The tournament had taken on great significance, representing in many people’s eyes an example of hope and triumph over the pandemic that has wrought such havoc across the globe.
The month-long tournament, played across 11 European cities, generated excitement and anticipation from London to Baku, from Amsterdam to Bucharest as fans were permitted to attend matches after a year-long absence.
Wales and Switzerland played out the second match of the tournament, a relatively low-key 1-1 draw last Saturday before an all Nordic affair in Copenhagen as Denmark hosted tournament debutants Finland.
The atmosphere in the Parken Stadium was raucous and passionate as 16,000 people convened in high anticipation.
The hosts were quietly confident of not just their chances in the opening game but in a broader context of being able to advance deep into the tournament with players such as Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel, AC Milan’s Simon Kjaer and Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg adding quality and experience to a solid team.
Christian Eriksen, however, was the player all Danes looked to as their hero, their talisman, one of the greatest playing the game currently. A prodigy at Ajax before moving to Tottenham in 2013, the 29-year-old won the title in Italy last season with Inter Milan. He was at the peak of his powers, an attacking midfield with such astute craft that he always inspired fear into opponents.
Fearing the worst
In the 43rd minute of last Saturday’s encounter with Finland Eriksen made a routine run to collect a throw-in from a teammate. Prior to receiving the ball he started to waiver and lose his footing, eventually tumbling to the turf face-first.
No opposing player had been near him and it was immediately clear something was seriously wrong.
Captain Kjaer dashed to Eriksen’s aid, ensuring he had not swallowed his tongue and manouvering him into the recovery position. Players from both sides and English referee Anthony Taylor gestured frantically for the medical team to attend to the striken Dane and they were there within seconds.
Fearing the worst, the crowd fell silent. Millions watching around the world on TV no doubt did likewise. This was a hugely distressing incident to be an observer of. What had happened and what was happening, people asked as they looked on in helpless confusion.
The medics administered CPR then the defibrillator as Eriksen’s teammates formed a protective circle around him and the medical team to shield him from the spotlight of watching eyes in the ground and via TV broadcasts. Several were in tears of distress, covering their faces with their jerseys as they wept and refused to look back or down to their fallen mate.
‘He was gone’
After a while, Eriksen was carried on a stretcher from the field and it was clear from initial pictures that he was conscious. A Reuters photographer in the stadium said he saw player raise a hand to the crowd as he was carried from the pitch.
Eriksen was taken to Rigshospitalet hospital and shortly after the news everyone had been praying for was announced: that he was in stable condition.
Morten Boesen, the Danish team doctor who attended to Eriksen on the pitch, stated on Sunday there was still “no explanation” for why the midfielder had collapsed but did confirm he had suffered a cardiac arrest.
“He was gone, and we did cardiac resuscitation,” Boesen said.
“How close were we? I don’t know. We got him back after one defib (defibrillation), so that’s quite fast,” he added.
Surprisingly, the game was eventually completed after the news came through that Eriksen was in a stable condition, ending in a 1-0 win for Finland. Apparently, UEFA had given the players two options: to continue the game later that evening or at 12 noon the following day, an ultimatum that has drawn near universal scorn for its insensitivity.
But the game and the score were completely immaterial. Maybe even the entire competition would be. Such was the sheer shock of Eriksen’s ordeal that it delivered a sobering dose of perspective and left one seriously reevaluating priorities. Tributes and well wishes came flooding in from all over the world. It was clear Eriksen’s predicament had touched, shocked and scared many.
“He is one of us,” commented Danish journalist Troels Henriksen.
“He is the essence of normality. The average boy next door with a talent for football that was far from average.”
Naturally, Eriksen will remain in hospital for the immediate future as further tests are conducted and, despite it still being so soon after the incident, it seems highly unlikely that his mercurial talents will ever grace a professional football field again.
Danish head coach Kasper Hjulmand said that Eriksen had told him he wished for the team to carry on playing in the tournament.
“Christian wishes that we should continue playing, so we will do that. We want to play for Christian,” Hjulman said on Sunday.
Maybe, as we progress and hopefully a fit again Eriksen speaks publicly, the tournament can still serve as a celebration of a return to normality. However, the harrowing events in Copenhagen last Saturday have reminded us all that football is just a game between 22 players and not of life or death.
As Danish newspaper said so adroitly, “Denmark lost but life won.”