'I’m incredibly proud to have him as captain,' Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said of Kjaer

Whatever happens between now and the end of Euro 2020, it seems doubtful that we will see a more striking example of leadership on the field than Simon Kjaer’s actions in those agonising minutes that followed Christian Eriksen’s sudden collapse from a cardiac arrest during Denmark’s game against Finland at the Parken Stadium last weekend. Not that it surprised those who know the unflappable Denmark captain and AC Milan defender. “We’ve always known he’s a big personality but I think a lot more people see that now,” Thomas Delaney, the Denmark midfielder, said of Kjaer. “He’s a rock in our group, he’s a big figure on and off the pitch, he takes a lot of pressure on his shoulders and we’ve all seen him do that in these last few days.”

Denmark return to the scene of Saturday’s traumatic events on Thursday when they face Belgium in their pivotal second Group B match. Leading them out will be the man whose quick-thinking and heroics might have proven the difference between Eriksen being able to watch the game on television from his hospital bed and not. A round of applause will reverberate around the Parken Stadium in the 10th minute against Belgium in honour of their beloved No 10 but it could just as well be for Kjaer.

It was Kjaer who rushed to Eriksen’s aid, checking his breathing, clearing his airways and commencing CPR before the medics arrived and then led the Denmark players in forming a protective ring around their stricken team-mate, not least to shield the playmaker’s family in the crowd from the distress of having to watch doctors working to save his life.

Few, too, will forget the sight of Eriksen’s distraught partner, Sabrina Kvist Jensen, being comforted on the side of the pitch by Kjaer and Kasper Schmeichel, the Denmark goalkeeper. “I’m incredibly proud to have him as captain,” said Schmeichel. “It does not surprise me that he did what he did. He has an incredibly sensitive and human side to him.”

Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjaer embrace before Denmark's opening match was restarted

Credit: Pool via REUTERS/Jonathan Nackstrand

Steve McClaren was watching from home when the events unfolded and could not have been prouder of the player he managed at Wolfsburg in Germany. “That was Simon to a tee – react quickly, take the lead, decide what to do and action it,” the former England manager said. “It exemplified his character. I think a lot of people in that situation would have been afraid. But Simon was not – he took the lead.”

It is not the first time he has reacted in such fashion either. When goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was knocked unconscious after a collision with the Inter Milan defender Lucio in 2011, it was Kjaer who was the first to assist his Roma team-mate, checking his breathing and securing his neck. 

The past few days have been difficult for everyone in the Denmark camp and, looking back, it seems unreasonable that the team were sent out to resume their match against Finland just two hours after fearing they may have lost a team-mate. Kjaer, for one, was physically and emotional spent and had to be substituted 27 minutes before the end of the 1-0 defeat to Finland. 

Psychologists and crisis counsellors have been on hand to talk to anyone who has felt the need to and it seemed telling that Kasper Hjulmand’s squad opted to remain at their base in the coast town of Helsingor, about 30 miles from the stadium in Copenhagen where they would have ordinarily trained the night before the game.

The squad will have the option of a bus ride to the Parken so they can visit the stadium before they play in a bid to put the traumatic events behind them and Romelu Lukaku, the Belgium striker and Eriksen’s Inter Milan team-mate, believes the Danes will go into the match with “even more motivation.”

Yet how they react remains to be seen and few are likely to be as emotionally drained as Kjaer who, along with Schmeichel, went to visit Eriksen at Rigshospitalet on Sunday and, while buoyed to see his friend laughing and joking, has been hit hard by the situation. “We’ve all been struggling individually in different ways and I think – I know – it has been tough for Simon but he has had to see it through,” Delaney said.

The bonds among the Danish players are particularly strong. Kjaer outlined as much in an interview on the eve of the tournament when he said it was not uncommon for players to sit at the breakfast table for three hours and talk. Eriksen and Kjaer have known each other for a long time but, over the past 18 months, their paths have been more closely aligned than ever.

Denmark Infobox

A fortnight before Eriksen joined Inter from Tottenham in January last year, Kjaer had moved on loan to AC Milan and, having been well accustomed to Italian life following previous spells with Palermo, Roma and Atalanta, the defender and his wife, Elina Gollert, were instrumental in helping his Danish team-mate, partner Sabrina and their two young children to settle in the city. Ten months later, Eriksen and Kjaer both made their 100th appearances for Denmark in a 1-0 win over England at Wembley. 

In an interview last month, Kjaer said it was very easy for footballers to be viewed as little more than commodities. “In the end, we are cut to the bone, just a number,” he said. “How much have we cost? How much do we earn per year?”

The past week has served to remind people that they are every bit as human as anyone else. Kjaer is father to two boys, Milas, eight, and Viggo, six, and if he is not spending time with them, he likes to relax by watching films and is a particular fan of Christopher Nolan, the English director best known for his Batman trilogy.

In March, Kjaer scored a stoppage time header in Milan’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Europa League and he is being touted as the Italian club’s potential next captain. Now 32, he has enjoyed a varied career covering nine clubs across six different countries. McClaren, who made Kjaer the most expensive Danish signing in history at the time when he brought him to Wolfsburg for £10 million in 2010, believes all those different experiences have only amplified his natural leadership skills.

Euro 2021 Wallchart Predictor

“When I first met him he was 21 but going on 35,” McClaren said. “He was mature for his age then. He always had that leadership or captain quality or an opinion on the game that was older than his years. It took him a while to settle in the Bundesliga but once he did he was always destined to be a very good player. He’s moved around and is a proper player now, a true professional, and actions like that on the field, thinking quickly and protecting his team-mates, doesn’t surprise me.

“People like Simon are a godsend in the dressing room. They’re absolutely vital – you need four or five of them to lead the dressing room and culture, to be like the manager, back him up, get the message across, control the dressing room. But also to have a strong character that the rest of the dressing room respects. Simon had the sort of character where he would get on with everybody.”

Dick Advocaat, who managed Kjaer at Fenerbahce, echoed those sentiments. “He was not our captain but in his game and behaviour he was someone who always led from the front,” the Dutchman said.

He has certainly done that.