Daniel Agger is stretching, scratching the depths of his vocabulary as he searches for the appropriate description. He stops, pauses and concedes defeat to The Independent: “There is no perfect word to capture what Denmark is feeling right now, to really tell the story of the mood in the country. I’ve never seen it or known it to be like this before.”
Across 11 years stationed in his national team’s defence before retiring in 2016, Agger did not experience the depth nor the enveloping nature of the good vibes currently surrounding Denmark, who have secured a semi-final showdown against England at Wembley.
“Whether you are a football fan or not, it’s all everyone in the country is talking about and you are covered in this amazing atmosphere,” he says.
“There’s flags, shirts, singing, banners… it’s everywhere you look. As a player, I did not experience this kind of feeling with Denmark. It was huge for the first three group games to be in Copenhagen not just for the team and supporters, but the country as a whole.
“It made it feel like Denmark was a big part of the Euros by being a host. That brought a closeness between the people and the team, and after what happened in the opening match, the bond feels stronger than ever.”
After a harrowing start to their European Championship, Kasper Hjulmand’s men have displayed a mixture of football brilliance and mental fortitude to become the tale of this tournament.
The hope, promise and expectation around Denmark coming into the delayed Euros was suspended 43 minutes into their opening match against Finland, when Christian Eriksen collapsed after a throw-in and suffered cardiac arrest.
His teammates, flooded with distress and forming a human shield to protect the midfielder from cameras, would have to resume the game that night despite not being physiologically ready.
Denmark played well but lost. They then played even better against Belgium, delivering one of the finest halves of the tournament, but lost.
This could have been a story about spirited defeat, but Denmark refused that narrative and scorched Russia 4-1 to qualify for the knockout stages in which they sliced through Wales and were tactically superior to Czech Republic.
“This is why the feeling and what’s happening is so hard to describe,” Agger says. “The situation with Christian was horrible to witness, especially as a former teammate, but it will have been even worse for those on the pitch so close to it. There is nothing that can prepare you for handling that on any level.
“The way the manager, the team, and the country responded to such a devastating thing has been the triumph.
“You could just see when everybody in the team knew that Christian was OK, there was a change from worry to wanting to play out of their skin for him and as a thanks for all the support.
“You could notice the faces of the players that the smile came back, and the motivation was at its highest. I think they showed that against Belgium, which was probably their best performance. The first half, against the team ranked No 1 in the world after what Denmark had just been through… wow! Unbelievable.”
As Hjulmand summarised: “The love and compassion from the whole Danish population has given this team wings. We are playing with the heart of Christian, the heart of the whole population. With that support, we strongly believe in ourselves.”
Naturally, the narrative around Denmark centres on the emotive nature of what happened to Eriksen and how it has fuelled them. But it should not be lost that they are a superb, progressive team that are tactically versatile, have a clarity of vision and have provided some of the best offensive stanzas of the tournament.
“Going into the Euros, we were saying in Denmark that this is a really, really good team, probably the best we ever had,” Agger notes. “We believed that we could achieve something and that has grown so wildly with the support the team has had, how they handled the agony with Christian and have played since then without such an important member of the line-up.
“Mentally, physically, actual football-wise, they have performed so well. Denmark has always been about the group, not any individual, for as long as I can remember. And you really see that strength in this tournament.
“If you take it player for player, it’s a top, top team. Mikkel Damsgaard, Kasper Dolberg, Yussuf Poulsen… Everyone represents good teams in big European leagues, getting regular minutes, and Denmark has never had a situation like this before.
“If I have to pick one player that has surprised me, it’s definitely Joakim Maehle. The wing-backs have been key and he’s playing on the left for Denmark but plays on the right for Atalanta.
“We knew he was good before the Euros, but he’s taken it to the next level and you feel this tournament will be huge for him personally. He’s been one of the standout performers, not just for Denmark but in general.”
While Damsgaard, Dolberg and Maehle have garnered headline status, the success of this group revolves around the excellent guidance of Hjulmand.
The manager, who prefers a 3-4-3 formation but has primed his squad well to deal with system changes, has proved to be a good tactician.
“He’s a top, top man too,” Agger, who is in the dugout for the first time shepherding Danish club HB Koge, offers. “I’ve known him for a long time and I know Hjulmand the coach and Hjulmand the person. He is a super manager, but I feel it really helps that he is a good guy, especially in the circumstances Denmark have had.
“When you listen to the players talk about how he guided them through what happened to Christian and how to move forward together, it tells you everything.
“He’s managed to turn an awful situation into something positive and I know all the players really want to do this for Christian: to honour him and make him proud. Hjulmand has been great for the team emotionally, but also getting the best out of them tactically.”
It seems unfortunate that Denmark are lining up against the favourites England at Wembley, but Agger robustly disagrees.
“I think Denmark will like that. I really think so,” the 36-year-old says. “It’s a 50-50 game. England are obviously a strong team with quality players all around. You look at who they can bring off the bench in any game… but Denmark are also a solid group and their momentum is just growing.
“England play at home so there will be advantage, but Denmark won’t be scared. There will be respect for sure, but also excitement to be playing such a big game at Wembley against the favourites.
“Denmark are dangerous. England have been great defensively but where Denmark have really improved over the past year is offensively.
“You watch them work all the right gaps and create space to run in to and hurt the opposition. They’ve been really direct when they get forward and have created a lot of chances in all of their games. England’s defence will be tested, but Denmark must make sure not to get overrun in midfield or lose the aerial battle.”
Agger was eight when the unthinkable happened in 1992. Denmark were given just over a week’s notice to get a squad prepared for that edition of the Euros after Yugoslavia were disqualified due to civil war. Less than a month later, the underdogs were champions against all convention.
Can that be surpassed by this class?
“I can remember 1992 clearly. That remains the greatest Denmark achievement and every single person in the country, whether they know about football or not, gets educated on what happened then.
“Unless this team win the tournament, it can’t be put on the same level. But… there is a similar feeling around this squad. The connection with the people is unbelievably strong and the talent is at its highest.
“There is already so much pride in this Denmark team and it has been a privilege to watch them and they’ve made us feel a big part of it all.”
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