- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
DOHA, Qatar — It was standing-room-only in the media tent at Denmark’s base. The staff had predicted this influx of interest in the player put up for interview, and when Christian Eriksen quietly slipped in, appearing at the top table, the room fell silent.
Those in attendance wanted to hear about the man whose heart stopped for five minutes on the pitch during the last major men’s international tournament, Euro 2020, which was played in 2021 due to the pandemic. They were keen to comprehend his journey, one that brought him from receiving CPR on the pitch in Copenhagen to starring for Manchester United and, now, leading another Danish charge for major honours just 18 months later, here in Qatar. And doing it as their best player, again.
“From the first interview I did, [reaching the World Cup] was my first aim from day one, when I knew about the possibility of being able to come back,” Eriksen said.
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“Christian is very humble, and a lot of people look up to him,” Denmark assistant coach Morten Wieghorst says. “A lot of people took inspiration from the way he has rebounded.”
You sense he’s done talking about what happened at the Parken Stadium on June 12, 2021. He calls it the “accident” when asked, but his focus is simply being back in the red of Denmark. And according to those close to him, he’s better than ever.
It feels as though everyone connected with football or Denmark has their stories and memories of where they were when Eriksen collapsed. But some are done talking about it, either keen to focus on the future, or reluctant to recall the moment, as it’s too raw.
Eriksen spoke to the media in Qatar on Saturday, four days before Denmark’s opening match against Tunisia. Their training camp is based to the west of Doha at Al-Sailiya Sports Club, housed amid vast construction projects stretching across a barren landscape. The highways are barely finished, with some exits leading to little more than rubble.
As Denmark train behind the metal fences and temporary hoardings intended to block public view, there is a sole supporter outside waiting to catch a glimpse of his heroes. Victor, who’s come all the way from Vejle in Denmark, is hoping to see his hero, Thomas Delaney, but as he starts talking about Eriksen and remembering that day, he gets goose bumps.
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On June 12, Denmark were playing Finland in their opening match of the Euros. It was Day 2 of the tournament, and some were fancying Denmark to make a deep run. They started fairly well against Finland, building momentum in front of a packed crowd in Copenhagen, and then, the “accident” happened.
In the 43rd minute, Eriksen collapsed. The match was halted. He’d stopped breathing. His teammates formed a protective, concealing circle around him. “I work in a zoo, and we’re all taught first aid. So you could see straight away it was serious,” Victor says, recalling the incident. “At the start, no one saw what happened, as he just fell over. And then when they cut to him and the players were around him, you could see the medics were giving CPR to him and we were like, s—, he’s dead.
“People asked me to explain what was happening, and I had to tell them that when you give CPR to a person, it means they are dead, that’s a fact. Then, fortunately, they got him alive again. It felt like forever as we waited for news.”
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Earlier Saturday, another fan, Jorn, recounts his memories over a morning coffee at the Souq Waqif. He had watched the Euros from his home in Arizona because of COVID-19 restrictions but did make it to Qatar for the World Cup. “My friends were at the game but couldn’t see as much as I could, as they didn’t show it on the big screens — and with good reason,” he says. “But on TV they zoomed in and I was like, crap, that doesn’t look good. It was scary stuff.”
Roughly an hour later, after the match stopped, the Danish FA announced Eriksen’s condition had stabilised. He stayed in hospital as his teammates played on, and had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) device fitted. Then, the recovery process began.
At that stage, football was gone from his mind: Eriksen had reportedly told the paramedics in the ambulance to keep his boots, as he would never need them again. But as more tests were carried out, Eriksen was given the green light to return to training. He trained with his old youth side, Odense Boldklub, at the start of December 2021, but his career prospects were uncertain. He was officially still an Inter Milan player, but Serie A rules prohibited him from continuing to play in the league because of the ICD in his chest. The club confirmed his departure by mutual consent on Dec. 17.
At the start of the January transfer window, he trained with the Ajax youth team, the club he joined in 2008 and played for until 2013, when he joined Tottenham. During that time, Eriksen sat for his first interview about what happened and mentioned that he wanted to return to the Denmark squad and play in the World Cup. He needed playing time to do that, and on the final day of the window, Brentford offered him a six-month deal, and it quickly became apparent that Eriksen was just as a good a player as he was before the accident. Some thought he was even better. “He was very humble, calm,” a source told ESPN. “He wasn’t a fierce competitor, but just very measured and unbelievably gifted.”
Brentford also have a close relationship with CRY Charity (Cardiac Risk in the Young), an understanding forged after the club’s former technical director Robert Rowan died of a cardiomyopathy episode aged 28 in November 2018. “Once he heard about Rob Rowan, he [Eriksen] voluntarily turned up at one of the screening days they organised to support it,” the source says.
Eriksen made his Premier League return on Feb. 26 for Brentford, and on March 26, he returned for Denmark in their match against the Netherlands. He needed just two minutes to score, hitting a beautiful, arching first-time shot off Andreas Skov Olsen’s cross. Later on, he hit the post. “You have to be careful what you say, but he was almost better than ever,” Denmark defender Jannik Vestergaard says.
Denmark fan Victor remembers that feeling of seeing Eriksen pull on the red shirt again. “It was an amazing moment,” he says. “We knew he was fine and stuff like that, but we were worried about it, and to see what happened, and if it could happen again and stuff like that. It was so weird actually, but to see him again, it’s just amazing. Every time you see him you have it in your mind, and think it cannot be true — he’s playing at his best level ever.”
That feeling of “it cannot be true” resonates through his team, too. “He is a quality player, and in my view, he has returned even better than before the accident, and it is great to see,” Wieghorst says. “He brings vision, technical quality and goals to our team: He is pivotal to our team, a fantastic player.
“It is great to have him back, his teammates love him and he is such an important character. He is inspirational for a lot of fans back home, and for people who do not necessarily follow football, he has been a big inspiration, and that speaks volumes about his character, his strength and love of football.”
Whenever Eriksen talks about what happened on that day in Copenhagen, he puts thoughts of his family first. “I think the World Cup is separate. [What happened] gave me an appreciation of being alive and being with my family,” he says. “Everything else was moved to the side. My football has been my career, it still is. So to have the possibility to being back to who I was before was the aim … that was the second aim. My first aim was to be a husband, well, a boyfriend and a dad.”
Now he’s back at his third World Cup. His first was back in 2010 as an 18-year-old Ajax prodigy, his second in 2018 as a world-class Tottenham midfielder. He sees his third, succinctly, as “special,” but it completes a circle for him. In fact, Eriksen feels there’s a greater belief in the Denmark side after their run to the Euros semifinals two summers ago.
Then it comes to the question, is he better than before?
“First of all, I think from the condition-wise, that hasn’t changed,” Eriksen says. “Before the accident, I ran a lot: Maybe I even run less now than I did before. I’m pretty sure I’m the same guy I was before on the football pitch. I think it’s more that people are looking differently and looking from the perspective of what happened. People are looking with different eyes at how I play on the pitch.”
He has kindred spirits here: Daley Blind, his former Ajax teammate, also has an ICD fitted. “I am in regular contact with him,” Blind tells ESPN. “We talked in advance about how special it is that we are both here on the pitch at all! Especially it is for Christian. I’m extremely proud of him!”
Eriksen’s final words to Blind before the tournament were to wish him well. “I said, see you in the final!”
Denmark fans will be keeping a close eye on their hero, hoping he can inspire them to their first major tournament win since 1992. “His mere presence is so important,” Jorn says. “It’s not like he’s a [Diego] Maradona figure, but he has some clout on that team. He’s not a boisterous type of person, which is why we like him. We never see him in the scandalous types of magazines: I think people from Denmark appreciate that.
“Most people in Denmark still have a lot of high expectations for him to step it up. If he comes through and they get to the quarterfinals … he’ll be the King of Denmark, for sure!”
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Back in the media tent, Eriksen spoke for about 20 minutes, switching between Danish and English, fielding questions on everything from Cristiano Ronaldo, Eriksen’s Inter Milan exit and the standard of France’s midfield in addition to his journey, and him being here at the World Cup. But he’s done talking now. The focus is being back on football’s biggest stage, helping his country progress at yet another major tournament.
Denmark’s journey starts in the mid-afternoon sun on Tuesday. They are looking forward to facing Tunisia for the first time, before another clash with old foes France four days later (having beaten them in their last two outings) and then tackling Australia in their group finale.
“We’re dreaming of something big, but in the end we have to get there,” Eriksen says. “In football terms, we have to take it one game at a time, and we’ll see where we’ll end up.
“It’s very special to be at the World Cup for the national team. It’s something I’m really happy to be part of again.”
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