Of great sportspeople, it is often said they give the illusion of having more time to spare than the mere mortals around them.
To watch Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen playing at peak authority is to glimpse some of that. He has no special jets in his heels, but he sees possibilities earlier than others.
He exudes a calm authority on his best days commanding the area between opposition six-yard box and halfway line. It can make him look unusually poised and patient in the helter-skelter of the Premier League.
On Tuesday night, Eriksen carries a disproportionate share of responsibility for challenging a powerful form of impatience – the impatience that nags at Spurs for their lack of recent medals.
Eriksen has helped the club to reach an unprecedented Uefa Champions League semi-final, and they would not have come even half as far without his late match-winner against Inter Milan to rescue a failing group phase campaign, not to mention his assists in three of out of four of their knockout fixtures.
To make the next step, at home to a vibrant Ajax in this evening’s first leg, his contribution looks even more vital in the enforced absence of Harry Kane, injured, and the suspended Son Heung-min.
Lately, Spurs have looked tired, while the club’s resident impatience is heard loud and clear. They have not won a trophy of any significance for more than a decade. Eriksen, who joined Spurs in 2013, has been a star for them for more than half that time.
He is 27 now, and used to confronting impatience. He grew up with it, as a genuine prodigy, celebrated across his native Denmark as a footballer before he was 10, urged to go where his talent would be fulfilled.
He went to Ajax’s renowned youth academy at 16 for a reported €1 million (Dh4m) fee. He was still a teenager when, with Ajax, he won his first senior cup and then a league title, and played in a World Cup where he was the youngest footballer of all the 736 involved.
Eriksen stayed at Ajax five seasons, more than enough time to get used to the ebb and flow of talent there.
The Dutch league provides far less of the financial scaffolding that allows the leading clubs in bigger nations than the Netherlands to build dynasties, so Ajax scout and nurture skilfully and hope to yield big transfer fees on selling the best.
Spurs have become a significant trading client. At Ajax, Eriksen won his first medals alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, both now teammates in North London; the trio in 2017 welcomed Davinson Sanchez to an ambitious, rising Tottenham as Spurs’ most expensive recruit, at close to €50m from Ajax just a year after the Dutch club had signed him from Colombia’s Atletico Nacional.
That was the kind of quick hopscotch through a career stepping-stone Eriksen used to be advised to take during his later Ajax years.
Instead, he was patient. “He was clever,” one former teammate says, “he chose his time to leave, realising he was still learning at Ajax.”
Those close to him admired his qualities of patience in an impatient sport.
Tottenham meanwhile hope Eriksen will show patience with them in the coming months, when he will be offered moves to clubs, in England or Spain which can present to him more impressive habits in terms of collecting major trophies, and a higher wage ceiling than the one Spurs work with while they budget for the costs of their new stadium.
More urgently, Spurs hope Eriksen’s patient, wise style of football will exert authority over 180 minutes against Ajax, a semi-final made more intriguing by the presence of perhaps four former Ajax men in Tottenham colours.
Sanchez, Eriksen, Alderweireld and Vertonghen moved on from Amsterdam because they felt they were moving up the ladder. On Tuesday night, they take on eight or nine footballers who have a similar aim in the near future.
Prodigies such as Matthijs de Ligt, the captain who, at 19, is mastering Ajax’s central defence as Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Sanchez once used to. Or like Frenkie de Jong, the midfielder who will this summer join Barcelona for around €75m. He is just 21 and, like Eriksen, joined the Ajax youth system in his teens.
De Jong may well find his wait for the game’s most prestigious trophies needs to be less patient than Eriksen’s.