Four months and two days ago, the finest Danish footballer of his generation collapsed on the pitch on the opening weekend of the European championship.
An initial medical diagnosis matched the sense of alarm among those watching in Copenhagen’s Parken stadium. “He was gone,” the team doctor later said of the moment he felt for Christian Eriksen’s heartbeat and immediately set about vital emergency procedures.
Colleagues had already helped save Eriksen’s life, Simon Kjaer, the Denmark captain, among the first to react when his teammate fell to the ground in the 43rd minute of the game against Finland. Kjaer administered the preliminary CPR that would coax Eriksen back to consciousness by the time he arrived in hospital.
He and Kjaer were speaking the next day, and still do so regularly, as close friends and near neighbours. Kjaer plays for AC Milan, Eriksen is under contract at Inter Milan in the same city and has not given up hope that he may eventually be cleared by heart specialists to play football again.
Those who helped save the life of Eriksen, men such as Kjaer and the Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, have in the period since been performing impeccable professional feats for a national team that soars and soars, even without their recovering superstar.
Kjaer and Schmeichel are part of a defence that has become almost peerless. Nobody has scored against Denmark for approaching eight hours and counting of competitive action. No team in 12 hours of World Cup qualifying has managed a goal against the Danes, which is part why they became second only to Germany — by 24 hours — to qualify for the 2022 finals. And Germany did so with some imperfections, letting in goals on their road to Qatar 2022; they have also scored four fewer than Denmark’s stunning 27 goals in their eight games.
A fourth goal of the campaign for Joakim Maehle against Austria on Tuesday night made Denmark uncatchable at the top of European Group F. Maelhe, a wing-back, is now the joint leading Danish marksman for the qualifiers. It’s a measure of the shared responsibility, the team ethic, that 16 different players have contributed goals. Kjaer, the central defender, has two.
A glance back to their previous World Cup journey, to reach Russia in 2018, makes for a poignant comparison, a reminder how Denmark have evolved. In those qualifiers, Eriksen scored 11 times in 11 matches, and directly set up four more goals. But the Danes of 2017 still needed a play-off to reach the finals, against Ireland, winning it 5-1 in the second leg with Eriksen registering a hat-trick. Back then, opponents had no trouble identifying the single player who made Denmark special.
Nobody would claim he is not missed by his national team, nor that a dashing, well-organised side would not be an even more potent force with their iconic creator-in-chief channelling passes to and from the likes of Maehle. And every member of the squad say they feel Eriksen is still inspiring them, in spirit if not on site.
“There’s maybe a day, sometimes two, when I don’t think about what happened [when Eriksen collapsed], but no more than that,” Kjaer told Bild-Zeitung this week. “The period after the incident was tough for us as a team. Coming back to the Parken Stadium, the memories of what happened do return.”
Denmark showed extraordinary resilience in the days after Eriksen’s life-changing moment. After news reached shaken teammates that he was stable in hospital they were obliged to play out the remaining 47 minutes of the match against Finland. They lost 1-0. They were then defeated in their second Euro 2020 group game, against Belgium.
But from that point, Denmark built up an extraordinary momentum, putting four goals each past Russia and Wales, and overcoming an unforgiving travel schedule to reach the semi-final via a victory over the Czech Republic. Only a narrow, extra-time defeat to England at Wembley kept them from the final.
“We reached the semi-final but I wanted more,” said Kjaer, after Denmark secured their early spot at the next major tournament. “We all want more.”
They would love to have Eriksen alongside them, as their lodestar again, but he has several rounds of careful medical assessment ahead, with another scheduled for later this month, to establish whether he might safely play professionally. He was fitted with a cardiac defibrillator, and under Italian league rules that would prevent him playing for Inter, though other leagues do not impose the same rules.
His international colleagues share just one wish for Eriksen’s future. “The only thing that matters is that Christian is well,” said Kjaer. “Anything else is secondary.”