For once, the words ‘football family’ did not seem like a cynical cliché. When Christian Eriksen lay still on the grass of the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, the world held its breath.
The horror of the situation was evident on the faces of Eriksen’s Denmark team-mates. The Finland players were stunned, too. Fear and devastation overwhelmed the sidelines and the stands.
There will be plenty of questions about the television coverage of the 29-year-old’s collapse but viewers across the globe shared the pain. All thought of rivalries was forgotten. It became about hope. Even the godless muttered a small prayer.
All indications are that the invocations were answered. Eriksen was conscious and talking an hour after fell to the ground. The relief is palpable.
Football is often an outlet for rancour. Petty feuds sometimes overtake the essence of sport. The game grew out of people coming together to compete and have fun; it became compulsive viewing because spectators could take vicarious pleasure along likeminded people.
Somewhere along the way everyone lost perspective. Players have become distanced from supporters and at times seem almost like caricatures. Some resent the millions they are paid and their celebrity. It’s easy to forget they are human, with all the same concerns and worries as the rest of us. They are mortal.
On a sunny day in Copenhagen, all the nonsense was stripped away. The Denmark side showed exactly what being a team is all about. They rallied around their stricken teammate and did their best to protect him and his family. They were no longer superstars but a bunch of men caught up in a nightmare. They gave the performance of their lives when they formed a circle to protect Eriksen. Their humanity shone through. They will never produce a more uplifting display on a football pitch.
The medical staff were magnificent, too. As in the case of Fabrice Muamba, who had a heart attack at White Hart Lane playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur nine years ago, the medics rose to the occasion and helped avert a tragedy.
There is something special about summer tournaments. The routine of domestic football dominates the lives of most supporters. International football can sometimes feel like an annoyance when it interrupts the rhythm of a season in September, October or March. Yet when the Euros and World Cups come around the excitement is widespread. Even though nationalism is at the heart of these tournaments, they transcend jingoism. Regardless of what passport you carry, it’s easy to become caught up in another country’s journey – as Iceland showed five years ago in France. The finest players in the sport are on show, too.
Eriksen is one of the best and his experience in this competition will never be forgotten. His ordeal puts the game in perspective. For all the hype and madness surrounding the sport, results are ultimately a passing fancy. Glory is fleeting and fun but there are bigger things in life.
Recognising that, Denmark and Finland took to the pitch to finish the game. Just because football isn’t a matter of life and death does not mean it has no value. The Danes will recover from the 1-0 defeat. Bouncing back from the loss of a teammate would have been infinitesimally more difficult.
This tournament holds a particular poignancy anyway because it was postponed for the pandemic. It needs to be joyous. It needs to be life-affirming.
The football family had a scare in the Danish capital. As awful as it was, it reminded everyone that what unites us is bigger than what divides us. Eriksen's recovery will make it uplifting.
Normal service will soon resume. Players will be booed for taking the knee and promoting equality and the game will again become a vehicle for anger. That one short period of togetherness in Copenhagen, though, speaks to the true heart of the sport, one that has community and commonality at the core.
Some of it will linger. Everyone is eager to see Eriksen return to his normal life and play again. The boys of summer should only stay young in the memory. In real life they should grow old and tell their tales for decades. Eriksen has a hell of a story to recount: how he brought a fractured world of football together in first fear and then relief. Let’s hope he gets well very soon.
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