London (AFP) – Denmark’s run to the Euro 2020 semi-finals was even more of a fairytale for the nation of five million people after their near-tragic start to the tournament.
On the opening weekend of the Euro, Christian Eriksen, his country’s star player for the best part of a decade, collapsed on the field against Finland after suffering a cardiac arrest.
As his teammates formed a protective circle around the Inter Milan midfielder to shield him from the cameras, captain Simon Kjaer and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel consoled his sobbing partner on the side of the pitch.
Thanks to the rapid medical response, Eriksen was resuscitated after one defibrillation and able to leave hospital less just six days later.
Three-and-a-half weeks on from the incident, Denmark were still in contention to repeat their shock success at Euro 92, which they won having initially failed to qualify thanks to Yugoslavia’s expulsion.
In the end, lightning did not strike twice. England, roared on by a 65,000 crowd at Wembley, booked their place in the final of a European Championship for the first time with a controversial 2-1 win after extra time.
The winning goal came about after a dubious penalty was awarded for Joakim Maehle’s challenge on Raheem Sterling.
Schmeichel — a hero on and off the field for Denmark — saved Harry Kane’s spot-kick, but the England captain swept home the rebound to spark jubilant scenes of celebration.
“One thing is to lose a game, but losing this way is a disappointment because these guys have fought a lot,” said Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand. “It’s a bitter way to leave a tournament.”
– Physical and mental toll –
In time, Denmark will reflect on a emotional rollercoaster with nothing but pride for a squad who played plenty of slick football to go with their determination, courage and fight.
Russia and Wales were swept aside in four-goal thrashings before seeing off the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
But that 9,000 kilometre (5,592 mile) round-trip to Azerbaijan and the physical and mental toll of the past month finally caught up with Hjulmand’s men.
After Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick put them 1-0 up at Wembley, Kjaer’s own goal left them struggled to resist wave upon wave of English attack.
“I can’t describe with words how much I admire the technical staff behind these players. They have been through so much. Two of them saved the life of one of our best players,” said Hjulmand, reflecting on his side’s journey.
“We have been fighting like crazy, we played good football and I am grateful for the entire nation. We needed the support, the empathy, after what happened with Christian.
“We’ve been receiving a lot of love and support, it was amazing to feel. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the final but our future is full of hope and belief. These guys are outstanding and a whole nation can be proud.”
Amid complaints about the controversial penalty call from Dutch referee Danny Makkelie and a format that has seen England benefit from home advantage for six of their seven games, there was immense pride in Denmark on Thursday.
“The national team lost the match but won the whole kingdom,” said the Politiken newspaper.
Denmark’s talented generation will fancy their chances of another long run with the World Cup in Qatar just 16 months away.
But after seeing pre-tournament favourites France as well as Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands bow out, their chance to emulate the heroes of Euro 92 may have gone.
“It’s been emotional for the entire team,” said Barcelona forward Martin Braithwaite. “It’s amazing to be Danish and be part of this. We wanted to be in that final so this is a great disappointment.”