EM 2024: Christian Eriksen – “I felt a cramp in my calf. Then I was – gone”

EM 2024: Christian Eriksen – “I felt a cramp in my calf. Then I was – gone”

It was the 86th minute between Denmark and Sweden in Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium. Christian Eriksen got the ball about 35 meters from the goal. Too far for a shot. Denmark’s midfielder preferred to dribble a few more meters, shaking off an opponent in the process, and delicately curling the ball into the net with the inside of his right foot. A dream goal. Eriksen sprinted to the corner flag and celebrated.

Their captain’s winning goal to make it 2-1 in the penultimate test before the European Championships finally sparked anticipation among Danish football fans. A few days and another test victory (3-1 against Norway) later, the past caught up with the national coach. When asked about Eriksen, Kasper Hjulmand’s voice faltered. “Off the field he’s such a nice guy, he talks to everyone and is a good boy,” said Hjumland, describing his midfield star. “He’s positive, open and we’re happy to have him.” Eriksen, according to his coach, is the “heart” of the Danish national team.

Three years earlier, that heart had suddenly stopped. At the same place where Christian Eriksen, 32, recently shot his Danes to victory against Sweden, he was for a few minutes closer to death than to life. The football world held its breath.

Dream goal against Sweden: Christian Eriksen (r.) is the driving force in Denmark’s national team

Source: dpa/Liselotte Sabroe

It was June 12, 2021. In the first group match of the 2021 European Championship, the Danes met Finland at the Parken Stadium. The first half of the game ended goalless. Eriksen and some of his teammates recently reconstructed what happened next in the “Sommeren 21” podcast on Danish broadcaster DR. “I felt good, there was nothing to suggest that I was unwell. Everything was normal,” Eriksen says of the fateful day.

Eriksen remembers collapse

In the 42nd minute, the Danes had a throw-in. On the sideline, Joakim Maehle turned the ball over in his hands, then threw it to Eriksen. Then, in a split second, a drama unfolded. Eriksen staggered, stumbled and suddenly fell to the grass. “The ball hit my knee and I felt something like a cramp in my calf,” Eriksen remembers. “Then I was – gone.” Maehle ran to his fallen teammate, the team doctors ran onto the grass. “I saw him lying on his side, his eyes were completely rolled back,” says Maehle. “Our doctor said: he has no pulse. And I thought: this could end really badly.”

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The 16,000 spectators in the stands sense the seriousness of the situation. The stadium becomes quiet. Thomas Delaney calls his teammates over, they link arms and form a screen around their injured colleague. Behind them, the doctors are fighting for Eriksen’s life with CPR and a defibrillator. Hardly any Danish player dares to turn around. Sabrina Kvist Jensen, his partner, rushes onto the pitch in tears, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel tries to calm her down.

“I was lying on my back and noticed that I was being pressed. I heard quiet, distant voices, the doctors were talking,” Eriksen describes his return to life in the podcast. Already conscious again, he is transported to Rigshospitalet, the most advanced hospital in the capital. It is only about 500 meters as the crow flies from the stadium. In the ambulance, the paramedics ask the Danish team doctors. “One of our doctors was asked how long I had been gone. The answer was about three or four minutes. I didn’t know that I was already in heaven.”

Danes had to continue playing

At the same time, there was heated discussion in the stadium’s catacombs. UEFA offered the shocked Danes two options: continue playing immediately or continue the match the next day at 12 noon. An approach that brought harsh criticism to the European football association. For the Danish players, it was clear: we will only play if our teammate is out of danger. Shortly afterwards, Eriksen contacted the team via video call from his sickbed and gave the all-clear.

Anxious moment at the 2021 European Championship: His teammates shield Eriksen, who is lying on the ground, while the doctors fight for the midfielder’s life

Source: Getty Images/Friedemann Vogel – Pool

After a 107-minute break, referee Anthony Taylor actually blew the whistle to restart the game. The Finns won 1-0. “It was crazy and proof that money rules. We felt under pressure,” remembers Delaney. Coach Hjumland also looks back critically: “It was a matter of survival for us. Life and death. When Christian fell over, everything we had built up was on the ground within a second. The importance of a European Championship disappeared in a second.” It was certainly not right to carry on playing.

The reason for Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest was said to be congenital hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary thickening of the heart muscle. In the hospital, doctors implanted a defibrillator in the midfielder. Six days after his collapse, the football star left the clinic and visited the Danish team headquarters. The man for whom millions of people had been worried for days before motivated his teammates. The Danes made it to the semi-finals of the European Championship, where they were eliminated by England. Eriksen went home for the time being.

The difficult fight back

He spent the summer with his partner and their two children on the island of Funen, just a few hundred meters from the grounds of his hometown club Odense BK. Half a year after the collapse, Eriksen’s arduous journey back to football began there. First with solitary jogging. Although the doctors had allowed him to return to professional sport, the Dane’s time at Inter Milan ended. Players with a defibrillator are not allowed to play in Serie A. In December 2021, both sides agreed to terminate his contract.

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In January 2022, Eriksen signed with Brentford FC in the Premier League. Initially, some opponents reacted cautiously. Brendan Williams of Norwich City wanted to grab Eriksen by the throat after a foul in a league game until he recognized his opponent. Instead of a scuffle, there was a warm hug.

Bearer of hope: Coach Kasper Hjumland described Eriksen as the “heart” of the Danes

What: Action Images via Reuters

Two months later, Eriksen was back in the national team. Two minutes after coming on as a substitute against the Netherlands, he scored a goal. However, Denmark’s World Cup in Qatar ended after the preliminary round, having picked up one point from three games. At Manchester United, where Eriksen moved two years ago, he had a mixed season. 28 competitive games, one goal, three assists. Not enough for a player with his abilities.

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Critical voices were raised at home. That of former international player Thomas Gravesen, for example. “The Christian Eriksen that we all know no longer exists. Christian Eriksen no longer plays football,” the former Hamburger SV professional explained to the Danish sports magazine “Tipsbladet”. Eriksen responded in Denmark’s warm-up games with two assists and the goal against Sweden.

Eriksen is a key factor in the finals. This Sunday, Denmark’s leader returns to the European Championship stage in a match against Slovenia. “He is our rhythm, he is our man on the field who can dictate the game,” says national coach Hjumland. If Eriksen plays well, then Denmark plays well too.

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