“We only took him on because his dad was working for the club,” the FC Midtjylland director, Claus Steinlein, said this year – and he was only half-joking.
Steinlein was talking about a young Simon Kjær, whom he described as being only “semi-good” when arriving from Lund IF at the club where his father, Jørn, was a kit man. There was no huge natural talent when it came to Kjær but he already had an incredible determination to do his best.
That desire has never wavered and that is why Kjær, 17 years later, will be Denmark’s captain when they take on England at Wembley in the Euro 2020 semi-final on Wednesday. It has been a long journey for the 32-year-old centre-back but he has probably never been as appreciated as in the past few weeks.
True, in his club career he has moved to bigger clubs and bigger leagues – he plays for Milan after spells at Palermo, Wolfsburg, Lille, Fenerbahce and Sevilla – but it is his actions in the wake of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on 12 June that have made people on the outside realise just how important his leadership is to this team.
He replaced Daniel Agger as Denmark’s captain in 2016 and is part of a four-man leadership group which also includes Kasper Schmeichel, Eriksen and Thomas Delaney. He was the first to get to Eriksen after the Internazionale player had collapsed, cleared the playmaker’s airways and started to give him CPR. He then formed a protective ring with his teammates around the stricken 29-year-old to give him some privacy before trying to console and reassure Eriksen’s wife, Sabrina Kvist.
Kjær is a good friend of Eriksen’s and was unable to complete the game when it restarted. He did not say anything for several days before releasing a statement on Twitter: “These have been some special days where football has not been the most important thing. It is a shock that will be with me – and the rest of us – for ever. The only thing that is important and has any meaning is that Christian is ok. I am proud of how we have acted as a team and how close we have been together in this difficult period.”
The day after Eriksen’s collapse a shocked Denmark coach, Kasper Hjulmand, praised Kjær and the rest of the team. “Simon was just the huge role model that he always is,” he said. “He had the awareness to get together with the others and communicate with them and be a leader. He talked in the dressing room too. What can I say?”
There is a chapter in Kasper Steenbach’s book about the Danish national team, Holdet, which touches upon why Kjær is so popular with his teammates. In 2016, not long after he had been appointed captain, he was part of a group out for a meal. They started discussing films and Viktor Fischer showed a clip from The Wolf of Wall Street where Matthew McConaughey makes up a song – later named “The Money Chant” – during which he hums and beats himself on the chest.
Fischer suggested that the players should do it before a friendly against Liechtenstein the following day, but did not think any more about it. Before the game Kjær started humming and the three others who were with him followed suit. Shortly afterwards the whole team were banging their chests and humming and singing without really knowing why.
Kjær had once again read the situation right. With this team, it is possible to do something different. Whatever they do, they do it together.
In the book Hjulmand’s predecessor, Åge Hareide, talks about why he chose Kjær as his captain. “You need a bit of craziness in some players,” he said. “The kind of craziness that wins games. A few of our players have it, Kasper, Delaney and Kjær. Players who are at the front. Players who can both play and fight and the last bit is something that is very important to win football games.
“Simon is a leader on the pitch. He does not say that much off the pitch. He is very calm. But damn is he solid on the pitch. Really solid. He has not put a foot wrong for the national team.”
Kjær led Denmark to the 2018 World Cup – although the Money Chant stopped after a couple of bad results – and in Russia they reached the last 16 but went out on penalties against Croatia. Last year Hjulmand replaced Hareide as coach but there was never going to be a change of captain.
The Milan player is the one who organises dinners with all the players and staff, especially if the team have been through a bad patch and are under criticism. And it was he who made sure that Jonas Knudsen could get a private jet to fly home and see his wife and newborn baby during the tournament in Russia. He cares about his teammates and they know that; it makes them want to fight for him and the rest of the nation.
As Schmeichel said when Kjær and Eriksen won their 100th caps against England last year: “They are a couple of fantastic players but they are also something that is much more important for me: they are a couple of fantastic people.”