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Euro 2020: Danes’ glory sets stage for knockout phase

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Richard Calland is a respected political commentator and analyst, who writes about sport and society for a variety of media outlets. He is co-author of The Vuvuzela Revolution: Anatomy of Africa's First World Cup and co-producer of Channel4-commissioned documentary, Black Star: An African Footballing Odyssey.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the footballing gods get it right.

Denmark “miraculously” qualified for the last-16 knockout round of Euro 2020 despite having lost their first two matches.

Apart from about 150 million Russians, the rest of the football-watching world was willing Denmark on, just as they have been since the Danes’ star player Christian Eriksen collapsed 43 minutes into their first match against Finland on the second day of the tournament, due to cardiac arrest.

Erikson “was gone”, according to the account of the Danish team doctor, Morten Boesen.

And so was his team, once they’d controversially completed the match later that emotional Saturday evening, which they not surprisingly lost 1-0. A few days later they lost again, this time to Belgium despite a rousing first-half performance at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.

Even though Covid-19 restrictions reduced capacity by 35%, the noise generated by the 24,000 Red-bedecked Danish fans was extraordinary.

The contrast with four days earlier could not have been greater. As one Danish journalist recounted, when a stricken Eriksen was defibrillated: “Parken is silent. I have been there hundreds of times. Normally it is a place of joy, cheers and boos. Never has it been a place of such silence.”

Against the star-studded Belgium, there was light and joy again. And relief. Every neutral wanted Denmark to win. But their intensity dropped in the second half and a high-class Belgium team pounced, prevailing 2-1.

To all intents and purposes the plucky Danes were gone – out of the tournament. No team had ever lost the first two group matches and still qualified for the knockout rounds of the European Championships, even though a certain configuration of results in the other matches made it mathematically possible. But it just never happens.

Until Denmark performed a footballing miracle, crushing Russia 4-1 and football’s gods took care of the rest. Thanks to the other result – Finland losing 2-0 to Belgium – it meant that three teams had three points apiece. Denmark went through in second place with a superior goal difference.

Football – and sport in general – is prone to hyperbole, with “tragic defeats”, “heroic fightbacks” and “miraculous goals”. So, Eriksen’s life-and-death moment, watched by hundreds of millions of people around the globe, provided some much-needed perspective.

Neither was Eriksen’s survival “miraculous”. It was the result of having highly skilled medical practitioners with the right equipment on hand to begin life-saving CPR less than two minutes after the Inter Milan player fell face down to earth.

But the outpouring of emotion and unity and just good, decent behaviour that it evoked, also provided the first week of the Euro 2020 with a profound human-interest story.

Not that the tournament needed it. The football has been intense, too. Gone are the days, thankfully, of mostly dull group matches with the big dogs conserving their energies for the bigger games to come – except for the English, whose national team is habitually tedious to watch.

Not even the strongest teams could afford to be presumptuous about their prospects. And the players are far fitter and better conditioned. It is highly competitive.

And yet, as the final group games played out, there were some alluring permutations in prospect, prompting beguiling thoughts about whether they would try to “play the draw”.

In Group F, for example, Germany, having found their form and tempo against reigning champions Portugal last Saturday evening on their way to a 4-2 win, would no doubt have wanted to win again in their final match against Hungary.

But they could have been forgiven for secretly hoping that the French also won their final match against Portugal and secured top spot in the “Group of Death”.

As it turned out, both matches ended in stalemate, meaning Germany finished second in Group F and Portugal third. The latter qualified for the knockouts as one of the best third-placed teams while Germany avoided the top half of the draw. In that half, the in-form Italians, the classy Belgians and the technically brilliant Spain wait.

Going into the bottom half containing England, Denmark, Wales, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden and the Ukraine, it was, on paper at least, the easier draw.

For Germany it means a round of 16 classic encounter against England at Wembley, which is a neutral’s dream. Will it be a repeat of 1966 or of 1996?

As former England centre forward and now erudite TV anchor Gary Lineker once drily observed: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win, usually on penalties.”

The sage coaching view is that to win such a tournament you are going to have to face the best teams at some point, so “playing the draw” is a feeble ‘strategy’, one more likely to undermine confidence and arrest momentum.

Better to keep winning and take what the draw throws at you rather than try to game the system.

Regardless, there are mouthwatering ties on the immediate horizon. First up, on Saturday evening at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, “plucky” Wales against “miraculous” Denmark.

Even the neutrals will be torn. The winner is likely to play either the Netherlands or Czech Republic – neither of whom look invincible – in the quarters.

Could Denmark somehow go all the way, like they did in 1992 when they were a late replacement for Yugoslavia, a country about to be plunged into a brutal regional war?

Now that really would be a good story. DM

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