When Christian Eriksen was discharged from hospital, one of the first things he did was visit his teammates.
Less than a week earlier, many of them had formed a wall around the stricken midfielder as he received CPR on the pitch at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium.
Eriksen’s collapse during the first half of Denmark’s opening Euro 2020 match against Finland, later revealed to have been caused by a cardiac arrest, has been described as a “traumatic experience” by Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Schmeichel, who helped comfort Eriksen’s partner at the side of the pitch, described the emotion when he first returned to the Danish camp.
“I think a couple of the guys maybe hugged him quite hard,” Schmeichel recalled with a smile. “But it was just really nice to see him, you know, healthy and in good spirits.
“He came to training and we were out on the pitch – it was a great moment. It was nice to see him. I was lucky enough to be able to visit him in the hospital and to see him there, but for a lot of the boys that was the first time for them seeing him. So, naturally, training stopped straight away and everyone went over to him.”
When the match was surprisingly restarted later that afternoon – a decision for which UEFA has received criticism from Danish national team members – Denmark’s shell-shocked players fell to a 1-0 defeat that dented their chances of progressing to the round of 16.
READ: Denmark provides feel good story of Euro 2020 with unlikely qualification for knockout stages
Another loss to Belgium five days later seemed to end any lingering hope Denmark had of reaching the knockout stages.
Going into the final group stage game, Denmark knew only a large win over Russia and a favorable result between Belgium and Finland would see them progress.
Schmeichel says Eriksen’s visit, which came the day after Denmark lost to Belgium, was the catalyst the team needed.
“I think the most important thing for us was to know that Christian was okay,” he said. “It was great to see him, he came by the camp when he came out of hospital and that helped a lot of the guys, I think, just to see him and to just to erase the last image we had of him on the pitch.
“To see him in real life and to see that he was OK was really important, and it gave us the space to go and focus on the game because we were under pressure in a football sense, but I think, as you see, we didn’t play like a side under pressure.
“We played with freedom and we played with an identity that was something that we’ve discussed for a long, long time and [I’m] really, really proud of everybody.”
While Denmark’s qualification for the round of 16 might have looked like a long shot from the outside, Schmeichel said he felt “very confident” going into the match with Russia that his team could get the result they needed.
“Both in the Finland game when we resumed and also the Belgium game, we played really well and we created a lot of chances – we just didn’t score the goals,” he said. “But this team has been in difficult spots before where we’ve needed results and we’ve come out on top.
“I felt with the way that the boys were training and the way we performed in the games and how I know that we can perform under pressure, I had a lot of confidence that we could make something happen and get a good result.”
However, even before the tournament had started, the Danes were feeling optimistic about their chances.
Schmeichel said there was a buzz around the camp – and country – knowing that the Denmark national team would be playing all three of its matches in front of home fans, with Copenhagen being one of the 11 European cities given host status for Euro 2020.
“We were very, very motivated going into this tournament because of the circumstances, a small country like ourselves being able to host three group games is unheard of,” he said. “So we were highly motivated beforehand, but obviously to have what happened happen so early in the tournament for us, all that kind of went out the window and it became about so much more.
“It became about the human side. It became about the team and the country, you know, living through a quite traumatic experience and basically everybody getting together and supporting one another. So the motivation was always there and now there’s just added motivation.”
After the final whistle had blown in Denmark’s 4-1 win over Russia, the players huddled around their coach’s phone as they awaited confirmation of a Belgium victory over Finland that would guarantee them a place in the last 16.
While the players were understandably overjoyed with their qualification, Schmeichel says “relief” was the overriding emotion.
“You know, we’ve waited for this opportunity to play in front of our home crowd for a long time because obviously it got canceled in 2020, so it’s a long time in waiting and to be able to go through and finish our campaign in Denmark on a high was really, really important,” he said.
“Obviously, with what happened in the Finland game and then the performance that we had against Belgium, but the anticlimax of not winning the game was tough to take. So for us all to be able to leave the Parken Stadium with a winning feeling and to be able to share that with the fans was really important.”
Two weeks ago, when Eriksen was laying on the Parken Stadium pitch, it wasn’t apparent that this story would have a happy ending.
“It’s been crazy,” Schmeichel said. “So many emotions, an absolute roller coaster – and to be sitting here today, to have gone through [to the round of 16] and for Christian to be alright is a very, very positive outcome.”