The Danish players huddled in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, eyes to eyes, heart to heart. Around them, embracing them and joining them in an outer ring of affection, belonging and hope was the crowd at Copenhagen’s Denmark Stadium.
We’d seen this before. Nine days earlier, just a few feet away and on that very field, in fact. That too was a circle of hope; a prayer for life after their teammate Christian Eriksen had collapsed on the pitch and, in the words of the team’s medical staff, “left us and then came back.”
Except this was a prayer of a different kind. Not one born out of the terror of losing one of their own, without warning and without mercy, but rather a prayer that the outcome of the other game between Belgium and Finland — which was due to end at the same time as their own Group B clash — would not change. Coupled with the 4-1 victory that Denmark had just put together Monday against Russia and the convoluted tiebreakers of Euro 2020, it would mean they had qualified for the round of 16.
At the centre of their circle was somebody’s smartphone, ticking down the seconds to the full-time whistle in St. Petersburg. You imagine that Eriksen was there, too. Not physically — he was discharged from a hospital and was back home recovering from the night his heart suddenly stopped — but, without question, metaphorically.
When referee Felix Brych blew his whistle, sealing Belgium’s 2-0 win over the Finns some 700 miles away, the Danish faithful celebrated as one, on the pitch and in the stands. Not the celebration of relief when news came that Eriksen was back with us, but a celebration that fate had rewarded them with something special: another chance to make history.
Denmark will play Wales on Saturday in Amsterdam for a place in the quarterfinals. For a team that has been through what they’ve been through, both off the pitch with Eriksen as well as on it (losing their first two games and still advancing, becoming the first team ever to do so in the process), this was like hitting the reset button.
Another shot, another chance. Just like Eriksen.
The two hours previous had been harrowing enough. Denmark went into the game with Russia needing a victory, while hoping Finland lost to Belgium. Twenty-year-old wunderkind Mikkel Damsgaard sent them on their way, scoring the sort of long-range goal Eriksen would have been proud of. The Danes added a second at the hour mark, but it would be to no avail if Finland held on for the draw. Spirits soared, and then nose-dived, when a Belgium goal was ruled out by the tightest of VAR offsides. Moments later, Russia won — and converted — a penalty. Russia weren’t ready to give up either.
But then, in the last 15 minutes, everything broke Denmark’s way. They scored twice, and so did Belgium. There would be no comeback. This was it.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with what happened in 1992, when another group of Danish players also got an unexpected second chance. Denmark had failed to qualify for that year’s Euros; the players were all on vacation when the call came from UEFA. Civil war had broken out in Yugoslavia, and the United Nations stepped in and ordered sanctions against the country. That meant Denmark, runners-up to Yugoslavia in qualifying, were invited to participate.
An improbable late goal against France saw them advance to the knockout rounds. A successful penalty shootout — with Peter Schmeichel, the father of the current Danish keeper, Kasper, saving the legendary Marco van Basten’s penalty — saw them get by the Netherlands in the semifinals. And in the final, they overcame Germany 2-0 to be crowned European champions.
A lot of stars aligned for that feat, and when you’re a nation the size of Denmark (with a population of 5.8 million, residing in a land mass about the size of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), you don’t expect two fairy tales in the space of 30 years. But dreaming is free. And having already been part of one miracle, the Danes aren’t putting any limits on what fate can deliver.
After what they’ve been through, they know all about second chances and the importance of seizing them with both hands and never letting go. Just like Eriksen did. Just like they’re doing.