People dancing on buses is not something you see every day in Denmark. Rule-abiding Danes tend to keep their celebrations low-key – but not this summer.
Fans brought traffic to a standstill in Aarhus after Denmark beat the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals and even scaled public transport to broadcast their euphoria and belt out another round of Re-sepp-ten – first a hit for Denmark’s national team at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The anthem’s crowd-sourced lyrics are laden with Hans Christian Andersen imagery and feel particularly apt this year.
“It’s been such an emotional time for everyone, but especially for Danish football,” says Karina Hansford, 45, referring to the collapse of Christian Eriksen after a cardiac arrest during Denmark’s game against Finland on 12 June. “We have all experienced losses over the pandemic, so what happened with Eriksen brought up a lot of strong feelings,” says Morten Pelch, 40, adding: “In that moment, the whole of Denmark was holding their breath.”
“It was a reminder that life can be short,” says Hansford. “My first reaction was thinking about his kids and what would happen to them. But Eriksen’s teammates managed it so well, it was pure instinct: they formed a protective shield around him so the cameras couldn’t get to him.”
Eriksen was taken to hospital while the world waited. Once news arrived that he was stable, a decision was made to restart the game. “Although by then, the match didn’t matter,” says Pelch. “The result came second.” Denmark lost but Eriksen’s collapse was all anyone in the country could talk about for days. “No matter who you met, they were still in shock,” says Pelch.
“What happened showed perfectly how football is more than just a game,” says Anne Nielsen, 34. “It’s also about humanity and what we value in life – like togetherness; team spirit and fighting for the ones you love. I think almost everyone in Denmark felt this.”
Pelch compares the heightened sense of emotion and camaraderie to a wartime spirit: “People began coming together in a way almost like when Denmark was liberated from occupation after world war two.”
But Denmark’s Euro 2020 campaign has offered life lessons for the future too, say Danes. The head coach and former player Kasper Hjulmand apologised for the decision to continue playing after Eriksen’s collapse. “He said ‘I’m wrong and I’m sorry’, which is pretty brave,’ says Pelch. “He accepts failure, – that sometimes when we get things wrong then we should admit it and apologise – in doing so he’s become an icon for our leaders.”
Hjulmand has also been praised for encouraging a new model of masculinity in Denmark. “He talks a lot about emotions and feelings, telling the team it’s OK to embrace these,” says Pelch. “He’s showing men that in 2021, it’s not about being ‘tough’ or hard, it’s about being present and kind. He teaches that there’s strength in unity; that you have to be there for your teammates; and when someone is down, you help them up.’
Once Danes knew that Erikson was OK, there was a sense that the only way was up for the players.
“Now, it feels as though all of Denmark has been waiting for a big party,” says Hansford. “‘Euphoric’ is probably the word for how many Danes feel right now,” adds Nielsen. “People really want to be together in person after the long Covid winter.” The demand for big screens showing matches in public has shot up, the atmosphere is electric and the only regret that many have is that they can’t watch the game in person.
British authorities have refused to allow Danish fans to travel to the UK for the semi-final because of coronavirus restrictions. Fans are disappointed but sanguine. “When the Vikings left Denmark to conquer the world, there weren’t so many of them either,” says Pelch. “But they were still victorious.”