important things.”

The match, now set to resume under controversial circumstances, paled into insignificance. As far the Danes were concerned, they had already won their biggest match of the tournament. Finland, on the other hand, would go on to record a historic first victory in a major tournament post the resumption of the match, albeit to muffled celebrations. The win just did not – could not – feel like a triumph compared to what had preceded it.

The Danish players, among many others present that day at Parken, were provided counselling in the immediate aftermath of the Eriksen incident. It was unquestionably harsh to ask the players involved in the game that day to carry on with the match when the healthiest option would have been to extricate them out of the tournament bubble and let them process and recuperate from the incident away from the heat of football. With Eriksen in hospital, the Danish team not only lost a friend, they also lost a senior figure in the dressing room and arguably their best player of this generation. Understandably, any and all expectations that were put on the Danish team before the tournament were now taken off them. No one would have blamed them for even wanting to curtail the tournament prematurely and just go home.

But the Danes had a different plan. An already-together team were now brought even closer by the near-tragedy. They were not going to leave the Euros without making a good show of themselves on the pitch.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Denmark followed their result against Finland with a 2-1 defeat to Belgium. With two losses, their tournament seemed to have all but concluded by the group stage. But the admission of third-place teams into the knockouts gave De rød-hvide a sliver of hope going into their match against Russia.

And they capitalised on their final chance resoundingly. A 4-1 victory over Russia made Denmark the first team to qualify for the knockouts despite two defeats, as they converged on the centre circle at full-time watching the results elsewhere on a phone to check the confirmation of their qualification. Having been dealt the worst of hands, the Danes were now out on the other side of the tunnel. And they were ready to run with this reinforced sense of unity.

Losing Eriksen made the Danish players take even more responsibility all over the pitch. Coach Kasper Hjulmand not only offered composure in the face of unforeseen adversity, his malleable tactics fit brilliantly with this set of Danish players that were well versed with each other, now more together than ever.

In the Round of 16, Denmark dispatched an exciting Wales side 4-0. The Welsh were semi-finalists at the previous Euros and were riding high off their group-stage performances, but that proved to be no match for the Danes. In the subsequent quarter-final, Denmark saw off the Czech Republic with a 2-1 victory. This was a much tighter affair, and the second half saw the Czechs come out all guns blazing to deal with a 2-0 deficit, which they halved inside four minutes. Yet, the Danish resolved persevered, and despite their laudable show at the tournament, it was time for the Czechs to bow out.

And just like that, from the jaws of an early exit, three back-to-back victories sent Denmark into the semi-finals. Having already won the world over by their comportment on the opening day, the Danes were now living up to their dark-horse expectations despite losing their best player. Echoes of their triumph at the 1992 Euros began to loom large in the distance, and although this tournament had already been a resounding success in more ways than one, Destiny seemed to offer little against Denmark’s chances to go all the way.

Then came England, a team intent on writing their own enticing narrative.

A 30th-minute sumptuous free kick from Mikkel Damsgaard saw Denmark take the lead against England in the semi-final. The Scandinavian nation erupted, electrified with a sudden jolt of hope, as the English conceded their first goal of the tournament.

Could it actually happen?

Alas, no.

The 39th minute saw Simon Kjær at the end of a well-worked passing move from England as he (mis)guided the ball into his own net – a cruel footnote in the story of the 32-year-old who has emerged as a true hero in every sense of the meaning over the tournament.

After that, as the minutes passed and the match progressed into the final quarter of the 90 minutes, the difference in quality and squad depth between the two sides became more and more apparent. This English side had proven over the course of the tournament that they were not plagued by the club-based division that hampered their golden generation, neither were they prone to collapse in the face of a challenge unlike the players of yore. Thus, after going 1-0 down, they managed to keep their heads and get back into the game.

Denmark did drag the match into extra time, but at that point it had become painfully clear that this emotionally-fuelled juggernaut had little left to offer. The penalty decision that eventually gave England their second goal in the 104th minute was undoubtedly a preposterous one, but at the end of 120 minutes there was no doubt as to which team were better on the day and hence, deserved to go through.

The Danish players fell onto the green Wembley grass at the full-time whistle that signalled the end of their journey. There would be time afterwards to analyse what went wrong, but for now, it was time to take a deep breath. The 2020 Euros had taken from them every ounce of energy they could offer. As the English nation roared around them at the prospect of their first major final in 55 years, the small Danish contingent at one corner of the stadium cheered on their national heroes, echoing through a thousand voices the thoughts of millions – that they were comprehensively proud of their players.

When you strip away the mechanics of football, all that remains is the narrative. And as humans, we are all prone to falling hard for a story that takes us on an emotional rollercoaster. This Euros, Denmark became the conduit for such a ride. The players became heroes, none more so than Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær, by showing resolution in the face of hardship, unity in the face of despair, and ability in the face of a challenge.

They might be going home without the trophy, but theirs isn’t a story of failure. It’s a story of life finding a way to persevere and bounce back, even from the harshest of times – quite fitting in a COVID-hit reality. It’s this ability of football to tell real, life-celebrating stories that brings people together and towards the sport.

And on that note, dear Denmark, thank you for taking us on this journey. There isn’t a trophy at the end of the road, but you will have found a million hearts won.

Come Sunday, Italy and England will be locking horns at the final of the 2020 Euros, but football, in more ways than one, has already come home.

Anshuman Joshi

Anshuman Joshi is a senior writer at SportsKhabri with special focus towards all things football. His other interests include languages, world history and some good fiction.

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