Danish fans show their support for Christian Eriksen during their group stage game against Belgium
When the Danish national team teamed up for the first day of the training camp for Euro 2020, coach Kasper Hjulmand made a speech that included showing his players a photo. The picture was of Wembley Stadium, and was accompanied by a very simple phrase: "That’s where we want to go."
England might feel that they are fuelled by a sense of destiny as they hunt down a first appearance in a major tournament final since 1966, but for Denmark, too, there is a sense of their progress being pre-ordained – and Wembley is a key part of the narrative.
England’s national stadium was, after all, where it all began for Danish football when Allan Simonsen’s penalty in 1983 secured the country a first ever spot at a tournament finals – at England’s expense. That was the start of the ‘Danish Dynamite’ generation which reached the semi-finals at Euro 84, and qualified for a first World Cup a year later.
Yet distant history is only part of the tale. More pertinent to Hjulmand’s side were the events in Copenhagen just over three weeks ago, when Christian Eriksen, the team’s most famous player and a poster-boy for the tournament, collapsed after suffering a cardiac arrest in the group game against Finland. Who then could have conceived that Denmark would have responded by romping to a semi-final against England next Wednesday?
Well, the players for one. "Wembley was our ambition all along," said captain Simon Kjær after the 2-1 win against Czech Republic on Saturday. "But I am not saying the semi-final will be enough for us. We want to go all the way now.
"These last few weeks have been a rollercoaster. With what happened to Christian and how we managed to get back on track. It has been extraordinary. The support and this feeling of being a band of brothers."
His voice started to break as he tried to finish his sentence. "We want to go on now."
- Flexible, fearless and united by trauma: Denmark will pose tough semi-final test for England
The morning before the game against the Czechs, a photo of Eriksen standing at the Tisvilde beach, north of Copenhagen, went viral – the first time he had been pictured outside since his collapse. For his team-mates, seeing that image will have been inspiration enough, even if it will take time for the trauma they endured on June 11 to fully heal.
While Eriksen was being taken to hospital that day, his team-mates were sitting in the dressing room. Some cried, many simply sat in stunned silence. Kjær, in particular, was devastated. Barcelona striker Martin Braithwaite said some prayers.
"Christian lying on the ground motionless was a picture I did not want to run through my head. I wanted it to stop," Braithwaite said.
The Danes decided to finish the match, losing 1-0, although many regretted doing so. "Most of the players could not play to be honest, but they did," said Hjulmand.
It could so easily have been the prelude to a collapse and swift exit, yet for many the pivotal moment in Denmark’s campaign came two days afterwards, when the country’s football association held a press conference.
"There was a lot of emotions and relief Christian was alright but the key was when [Danish FA director] Peter Möller said: ‘We have to carry on. We have been looking forward to this tournament and now we have to give something back to the people and fans who have supported the team’. It was the turning point," said former Chelsea and Fulham player Bjarne Goldbaek, now a football agent and pundit at German television station ZDF.
"The players clearly were incredibly grateful Eriksen was OK and they have used this collective energy on the pitch. The fans and team became sort of a collective organism, a swarm, and the players felt like playing at home even in Amsterdam and Baku thanks to the red and white army of supporters."
Kasper Hjulmand's side have used their traumatic start to the tournament to foster a 'collective energy'
Denmark’s form has snowballed since then, Russia beaten 4-1, Wales 4-0 and, finally, the Czechs 2-1 in Baku. Next up are England, but while none would make the visitors favourites – not least because of the presence of a 60,000 crowd which will be dominated by local fans – Denmark have made a habit of upsetting the odds and are nothing if not prepared.
Denmark are the last team to beat England at Wembley, winning 1-0 last October, and ever since the draw for the group stage was made Hjulmand – a classic footballing nerd, who likes to spend his spare time poring over chalkboards – has made plans for a rematch, preparing a variety of tactical set-ups and plans. There will be no surprises sprung by Gareth Southgate on Wednesday night.
Some of the young players might be unsettled by the fact it is now the semi-final, with a shot at history in their grasp, but nothing about Denmark’s campaign to this point suggests they will be fazed.
"I expect a classic of a fight," Goldbaek said. "If Denmark avoids being starstruck and deploy their high intensity pressure like the game versus Belgium it will be a 50-50 game."
Then there is the Eriksen factor. After Saturday’s win over the Czech Republic, the Inter Milan player sent a group text his team-mates: "I am so proud of you guys. Go on."
Eriksen’s own future in the game is shrouded in doubt: he has had a pacemaker fitted to safeguard his heart, and returning to a normal life – let alone a football pitch – must now be his priority.
But for the team-mates who feared they had lost him, his presence is a galvanising force that could yet lead them to feats that would have seemed impossible just three short weeks ago.