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They came, they sang until their voices were raw and, as a flag draped from one of the top tiers reminded everyone, they did it all for Christian Eriksen. Beyond any footballing relevance this occasion will hold its own place in Denmark’s national history. It was the day a country came together in appreciation of its most important sporting figure of the past 20 years; it was also a day when the singular joy of watching a match, the smile on the face of the person next to you, the experience you share so deeply with loved ones and strangers for one intensely distilled portion of time, superseded anything else.
Denmark still craved a victory and they richly deserved one, only to be undone by a performance of devastating quality by the Belgium substitute Kevin De Bruyne. Their participation in Euro 2020 hangs by a thread although an outing of this ferocity against Russia would raise hope that they can achieve the impossible.
“I told the players that the only thing I’m disappointed by is the result,” said Kasper Hjulmand, the Denmark head coach. “I can’t describe the pride I feel. The quality they showed, four days after almost losing one of their best friends, to get up and play like this was amazing.”
“Hele Danmark er med dig, Christian” (All of Denmark is with you, Christian) read the banner unfurled behind Kasper Schmeichel’s goal when, as planned, proceedings halted with thunderous applause at the 10-minute mark. Schmeichel embraced Simon Kjær; a few yards away Romelu Lukaku, Eriksen’s clubmate at Internazionale, hugged Thomas Delaney. Lumps sat up in throats on all four sides of the ground.
“I really respect them as men, they saved my friend’s life,” Lukaku said.
He explained he had spoken with Eriksen earlier in the day; the pair had joked about Denmark’s plans for dampening the striker’s form. In the event their scheme did not work, because players of his stature need only one invitation to alter a game.
The love pulsated around Parken andEriksen, from his hospital room nearby, will have been in no doubt of that. The noise generated by 25,000 supporters felt like that of at least twice the number and had maintained a staggering pitch ever since the players emerged. “I’ve played many places in my life but there is nothing that can top this,” Schmeichel said. It had been cranked even higher by the rattling intensity with which Denmark began.
Nobody knew how they would respond to Saturday’s trauma but the answer was served straight after kick-off: Denmark tore into Belgium like men possessed, every tackler that bit more convinced of his right to win the ball and every runner those few percent harder to dispossess. When the pause came they could have been three up but the one they managed was special.
It arrived after 99 seconds when Jason Denayer, trying to play out, presented the ball to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. A smart pass forward and Yussuf Poulsen was in, drilling crisply across Thibaut Courtois. Poulsen wheeled away towards the corner where, five days previously, he and his teammates had formed a protective ring around the stricken Eriksen. The entire side joined him; the celebrations on the touchline and in the stands, prolonged and raucous, were a collective moment of catharsis.
Poulsen had just scored the second-fastest goal in European Championship history but this was an evening for the soul, not statistics. The entire day had assumed a heady, dreamlike state. Saturday had been framed as the start of a summer free of most Covid-19 restrictions in Denmark until events took a horrifying turn; now, under electric blue skies, everyone could go once more with all kinds of added feelings.
Fans of both stripes had mingled since the morning in Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s canal district, chanting Eriksen’s name and signing a mural that will be presented to him. “Belgium loves you Christian,” said one flag. Friends clasped each other, this time in excitement rather than horror-induced empathy.
What a marvel it was that their team produced a first half of such relentless tempo. Joakim Mæhle, Daniel Wass and Martin Braithwaite could all have scored again before Mikkel Damsgaard, a 20-year-old winger who effectively assumed Eriksen’s starting role, slalomed through but shot wide. Belgium had been waxworks.
Roberto Martínez had stressed his side needed to be in business mode; an atmosphere this fervent was always going to pose Belgium unique problems.
De Bruyne was introduced at the interval in a bid to impose order and his impact quickly told. A 50-yard burst from the hitherto quiet Lukaku resulted in a pullback to the surging substitute, whose touch and instantaneous pass gave Thorgan Hazard an unmissable chance.
Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard quickly arrived too. It was clear Martínez felt Denmark, their energy levels having taken a hit, could be picked off from here. He was not wrong. The winning goal was swept in sumptuously by De Bruyne’s left foot after Eden Hazard had completed the final pass of an intricate rat-a-tat, meaning Belgium qualify for the last 16.
Thrillingly, Denmark fought back. Courtois saved from Braithwaite and, near the end, the Barcelona forward clipped the bar. Schmeichel came forward for a late set-piece but the next chapter must wait.
“We know it’s going to be a tough few weeks for you, Christian, but we’re here for you, we’re going to stick together and we’re going to beat the Russians,” Hjulmand said. “We’re not done in this competition.” His players ended on their knees but it was a time for everyone to stand tall.