Gradually his team-mates formed a circle around him, their backs to their stricken captain, suddenly not simply famous international footballers but young men witnessing an event that they knew was as profound and as horrifying as anything they knew.
Behind them lay Christian Eriksen, one of the finest players ever to set sail from Danish football, a bona-fide star of the Premier League during his seven years at Tottenham Hotspur and a champion of Serie A this season with Inter Milan. As the cameras panned around the stands of the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen it was dawning among the Danish and Finnish fans that this was far more serious than anything they had ever seen in their football lives too.
This was the second day of the delayed European championships of 2020. This was Denmark against Finland, the first fixture of Group B. And this was the day that Christian Dannemann Eriksen from the western tip of the Danish island of Funen, aged 29 years old, almost lost his life on a football pitch.
By the end of the night he was in hospital and able to speak to his team-mates over the phone. Little more than an hour after the Danish football union (DFU) had confirmed Eriksen’s condition as stable, the teams retook the pitch at 7.30pm UK time. The dot matrix board went up to declare the substitution. Mathias Jensen formally replaced Eriksen. The clock began again on 41 minutes and in a day that felt anything but normal, a football match resumed.
A little less than two hours earlier, Eriksen had fallen to the turf out on the left wing. There were less than four minutes to play until half-time. It took little time to recognise that there was a serious medical emergency unfolding. Even before the medical teams arrived on the pitch, Eriksen’s team-mates were clustered around him. Once the medics arrived they soon began to perform a heart massage on the player. A silence fell over the half-full stadium.
By then, the television coverage had retreated from the scrutiny it would usually bring to bear on a player receiving treatment. Eventually the Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand walked across the empty pitch to his players in the far side. What he encountered on the far touchline were young men confronting the unthinkable. The old tropes of football – triumph, disaster, tragedy, glory – swept aside in an instant. This was a moment of profound horror for Eriksen’s family and his team-mates and it was happening in the full glare of prime-time television.
A young woman suddenly pitchside in a Denmark shirt with Eriksen’s name upon it, sobbing. Two officials of the DFU on either side of her. This was Eriksen’s partner Sabrina Kvist Jensen, the mother of their two children.
She was comforted by the Danish captain Simon Kjaer, who had been with Eriksen seconds after his collapse and had moved him into the recovery position, and the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Around Eriksen and the medical teams working upon him, others who had come on to assist held up white sheets to shield him.
In the stadium the crowd rallied, as at White Hart Lane they had once sung the name of Fabrice Muamba, who had collapsed on the pitch with a cardiac arrest while playing for Bolton in March 2012, aged just 23. Then the mood had been of sheer helplessness among fans accustomed to being part of the game. Now at the Parken Stadium, as the Spurs crowd did with Muamba, they were urging Eriksen to keep going – to survive.
Eventually he was carried off, an oxygen mask over his mouth, and the game was postponed. A jolt like no other to the life of the game and the lives of those who play it and who watch it and cherish it. The reminder of our mortality delivered in the most incongruous of settings, a brilliant young athlete on a warm day in his home country doing what he did best.
International football back at last, that thread that runs through us all, the only part of the sport in which you have a team by default. The kind of games that draw all sorts of football newcomers. To see a fit and strong young man fighting for his life in those circumstances will live long in the memory and who knows what life-changing events took place out there for Eriksen, his family and those who were closest to him.
At 6.31pm UK time, the DFU announced that Eriksen was awake and undergoing further examinations in hospital. He had survived, it would seem. In the Parken Stadium the Finnish and Danish fans engaged in a call and response, chanting his name back and forth. The tournament would continue. For Eriksen, a supremely gifted player who has often carried the hopes of his national team, life may never again be the same.
But he has overcome, for now at least, a greater horror than ever he could have contemplated.
He has 109 caps, an array of individual awards and three famous clubs on his CV. There are four league titles across two countries, some near misses in European finals and the status of the greatest Danish player of his generation. As with all top players, we think we know a little of them from the hours we spend observing them. We judge them accordingly, in a world where the terms are never more serious than victory or defeat. It is, after all, only football.
The interrupted game ended with a defeat for Denmark although it would be hard to call it a surprise in the circumstances. A first ever win for Finland in a major tournament and most memorably a moment when life came down to a basic question of survival. And for those who saw it, a great clarity about what matters and what does not.