Denmark players around Christian Eriksen who collapsed
Denmark players around Christian Eriksen who collapsed
AFP

London: "Over the years, we have talked about how unique this group is and sometimes you can hear that too often. It can be a bit boring to hear how fantastic we think we are, but when things get rough, you can see how people react."

Those were the words of Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel on 14 June, just 36 hours after Christian Eriksen's medical emergency during the team's opening game against Finland.

Time stood still for those of us at the game in Copenhagen that day. The image of Eriksen's team-mates spontaneously forming a protective cordon around him while he received treatment will stay with me forever.

Denmark were shocked but a team united, a country united. "I'm looking forward to starting training," said striker Martin Braithwaite. Schmeichel offered similar sentiments: "I think it will be nice to touch a ball again and get a sense of joy back." The team needed to get back to playing football.

"We're not only going to play for Christian," said coach Kasper Hjulmand ahead of the Matchday 2 game against Belgium. "We're going to play for who we are, our identity and the whole of Denmark who experienced what happened to us. We're not done with this tournament."

Those words now seem prophetic, but Hjulmand is no fortune teller. He is a coach who knows his team and what they are capable of. He managed to pull them together enough to put in a fine showing against the world's number-one-ranked side.

"I don't think I have experienced anything so emotional before," said Pierre-Emile Højbjerg after the 2-1 loss. "Never. It was as if everyone was united around this one thing. I've never seen or felt it. It's one thing to see, another to feel. Never felt it before."

The atmosphere did something to the team. The players touched the fans, and the fans moved the players. Jannik Vestergaard put it best.

"I have found the little boy inside me, the little boy from the playground, from when I was a child," he said. "The little boy and the joy of the game and the joy of life, in general, has come out in all of us, and I think you could see that."

This was after two defeats, remember. And it showed that there was something afoot in the Denmark camp; they were fuelled by something different. Then came Matchday 3 against Russia.

When Andreas Christensen fired into the net from distance to put the hosts 3-1 ahead, the roof came off Parken Stadium. Denmark were through.

"It's the first time I've seen support like this," said Russia keeper Matvei Safonov after his side's eventual 4-1 loss. "One of their players would just complete a pass and the whole stadium was on its feet."

The celebrations continued in the round of 16 with a 4-0 defeat of Wales, and next up for Denmark is Saturday's quarter-final against the Czech Republic in Baku. For Joakim Mæhle, on target against both Wales and Russia, the team will approach that tie with precisely the same spirit of unity.

"We have discovered that there are more important things in life than football. We have agreed on that and stand together. Not just us as a team, but the whole of Denmark."

(To receive our E-paper on whatsapp daily, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Free Press Journal

www.freepressjournal.in