I still remember it clearly. Seeing this small-ish boy for the first time. He came walking down the stairs in a hotel lobby in Greece. It was in February 2009. As a football reporter at the newspaper Jyllands-Posten I followed the national team on away games and had travelled to Athens, where Denmark were to play a friendly against Greece. The game in itself did not matter that much, so I had time to do other work.
As it happened, the Denmark Under-17 team were also in the Greek capital to play and a reporter on another newspaper told me about this “wonderboy” playing for them. He was supposed to be a genuine No 10. His name was Christian Eriksen.
So there I was. In the hotel reception waiting for this 16-year-old talent. When he got there we talked about his upcoming move from the youth ranks at OB Odense to the youth team at Ajax. He was shy and spoke in short sentences. His biggest worry? How to do the laundry on his own in Amsterdam.
One year later he had made his Ajax debut in the Eredivisie and he got the call up for the national team for a game against Austria in March 2010. He was the youngest player at the World Cup in 2010 and would become the youngest to reach 100 national caps. He climbed from a teenager at Ajax to become a high-profile player at Tottenham and moved to Internazionale last winter.
From the beginning the hype around the teenager was unreal and the comparison to Michael Laudrup was something that the young Eriksen could not escape. But us Danes have experienced that boy gradually growing into that role. We watched him become a man – game after game – little by little. He does not know each of us but we all feel like we know him even though we don’t. Not least because of his personality.
He is the essence of normality. The average boy next door with a talent for football that was far from average. He is one of us. Simply because of the amount of energy and time we have spent following Christian Eriksen grow on the pitch from a boy to a 29-year-old father and highly respected player throughout Europe.
That’s maybe why it hurt so much for all Danes when he lay there motionless on the pitch on Saturday evening. How could this be? This was Christian Eriksen. The face of a generation of football players in Denmark. This was his fourth major tournament and the hopes for the Danish team had never been so high during his time in the team.
The squad was experienced and had character and talent behind Eriksen, who is the oil in this Danish machine, he makes it all work. It was the moment that this generation of players were expected to make their mark on history. As at Mexico 1986, or in Sweden in 1992, or France 98, when they lost to Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final.
After it happened all the Danish players could do was to stand around their teammate in a circle, protecting him from a spotlight he has never really liked. Through the deepest despair and fear the team rallied around their friend.
It is hard to know how to cope with a situation like this but the Danish FA’s press conference on Sunday went some way to help with the healing. The head coach, Kasper Hjulmand, talked of the joy of seeing Eriksen smile from his hospital bed on a videocall with the rest of the team.
The football director, Peter Møller, underlined that the tournament is not over for Denmark. That the job now is to lift the team before the game against Belgium on Thursday. Denmark probably need a draw against the team ranked No 1 in the world to have a chance to make it out of the group stage. The task is clear and difficult.
The national team doctor Morten Boesen confirmed that Eriksen had suffered a cardiac arrest. That his heart stopped beating at one point during those horrible minutes. Why it did is still unknown and that is one of the reasons that the Danish No 10 remains in hospital.
In other words nobody knows how this could happen and that is probably one of the reasons it still feels so difficult to move on. All over Europe people wish him well. His current club teammate Romelu Lukaku, his former teammate Jan Vertonghen. Royalty.
And maybe it will be easier to move on when Eriksen speaks publicly again. Maybe a morale-boosting victory over Belgium will be a lift for a nation that held its collective breath on Saturday. The game was supposed to be a celebration of a return to normality after over a year of Covid-19. It did not turn out like that.
But one thing is clear, it has brought the Danish team – and people – closer together. On Sunday morning the Danish national team posted a quote from a famous song from 1986 on its Twitter feed and it summed up the feeling of a nation: “We are red – we are white – we stand together – side by side.”
Troels Henriksen is the Superliga editor at Discovery.