In the wake of tragedy, be it on football’s grand stage or in our own ordinary lives, human spirit has a way of rousing the most sombre occasions. The harrowing image of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest has cast a long shadow over Parken since last Saturday, his sudden collapse still etched into the mind of every witness, even after positive news of his recovery brought solace to the possible severity. But as Eriksen’s teammates and supporters returned to the stadium, their strength of emotion and might of inspiration smothered the underlying shock and uncertainty.
It is a painful reality that only such shuddering events are able to restore our sense of perspective. The fires of fandom and competition, the arteries of sport that take up so much of our lives, are in fact so fragile and can be made to feel utterly irrelevant. In a moment, Euro 2020 was overshadowed by something that affected us like football itself never will. But if sport can be so unimportant, it also has the power to slowly shine a light into the darkness, a sense of hope and empathy that is just as much a part of its spectacle.
And so, in the hours before kick-off in Copenhagen, fans lined the streets singing, yearning, pleading for the health of one of their greatest players. They raised handwritten banners, waved flags and wore shirts emblazoned with his name, each small gesture uniting in a force of positivity. Denmark had insisted they would fight with a fanned flame, that their urgency would fill the seismic gap left in midfield, that they would stand toe-to-toe with the world’s No 1 side. And when they emerged from the tunnel to a hair-tasing reception, it was already clear that regardless of the eventual outcome of this match, it would impress upon so many for a different reason.
It was the tenth minute, when players on both sides paused and joined the stadium in a roar of applause, that was supposed to usurp all else. The result itself will be remembered by tables and wall charts, but that one rallying cry would seize all relevance, emotion and meaning. And yet, in just two minutes, Denmark’s players ensured this game would not be remembered for how they stopped, but how they hurtled forwards, full-blooded and free.
Seconds after Daniel Wass had steamed into Thorgan Hazard’s ankle with enough menace to warn of Denmark’s presence, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg pounced on Jason Denayer’s loose pass and played through Yussuf Poulsen. The forward had scored just eight goals in his previous 55 appearances for Denmark, yet that stat belied the certainty with which he swept the ball into the far corner. Parken promptly erupted, and the cheers will have rippled through television screens across Europe. Sporting moments such as those cannot exorcise the awful nature of what’s happened and they do not romanticise the suffering Eriksen is still enduring. But they do bring a flicker of light, a unity of hope, and a spirit that can inspire something within us all.
Belgium went on to win the match 2-1. Their goals were exquisite, a dizzying combination between some of the world’s best players, combining in a way few countries can. Denmark fought valiantly until the last second, denied by great blocks and saves, the inch of a stud, and then the crossbar. Ultimately, it was not enough. And as Belgium continue into the last 16, this victory may become just another step on their route to a long-awaited glory. Two brilliant highlights that tell a clear story of success. And yet, Poulsen’s goal will sit in hearts and minds with a different weight, one that may leave an indentation long after Euro 2020 fades into the periphery. It is not to deny the quality of Belgium’s victory, but that in that brief moment, as football rose in unison, it also became far more.