“Christian!” shouted the Finland fans.
“Eriksen!” the Denmark fans replied.
On an extraordinary day in Copenhagen, that was perhaps the most extraordinary moment, a poignant reminder of the togetherness football can occasionally provide.
What was most horrifying, perhaps, was how familiar so much of the scene was. Parken, one of Europe’s grand old stadiums, the distinctive steep stands and square corners instantly identifiable. The late afternoon sunshine illuminating fans clad in Denmark shirts and daubed in red and white face paint and, behind one goal, the 3,000 in white and blue who had come from Finland to see their team’s first appearance at a major tournament. So far, so mundane.
But the referee and his team officials stood on the halfway line on one side of the pitch, talking to the managers. In the far corner, a huddle of Denmark players protectively surrounded a stricken teammate as medics tried to resuscitate him. An awful hush had fallen over the stadium—and there is nothing so silent as a silent crowd.
In an instant the mood had changed. For 41 minutes, it had been an unremarkable game. Denmark looked better, had chances, but as the goal didn’t come, it became a little ragged. Then the ball went out of play on the Denmark left, deep in the Finnish half. The throw was taken, Christian Eriksen moved toward it and never got there. He collapsed. His body went limp and he fell face first to the grass, the ball bouncing away off his knee.
Immediately it was obvious something was badly wrong. Both Danish and Finnish players instantly called for help, which was summoned by the referee Anthony Taylor. As medics raced across the pitch and began to apply CPR, there was a sense of hushed disbelief. Erisken’s wife came down to stand by the side of the pitch and was comforted by Denmark captain Simon Kjaer and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel
“I didn’t see it myself but it was pretty clear that he was unconscious,” said the national team doctor Morten Boesen. “When I get to him he is on his side. He is breathing and I can feel his pulse but suddenly that changes and as everyone saw, we started giving him CPR. Help came really, really fast from the medical team and the rest of the staff and with their cooperation we did what we had to do. We managed to get Christian back. He spoke to me before he was taken to the hospital for more analysis.”
Once it was clear Eriksen was stable, conscious and talking in hospital, the players were given two options: to play on or to return at 2 p.m. tomorrow. “There was no pressure from UEFA to play tonight,” said the manager Kasper Hjulmand. “We knew we had two options. The players couldn’t imagine not being able to sleep tonight and then having to get on the bus and come in again tomorrow. Honestly it was best to get it over with. Of course you can’t play a game with such feelings and what we tried to do was incredible.”
As it was, Denmark lost 1-0 to a Joel Pohjanpalo header, a remarkable result for Finland. What should have been a glorious night for them was obviously overshadowed, though. It should not be begrudged its celebrations, but as Hjulmand observed, this was fundamentally a reminder about the place of sport.
In those minutes when Eriksen lay stricken and it was unclear whether he would survive, there seemed a very real possibility a tournament that has come to stand as a symbol of resilience, of the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 crisis, may end up being canceled. “It was a tough night,” Hjulmand said. “We are all reminded what the most important thing in life is and that is to have valuable relations. We have a group of players I can’t praise enough. I couldn’t be prouder of these people who take such good care of each other at such a time where one of my very, very dear friends is suffering. I can feel that it means something and now I see how everyone reaches out to their family right now and tries face-timing them.”
When Eriksen’s Inter teammate Romelu Lukaku scored against Russia, he celebrated by mouthing the words, “I love you, Chris,” into a camera. And his well-being, really, is by far the most important thing now.
“All of our thoughts and prayers are with Christian and his family right now,” said Hjulmand. “Christian is one of our best players and he’s an even better person, so all my thoughts and all my positive energy go out to Christian.”
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