Christian Eriksen is more than just the most naturally-gifted Danish player in a generation. He is Denmark’s figurehead and guiding force, the reason why many pundits tipped Kasper Hjulmand’s side as having the potential to upset the tournament’s favourites, then perhaps even repeat their shock triumph at Euro 92.
Top European clubs knew about Eriksen from an early age, with Chelsea among those who tracked his development, but his slight frame counted against him in trials. It was instead at Ajax’s renowned De Toekomst academy, where technical ability is prized above physical prowess, that his talent was appreciated and nurtured.
Eriksen returned the favour, becoming the orchestrator of a side that won three consecutive Eredivisie titles, the first of which broke a seven-year wait. Comparisons to the Laudrup brothers, Brian and Michael, were inevitable but carried significantly more weight when they came from someone with the pedigree and genius of John Cruyff.
In Denmark, they did not wait for him to break through at Ajax. While still on the fringes in Amsterdam, he was called up to Morten Olsen’s squad for the 2010 World Cup and was the youngest player at that tournament, just 18 years and four months old. It was not long before he would be crowned Danish Footballer of the Year, an honour that he has claimed a record five times.
A move to one of Europe’s major leagues became inevitable, the only question was where. Tottenham Hotspur, newly flush with the proceeds of Gareth Bale’s €100m move to Real Madrid, felt like a natural fit. Eriksen was the most talented of the several players signed to arrive at White Hart Lane that summer in the hope of filling Bale’s absence and the only one who would prove to be an unqualified success.
His quality was evident from his debut, setting up Gylfi Sigurdsson for the first of many assists in lilywhite. Even as his first year descended into typically ‘Spursy’ turmoil, his imagination and invention was a source of hope. Eriksen told The Independent in 2018 that creativity has “has always been with him” and, though there were peaks and troughs during his seven years at Tottenham, there was always the potential for something special.
His best form aligned with Tottenham’s best, though that is probably no coincidence. Eriksen’s gifts matured during the 2015-16 campaign, when Mauricio Pochettino’s side ran out of steam while attempting to spoil Leicester City’s fairytale title win. Yet he truly stood out most as the composed technician tying together the hard, fast, physical force of Tottenham’s 2016-17 side, who finished as impressive runners-up behind champions Chelsea that year.
Those near misses, though, and there was an even greater one to come. After defeat in the Champions League final, and years of speculation linking him to Barcelona, Eriksen admitted he would like to seek a new challenge. His exit from Tottenham was now inevitable but became long and protracted and, once sidelined by Pochettino’s successor Jose Mourinho, did not conclude with the send-off he deserved. The last that Tottenham fans saw of him was a sorrowful Eriksen handing his shirt to one supporter in the stands.
“I didn’t have time to say goodbye to everyone, even though I felt like I played a lot of games where everyone said and thought I would be gone the next day,” he wrote in his farewell letter. A move to Internazionale followed and appeared to have failed after struggling to force his way into Antonio Conte’s thinking. Inter were openly touting him for sale during the winter window but a late-season resurgence saw him play an important part in their clinching of the Serie A title, his first major trophy since his Ajax days.
Another major honour with Denmark this summer was unlikely but not impossible with a player of his ability pulling the strings. The sight of Eriksen collapsing towards the end of the first half in Saturday’s group stage meeting with Finland will live in the memory of millions as one of the most harrowing images in the history of the competition, if not European football, yet was all the more traumatic for the thousands in attendance at Copenhagen’s Parken stadium, the ground on which he has dazzled for more than a decade.
He is, thankfully, stable in hospital, while the thoughts of every corner of the football world are with him and his family. While many of the scenes in Copenhagen were distressing, there was also the touching solidarity and humanity shown by his Denmark team-mates, who surrounded him to protect him from the media’s prying gaze, and the awe-inspiring work of the medical professionals who have most likely saved his life. It is thanks to them that we can still hope he will grace Parken’s pitch again and display his special gifts.