Euro 2020(1): Day Ten – This is for You, Christian
In 1992, Denmark’s players were relaxing – albeit largely figuratively – on the beach when they received telephone calls telling them that they should pack their bags and get ready for some international football. Yugoslavia weren’t going to be competing in that summer’s European Championships in Sweden after all, and as the team that had missed out in their qualification group by a single point, their attendance was required instead. Less than four weeks later, they were the champions of the continent. Say what you like about Denmark, but they sure do understand a good narrative.
This summer’s story of the Danes had a somewhat darker plot twist. For the last nine days, the country has been animated by a team which had to face down an almost unimaginable horror. Christian Eriksen survived his brush with the Grim Reaper, and we were collectively treated to a moment of national catharsis when Yussuf Poulsen scored for them in ninety seconds in their next match against Belgium. They couldn’t hold on in that match against one of the tournament favourites, but had proved a point, and despite having lost both of their two opening matches, they had done so by sufficiently narrow margins to still be in with a chance of proceeding, should things go their way.
There has been much criticism of UEFA’s scheduling for this tournament, that we’re playing too many games to eliminate too few clubs. The format as it stands, though, does at least mean that just about every match means something to somebody. The permutations, going into last night’s round of matches, was dizzying. Denmark had to win, and in order to stand a good chance of getting through probably needed to do so handsomely. A draw would probably be enough for their opponents, Russia, though Finland could still sneak through if they could summon an unlikely win against Belgium.
Passions were running high at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, then, and for 35 minutes they were frustrated by a Russia team whose own future in the tournament was dependent upon them turning in an accomplished performance of their own. Russia had their chances and there were moments when Parken collectively held its breath, but with seven minutes to play in the half the stadium exploded when Mikkel Damsgaard picked up on a pass just outside the penalty area, skilfully teed the ball up with the outside of his foot, and then fired a dipping, curling shot around the Russian goalkeeper Safonov and in, to keep Denmark in the game.
Meanwhile in St Petersburg, frustration was the name of the game. Belgium were already through to the next round, but Denmark needed them to beat Finland to be able to progress themselves. The that might have broken the tension hadn’t arrived by half-time, and by this point it was easy to consider the possibility that the Macedonians might be able to frustrate Belgium enough to force a point and render Denmark’s efforts to snatch second place an irrelevance.
The second half of this match, however, turned out to be the sort of peculiarity that only tournament football can really achieve. With the clock about to tick past the hour mark, Denmark were gift-wrapped a second goal when Safonov threw the ball out to Kuzyaev, who wasn’t really paying proper attention and played a dreadful pass pack to his goalkeeper that was both underhit and in the wrong direction, allowing Yussuf Poulsen to nip in, push the ball around Kuzyaev, who stumbled but still attempted a slightly theatrical dive, and roll it into the empty goal.
Bedlam, but it was only just beginning. As we reached the midway point in the half, a roar started to spread around Parken as the news came through that Belgium had the ball in the Finnish goal in Saint Petersburg. If goal difference was to be a factor, things had already been going Denmark’s way, but this came to an abrupt halt when Vestergaard got a little over-enthusiastic with Sobolev inside the Danish penalty area and Artem Dzyuba converted the kick. Russia now only needed one goal to sneak into second place, and Danish cheers came to an abrupt end when it filtered through that the Roboref had disallowed Belgium’s goal. Seven minutes later the cheering started again. With a quarter of an hour to play Belgium had scored again, and this time it was allowed to stand.
The closing stages of the match turned out the be the cherry on the cake, for Denmark. With ten minutes to play Russia failed to clear a corner and Andreas Christensen thumped the ball into the top corner from 25 yards out. Two minutes later, with Russia – who have had a not infrequent tendency to combust when things start going against them in these tournaments before reeling, Joakim Mæhle added a fourth, and within a minute of that there was more good news from Saint Petersburg, where Belgium had added a second goal against Finland to put that game beyond their reach and put Denmark into the second round on goal difference.
At the end of the evening came the outpouring of emotion. Nine days after witnessing the near-death experience of one of their most beloved players on the pitch during a match, Denmark had come together in an extraordinary fashion. The were ultimately undone by the individual brilliance of Belgium’s players in their second match, but that spirit and determination never seemed to leave the players, and their performance against Russia was the outpouring of emotion that the whole country likely needed. It would take a heart of stone not to have been touched by it all.
This was also a set of results that had ramifications elsewhere. This result guaranteed Sweden and France’s progression through to the next round, but the most disappointed watching neutrals were Wales supporters, who had been hoping for a second round match against Finland, only to now find themselves having to travel to Amsterdam to play the Danish force of nature instead. Finland finished third thanks to Denmark’s goal spree. They can still qualify in third place, though it’s unlikely, but the fact that they’ve finished their group on three points also had the unintended consequence of guaranteeing both Czechia and England a place in the next round before a ball has even been kicked tonight because they both already have three points.
They play at Wembley tonight in the curious position of knowing that the group winners will have a more difficult second round draw than the group runners-up. Scotland play Croatia at the same time, with both teams in that match knowing that a win will put them through while eliminating the losers. With only a point each, a draw at Hampden Park would eliminate both teams. With the Billy Gilmore story having provided a second “Scotland gonna Scotland” for this tournament, this evening will either be a night of unprecedented success for Scotland – who have never got past the group stages in their previous nine attempts at the World Cup and Euros combined – or yet another object lesson in how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Things progessed at an altogether more sedate pace earlier in the evening, as Group C reached its denouement. The Netherlands beat North Macedonia 3-0 in Amsterdam, with Memphis Depay scoring in the first half and Georginio Wijnaldum scoring two in seven second half minutes to wrap that game up, and with football having no space for anything like a middle ground, coach Frank De Boer has already flipped from being a football idiot to a football genius. It’s almost as though the truth always rests somewhere between our polarised, emotional reflexes.
If there was drama to be found in this group, though, it wasn’t going to be found in Amsterdam last night. The group’s other match between Ukraine and Austria was again impacted by the structure of the tournament. A draw would have put both teams on four points and likely have guaranteed both of their progress, but a Christoph Baumgartner goal after 19 minutes proved to be enough to win the game for Austria and send them through in second place behind the Netherlands. Ukraine, meanwhile, have to settle for third place, three points from three games, and a goal difference of -1. They are now dependent on results elsewhere, should they wish to progess.
Last night, however, belonged to Denmark.