The Group B opener at the Euro 2020 was certainly an eventful one. There won’t be anyone who witnessed it, whether on the stands of the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen or in front of a TV screen at home, at a pub or a friend’s house, who was left unmoved and didn’t feel scared for a human life for a number of minutes that seemed like days.
Anyone who follows the game at all will have heard and been aware of the quality of Christian Eriksen. The man whose football journey began with Odense Boldklub Youth in his Denmark, who joined the Ajax Under-19 side and signed his first professional contract there, who spent six and a half years with Tottenham Hotspur, helping them reach the 2019 Champions League final, before moving on to Inter Milan and winning the Serie A title with them in 2020-21. According to many, the best Danish footballer right now.
It was minute 42 of the match, goalless at the time, when it happened; how and why, medical experts will be the ones to ascertain. All the rest of us saw was a man stumble and fall to the ground with no visible reason, and stay there, unmoving, as his teammates, the opposition players and referee Anthony Taylor waved furiously for the medical team to come running.
It was, as has been said, a period when time stood still, when minutes seemed like days as we all waited for anything to tell us the 29-year-old would be alright. But early signs weren’t looking promising; do what they may, the medical team couldn’t get any reaction from Eriksen, and when they started administering CPR, the fear for his life felt by the entire football world at that moment climbed a number of levels higher. It could clearly be seen on the faces and in the gestures of the Finland players, as much as the Danes.
The rest of team Denmark stood shoulder-to-shoulder at that point, enclosing Eriksen and the medical team in a circle intended to prevent the cameras and the crowd looking on from the stands from seeing those stressful and private moments.
It was a commendable and very composed thing to do, but it should be said that it was in very poor taste from the camera people and the director of the TV coverage to keep filming and airing it, as well as showing Eriksen’s wife who came down, wearing a Denmark shirt with her husband’s name, and was comforted by defender Simon Kjaer and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. It caused a large amount of justified criticism. Screens were soon set all around, increasing the level of privacy, and they were later carried along with Eriken himself as he was stretchered off the pitch, shielding him from view all the way.
Information soon came that the attacking midfielder was taken to hospital and that his condition was stable, bringing huge relief with it. The people in the stands were asked not to leave and UEFA declared the match momentarily suspended. At 19:45 CET, which was about the time the match was supposed to end, it was declared that the match would recommence at 20:30, with the remining four minutes of the first half to be played first, followed by a five-minute break before the second half.
UEFA said that the players of both teams demanded for the match to go on, and later reports emerged that Eriksen himself spoke with his teammates from the hospital and urged them to play on.
It was a very brave decision from the Danes, to go on playing after going through an immense shock like that and when they returned to the pitch, they were welcomed by a roar of applause which started from the players of Finland. Messages of support for Eriksen kept appearing on social media, from clubs, players, coaches, fans and journalists alike. Inside the Parken Stadium, the Finland fans screamed “Christian!” and were replied by those of Denmark: “Eriksen!”.
The tragedy that seemed to loom over the Parken Stadium throughout these moments understandably recalled to mind the case of Fabrice Muamba, the former Bolton Wanderers midfielder who collapsed due to a sudden cardiac arrest during the 2012 FA Cup semifinal against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.
Muamba, whose heart had stopped working for whole 78 minutes on that day and who retired from playing on medical advice, said that what happened to Eriksen brought back emotions he never wanted to experience again.
These situations always bring up questions about the schedules professional players have to keep up with these days. Even more so in light of the disruption the Covid-19 pandemic has caused. It seems they really are being pushed to the point of exhaustion, so that even the medical checks they go through so frequently, conducted at the highest level imaginable, are still not enough to foresee or prevent such events.
As for Eriksen, it doesn’t seem very likely he’ll ever play professionally again. The game itself will have, in that case, lost a truly great player, but that’s probably the least important thing now. We often forget how young sports professionals are as human beings – the Dane, a husband and a father of two small children, came very close to losing his life at the age of 29.
Denmark’s fruitless domination
Meanwhile, it has to be said that Denmark dominated the contest completely from the first to the last whistle, ending it with 70% possession and a total of 22 shots, six on target. They found it easy time and again to reach the attacking third, they threatened from open play as well as from set-pieces, but it was difficult to create clear-cut chances against a determined defence and the large number of opposition players sitting very deep.
Even in the second half, shocked as they were by what had happened before the break, they continued attacking and Mathias Jensen, who replaced Eriksen on the pitch, took on the role of the main playmaker with great dedication. He was always there to take the ball and try and engage his forwards, but Finland simply held on.
It may seem strange to talk about anyone other than the medics and perhaps Simon Kjaer, who was first there to help Eriksen, as heroes, but Lukas Hradecky in the Finland goal was superb and his contribution to his team’s historic success was huge. He made several very difficult saves, including one from the penalty spot taken by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the absence of Eriksen.
Helped by his dedicated defenders, he was the main reason for Denmark failing to make their domination count on the scoreboard.
Finland were seen as the underdogs of the group, the only team nobody would have given a realistic chance of progressing from it; even now, with three unexpected points in the bag, it doesn’t look too likely with matches against Belgium and Russia still to come. Getting to the tournament for the first time ever was certainly a great success in the first place, and whatever happens next, they will return home with heads held high.
Joel Pohjanpalo, the 26-year-old striker who spent last season at Union Berlin on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, will be remembered as the scorer of the first Finland goal ever in a major international tournament, even more so for it being the winner. In other circumstances, it could probably have been avoided had Denmark left-back Joakim Maehle reacted quicker or had Schmeichel been up to his usual standars, but as it happened, nobody can blame them.
But even Pohjanpalo’s own memory of it will likely be tarnished by the prospect of tragedy which hung over the stadium and the consequent shock everyone involved will have gone through.
Finland are now second, behind Belgium who beat Russia by 3-0 in the other game of the opening round of Group B.
But football matters aside, it is to be hoped that players’ health and the fact that their bodies are being constantly overloaded will be taken more seriously than ever, that a way for the load to be reduced will be found and medical checks further improved, and that what happened to Christian Eriksen in this match will not happen again.
For the moment, the most important thing is that Eriksen is alive and well.
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