Be grateful that he was in the place that he was when it happened, with so much state of the art medical equipment and people with the knowledge to have been able to keep him alive when it was most needed. Be grateful that he was – literally – surrounded by people who love him, who, despite their total shock at the events unfolding before them, would literally form a protective wall around him. Be grateful that, in this particular case, the stadium in which it all occurred just happened to be within a few hundred metres of the nearest hospital.
Be grateful that he is still alive.
This was already an occasion that was bathed in significance. Denmark, winners of this very competition in 1992, were hosting a match in the finals of a major football tournament. Their opponents were Finland, who were playing their first match in the finals of a major tournament. And as though this wasn’t enough, was been enough of a break in the clouds that this pandemic has formed over all of us for the fans to be allowed in to watch. They were clumsy visual metaphors in their own way, but sometimes the most effective visual metaphors are the most obvious. It wasn’t difficult to frame this match as a celebration; of our slow return to normal, of Denmark as a footballing nation, and of Finland, for their achievement in getting this far for the first time.
It was only a few minutes from half-time, though, that the storm clouds blew so suddenly and violently back in. There is a certain cognitive dissonance inherent, when something like this happens. Football is our escape from the real world and its horrors. The stadium is a protected parallel universe with different values. All that matters is the result. Everything else can wait until the referee blows the final whistle. Christian Eriksen was trotting, at a fairly pedestrian pace, after the ball when he just buckled and fell. In such a moment, our mental filing systems are suddenly pushed into unwelcome overtime. Has his hamstring gone? Could it be his knee ligaments? We don’t even think about his heart for a few seconds. He is, after all, a young man in the absolute peak of health. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to someone like him.
Except, of course, for when it does.
The hush that fell over Parken told its own story. The players gathered around, their faces crumpling under the weight of what they were witnessing. Emergency intervention was carried out, as the players formed a protective shield around him. And after a period which felt like infinity, during which we all stopped breathing, our hearts all stopped, during which a collective, mouth-agape horror spread across millions and millions of faces, he was moved from the pitch and to the nearest hospital. Within an hour came the news for which millions had been praying. Christian was responding well. He was awake. He has a long way to go, but in a situation such as this, just be able to say, “He’s alive right now” is about as much as we can reasonably hope for.
Our relief at this titbit, however, must not mask the questions that need to be asked about the events of yesterday afternoon, and the target of much of this criticism has to be the television directors who allowed the cameras to keep running, who didn’t cut back to the studio, who continued to show, in glorious Ultra High Definition, a man fighting for his life and the battle to save him, who showed in full close-up the horrified reaction of his team-mates, who showed his partner Sabrina Kvist in the crowd, wearing a Denmark shirt.
This was all the more strange because television directors these days are normally so coy. Should a streaker get onto the pitch, the cameras swing away immediately, lest unprotected eyes catch an accidental glimpse of buttock. Should there be a disturbance in the crowd they’ll refuse to give those doing the fighting “the oxygen of publicity”. Within football’s parallel universe we grudgingly accept that there are some things that you will not see, but the real test of a live event is the reaction when something out of the ordinary happens, and the ultimate point remains that the television directortial decisions made last night were made by somebody. There has already been conjecture concerning where the ultimate blame rests for continuing to pipe such distressing scenes into millions of living rooms. Somebody made that decision, and they owe millions of people an explanation as to why. The BBC’s apology and explanation were woefully inadequate:
We apologise to anyone who was upset by the images broadcast. In-stadium coverage is controlled by Uefa as the host broadcaster, and as soon as the match was suspended, we took our coverage off air as quickly as possible.
All the more extraordinarily, almost as soon as the news came through that Eriksen was stable in hospital, the decision was taken to restart the match. There have been conflicting versions in the press regarding how this was decided already, that it was the decision of the Denmark players, or that they face-timed with Eriksen, who insisted that they go out and finish the football job. After the match, however, it was confirmed that the players were given the choice of continuing the match last night or playing this afternoon instead. It’s an impossible situation for all concerned, to have to take such a decision when the ultimate emotion that everybody feeling may well have been, “I just wish that none of this had happened and that I wasn’t here”, but tournament football runs to the tightest of timetables and the show went on, because it would have to. Whether it should at that precise time, though, is a different question.
The 50 minutes of football that were played demonstrated what an impossible situation this was. It was clear that the players shouldn’t have been out on the pitch. Finland, a nation suddenly dropped feet-first into a no-win situation, grabbed the only goal of the match. Denmark were awarded a penalty kick, but Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s kick was that of a man with his mind clearly elsewhere. The game – by this time an afterthought of a footnote – petered away to nothing. Finland won, but this was a win that felt somewhere between pyrrhic and empty. The only winners at Parken last night were Christian Eriksen and those who prayed for him to live.
That he did isn’t a pure accident or the result of any Gods smiling down upon him. Denmark captain Simon Kjaer secured Eriksen’s neck, cleared his airwaves and administered CPR, before comforting his partner, along with goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Referee Anthony Taylor recognised the gravity of the situation immediately and halted the game. The players formed a protective shield around him, allowing the emergency procedures to be carried out in as close to a dignified manner as could be managed, under the circumstances. The fans of both teams inside the stadium, all as shocked as each other, back and forthing “CHRISTIAN”, “ERIKSEN” in front of an empty pitch as the player received life-saving attention elsewhere. The equipment and the knowledge required to save his life were in place.
Be grateful that we’re not telling you this very story, but with an altogether more horrific ending.