Denmark’s players had barely stopped running. For 10 minutes, they had hunted down Belgium’s glittering lineup remorselessly, ruthlessly, racing around the field at the Parken Stadium with a fierce, frenzied energy. And then, as soon as the clock struck 10, they stopped, they stood and they applauded. And the fans applauded with them.
It is not quite true to say that the fate of Denmark’s campaign in Euro 2020 does not matter, that what happened to Christian Eriksen last Saturday has rendered it all irrelevant. It is of secondary importance, of course, compared with Eriksen’s health, but it does not render those fans in the stadium in Copenhagen on Thursday inhuman for wanting their team to win. It does not make the players monsters for being disappointed that, despite a spirited first half, they eventually lost to Belgium.
Soccer is at its best in its darkest moments. The outpouring of concern and affection after Eriksen’s gut-wrenching, terrifying collapse was — despite the intense darkness of the circumstance — cheering. Players and officials and fans set aside tribal and national allegiances to extend their support. Perhaps that is just the decent thing to do, but still: Those clubs offering their thoughts and prayers did not have to say anything, so even a small kindness should be worthy of praise.
But soccer also has a tendency, at those times, to downplay its significance, to insist on its own irrelevance, as if in the most extreme circumstances it allows us all to glimpse the great secret that lies behind the fourth wall: that this is all just a game, that we are all party to some great mutual, self-sustaining delusion, that none of it really matters.
That is and is not true. It is possible to care far more about Eriksen’s health than whether Denmark qualifies, but the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. Part of the reason that Eriksen means so much to so many people is because soccer does matter; because he has brought them pleasure in, and excelled at, something that matters not only to them, but to him, too.