Christian Eriksen’s miraculous return leading Denmark’s challenge to elite | World Cup 2022

Christian Eriksen has been back threading passes through Premier League defences for the best part of a year but there was still something sublime in the fact he was able to sit here, at a modest sports facility on the hazy outskirts of Doha, previewing a World Cup. The thought he might do so had, in the bluntest terms, not crossed anyone’s mind in the aftermath of his cardiac arrest last June but there is a tantalising sense the story may only be part way through.

Could Eriksen and Denmark go all the way? That is their intention in Qatar and it would represent a footballing, not to mention personal, comeback for the ages. It would also back up the progress of a team that hovers just below the established favourites but has shown enough, before and since the return of its talisman, to suggest the final step may be possible.

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“It has always been strong but the belief, in the squad and from the fans, was bigger when I came back,” Eriksen said when asked whether, on resuming international duty in March, he had stepped into a different Denmark team. The blend of emotion, pride, togetherness and sheer skill that brought them to the Euro 2020 semi-finals after that fateful afternoon at Parken has bred an irresistible juggernaut: they qualified for this winter’s competition with ease and, earlier this year, beat France both home and away in the Nations League.

It is the French with whom they will presumably grapple for top spot in Group D unless Australia or Tunisia, their opponents at Education City Stadium on Tuesday, spring a surprise. “France in a tournament is a different team compared to the rest of the year,” said Eriksen, using characteristic modesty but applying fair logic too. Competing with the elite over four weeks may take something different. “We’re dreaming of something big,” he said. “But in the end we have to get there.”

The challenge facing Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark’s urbane manager, is to plot the path. The ultimate leap is to be a side that wins semi-finals and finals. His players could not have been accused of robbery if they had clung on to beat England at Wembley last summer but he has always said the better team won.

“The quality of the team is very, very good but I don’t think we’re up there with the very best,” Hjulmand said. “We’ve been discussing it a lot with the players: how can we still try to get there? We are trying to [do it] and climb the last percentages against the best teams.”

Eriksen’s addition to the unit that, without his peerless ingenuity, captured so many imaginations should help tilt the numbers favourably. The team looks nicely balanced, with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Thomas Delaney to either side of him in midfield while Simon Kjær, feted for his reaction to Eriksen’s collapse, has returned from long-term injury to anchor the defence. Atalanta’s Joakim Mæhle will bomb on from left-back while Mikkel Damsgaard and Kasper Dolberg remain bright sparks in attack.

Denmark are riding a wave and their longevity has been a pleasant surprise to Hjulmand. “We didn’t know if it was ‘Euro football fever’ in Denmark or just football fever,” he said. “And it was football fever. It’s crazy in Denmark at the moment. I think we’re in a good position. You cannot just go by emotions, to play well we need quality on the pitch, but I think the football quality is there and we’re ready.”

When France visited Parken two months ago, demand for tickets reached 120,000. That is more than four times Parken’s capacity but the atmosphere Denmark face in their opener may hinder rather than help. Tunisian supporters have travelled in numbers to Qatar and up to 30,000 could be in the stands: a reliably awkward, often tricky opponent will feel at home and test the Danes’ ability to set a resounding tone.

Christian Eriksen

When a count was made in late September, only 2,000 tickets had been sold to Danish supporters across all three group stage games; this may be the most popular team since the Euro 92 winners but the cloud surrounding Qatar has permeated both fanbase and squad.

Denmark have not hidden their dismay about the governing body’s refusal to allow the slogan “Human rights for all” on their training shirts and have pointedly been training in all-black jerseys. They will join other countries in wearing the OneLove rainbow armband, starting on Tuesday, whether it is approved or not.

There is the impression Fifa has done little to earn trust and the Danish FA’s sporting director, Peter Møller, bore that out on Saturday after hearing Gianni Infantino’s extraordinary soliloquy that morning. “My personal opinion is he says some appalling things,” Møller said, bristling against the president’s criticism of Europe and pointing out Denmark have worked behind the scenes to help effect change in Qatar. “I don’t understand anything he’s saying. It shows me we are doing the right thing when, the day before the World Cup, he spends almost all his time speaking about all the things we have helped push forward.”

Still, a seismic victory in Fifa’s showpiece is the prize on offer. “You need to hit the right moment in games and get a bit of luck, but our goal is to win the tournament,” said the right-back Jens Stryger Larsen. Winning the group could lead to a quarter-final rematch with England; second place would probably bring a fiendish early test against Argentina.

“I’m happy to be back, it’s special to be at a World Cup,” Eriksen said. That will describe the feelings sparked watching him pull Denmark’s strings once again, too.

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