Great Danes deliver Euro 2020's greatest moment: Neil Humphreys
Following near tragedy and near elimination, Denmark produce Euro 2020's best story
The Danes did it. They gave a wobbling tournament its greatest moment.
When they ran together, arm in arm, towards their jubilant supporters, the Danish footballers reminded us all what this exasperating game is supposed to be about.
Football is an escape.
Joy, disappointment, victory and defeat are part of the process, sure, but the underlying reason for the game's existence is to offer a temporary respite from the horrors of nihilistic reality.
Or, to put it bluntly, football should provide a 90-minute breather from the general crappiness that happens between living and dying.
But Christian Eriksen's shocking collapse brought horror into our living rooms, breaking the silent pact between football and fans.
Win, lose or draw, but never let grim reality sneak onto the hallowed turf. For 90 minutes, we prop up the facade and act as if Harry Kane's form, Spain's attacking struggles and the VAR (video assistant referee) decisions actually matter. Of course they don't.
But we play pretend for an hour and a half and dive into the rabbit holes of Euro 2020's trivialities. And, for the most part, it's fun.
Eriksen's cardiac arrest smashed the illusion. We tuned in to watch an unimportant Group B game, not to be reminded of the fragility of our mortality.
That's a bit much for a kickabout being played on the other side of the planet. What's worse, the less attractive aspects of the football industry swiftly took charge.
Uefa essentially gave the traumatised Danes an impossible ultimatum to finish a game that was subsequently lost, focusing on TV schedules rather than broken hearts. It was hardly the game's finest hour.
That arrived yesterday morning (Singapore time) and it belonged to those indomitable Danes, who beat Russia 4-1 to become the first team in Euros history to reach the last 16 after losing their first two games.
They didn't deserve to lose to Finland. They were unlucky against Belgium. So they needed a minor miracle against Russia and some convoluted mathematical permutations to secure an unlikely passage to the knockout stages.
Somehow, the karmic stars aligned, the very least they could do for Kasper Hjulmand's men. The Danes scored four wonderful goals against Russia.
Even the Belgians did their bit, with Eriksen's Inter Milan teammate and friend Romelu Lukaku ensuring a 2-0 victory against Finland.
Football had restored its equilibrium, at least for now. Those unwanted shadows remain. Scotland's Billy Gilmour has tested positive for Covid-19, a reminder of the outside grimness that Euro 2020 is desperate to keep at bay.
Coronaviruses and cardiac arrests burst bubbles, like being jolted awake from a pleasant dream. Who wants that right now? We need the suspension of disbelief to hold until the end of the tournament (when all tenterhooks will be shifted to the Tokyo Olympics).
We crave a Danish fairy tale.
When they ran towards euphoric fans, throwing jerseys into the crowd and pummelling their chests, their redemptive arc felt complete.
Their round-of-16 clash with the Welsh feels like a bonus now.
They have already won for Eriksen, their country and the vital spirit of escapism.
Somehow, everyone needed the Danes to reach the knockout stages, as if we're all desperate to remove as many ghastly asterisks as we can in a delayed tournament playing under the darkest cloud.
Euro 2020 has Covid-19 to deal with. Isn't that enough?
Eriksen and Denmark's plight were almost too much to bear, one potential tragedy too many for a global audience that has experienced quite enough of those in the last 18 months.
Eriksen had to pull though. And Denmark had to go through. That's it. Those subconscious demands were not up for debate. They had to.
And they did, miraculously.
Outside Copenhagen's Parken Stadium, supporters had placed a huge red shirt in the local park. There was only one word on the shirt.
Helte. Heroes. Perfect.
They were heroes, every single one of them, just for one day. But it'll be enough to carry this tournament through.
In Copenhagen, football came home.