In the immediate aftermath of Christian Eriksen’s collapse after suffering cardiac arrest in Denmark’s Euro 2020 opener against Finland, Danish captain Simon Kjær earned admiration around the globe for his actions.
It was Kjær who was among the first to identify the severity of the situation, and the center back — from inside his own half — rushed toward Finland’s corner flag before stabilizing Eriksen on his side, clearing his airways and starting CPR before medical staff arrived.
Kjær, who’s been playing with Eriksen on Denmark’s senior side for over a decade, then organized a protective circle with Thomas Delaney to create what team doctor Morten Boesen called “optimal” working conditions.
From there Kjær could be seen consoling Sabrina Kvist, Eriksen’s partner and the mother of their two children. It remains an incredibly difficult but moving image to look at.
“Our players acted outstandingly,” Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand later said. “To see Simon being so far from Christian at first yet still being the second player by his side, helping him, then turning his attention on to Sabrina along with Kasper. … He had the capacity to get everyone pulling together, communicate and be a leader. Simon was the role model as he always is.”
Kjær was understandably one of the most visibly shaken when UEFA forced Denmark’s hand in returning to the pitch less than two hours later, and viewers could only commiserate when he was substituted with 63 minutes on the clock.
“A shock that will be part of me — part of all of us — forever,” Kjær later said in a statement. “The only thing that is important and really matters is that Christian is OK.”
When asked about his own role in saving Eriksen’s life, Kjær was deferential: “The way I reacted was the way Kasper (Schmeichel) and the other players reacted as well, as a unit.”
Football faded to the background as the squad and all of Denmark focused on Eriksen’s health. The good news arrived with his discharge from the hospital following a successful surgery to insert an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. It was Kjær, despite a second group match against world No. 1 Belgium, who issued the rallying cry for the Danish Dynamite and a rollicking Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.
“I am touched and very grateful for all the support,” Kjær said ahead of the match. “Today, we will enter the pitch against Belgium with Christian in our hearts and thoughts. It gives us peace in our minds, which allows us to focus on the game of football. We will play for Christian and as always for all of Denmark. That is the greatest motivation for us all.”
If Denmark was to have any chance of keeping it close, much would come down to how Kjær handled the unstoppable Romelu Lukaku, who’d hit a brace in Belgium’s opening match.
Yussuf Poulsen scored an unbelievable opener (the second-fastest goal in Euro history), and Kjær masterfully went about his battle with Lukaku. By the game's end, no one on the pitch won more defensive aerials (five), completed more tackles (four) or interceptions (three) than Denmark's skipper. It wasn’t until Belgium’s second-half introduction of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard that the Red Devils were able to turn it around, but belief swelled throughout the country.
Denmark entered Monday’s final matchday at the bottom of Group B, but there was a sense — especially with the 24,000 in Parken sounding a lot more like 100,000 — that a miracle could be achieved against Russia.
"We go into the game with the mentality that we have to get there (to the knockout stage), and after everything we've been through I think we deserve it," Kjær said. "You can be sure that everything will be left out on the pitch tomorrow — with the support and the quality that this team has, I'm confident about the match."
His direct adversary this time was no less formidable: the 6-foot-6-inch man-mountain Artem Dzyuba. Again, Kjær was revelatory in winning an astounding nine defensive aerials, leading Denmark in tackles and playing a huge role in the non-stop attack.
The center back completed 50 of 56 passes at a match-leading 89 percent, but it was also Kjær who forced a save from Matvei Safonov in the 79th minute before the ball eventually fell to Andreas Christensen for one of the most emotional strikes in Euro history.
DENMARK! SCENES! 2ND PLACE AND THROUGH!pic.twitter.com/bmMMsoOFtC— The18 (@the18com) June 21, 2021
The 4-1 win saw Denmark climb from fourth to second, punching a ticket to the Round of 16 and a meeting with Wales in Amsterdam on Saturday.
“We have gone through so much in the time we have been together, and it was no doubt in our mind that this was not going to be the final chapter,” midfielder Christian Nørgaard said. “That it all culminated like it did was written in the stars. We go into the next game with a huge feeling that we can win it.”