It’s the evening of 12 June 2021 and Christian Eriksen is lying in a hospital bed in Copenhagen.
Less than a mile away, Denmark are playing out the final 20 minutes of their game against Finland. Christian, watching the action unfold on a TV in his room, sees his team-mates fall to a 1-0 defeat.
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“I could see Parken from my room and hear the cheers, or no cheers, from my hospital bed,” Christian recalls.
“They shouldn’t have played, not after that trauma. But that wasn’t me – I had lost those minutes. I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t realise what they had seen.”
What Christian’s team-mates had witnessed earlier that day is one of the most distressing episodes to ever occur on a football pitch. After receiving a throw-in from team-mate Joakim Maehle, Christian collapsed. This wasn’t an impact injury – no one was near him. It quickly became clear that something was wrong – very wrong. The midfielder lay motionless. He had suffered a cardiac arrest.
Simon Kjaer was one of the first to understand the severity of the situation, along with team-mates Thomas Delaney and Maehle, Finland’s goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and referee Anthony Taylor. Kjaer rushed to Christian, put him on his side and made sure his airway was open. Around the world, people were watching and crying in their living rooms.
Denmark’s players formed a protective shield around their talisman, offering some privacy from the 15,200 fans at Parken and the millions watching on TV. Christian’s team-mates were by his side when he needed them most – the coolness of their actions contrasting the panic and distress on their faces.
Two brothers - Morten and Anders Boesen – had hurried on to the pitch. Morten the team doctor, Anders the stadium doctor. The defibrillator was produced quickly and, together with the heart massage, Christian was revived.
“I was on my back when I woke up,” Christian explains. “I felt them pressing on me. I struggled to breathe, then I heard faint voices and doctors talking.
“I was thinking this can’t be me lying here - I’m healthy. My first thought was that I broke my back. Can I move my legs? Can I move my toes? Little things like that. I remember it all. Except those minutes when I was in Heaven.
“When I woke up from the CPR, it was like waking up from a dream. I was far away. Usually, you remember bits of a dream, but I don’t remember a thing from when I passed out. I struggled to breathe and slowly I saw the doctors surrounding me and heard their voices.
“When our cardiologist said that I was 30, I corrected him and said: ‘Hey, I’m only 29!’ I regained consciousness right away.
“I remember the atmosphere. The white linen around me to shield me from view. I looked up and saw the fans singing. I got carried out to the ambulance, I remember that clearly.
“It wasn’t until I was in the ambulance that I realised I had been dead. One of the paramedics asked our team doctor: ‘How long was he out for?’ Our doctor responded: ‘Three to four minutes’”.
After his admittance to hospital, Christian had successful surgery to insert an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which can shock his heart into action if necessary. He was discharged the following Friday, walking out holding his son’s hand. Those days in Rigshospitalet offered some time for reflection.
“I recognised what happened to me,” says Christian. “The first time [I saw the incident] was when I was in the hospital. A couple of days passed before I watched the actual scene where I collapse. It annoyed me a little; there were no signs this would happen, so why did it? It was a very strange thing to go through.”
During the journey to the hospital, minutes after his collapse, Christian questioned whether he’d ever step foot on a football pitch again. ‘Keep my boots, I won’t need them,’ he thought to himself in the ambulance. However, conversations with his doctors during the days that followed provided a heightened sense of optimism.
"I wanted to get all the tests done and talk with all the doctors to see what was a possibility and what was not," he says.
"But then ever since, I think less than a week after, they said 'you have an ICD but otherwise nothing has changed, you can continue like a normal life and there is no limit to what you want to do'.
"It was a relief, but also weird because I wouldn't want to overdo it, I wouldn't want to take any chances with it, so that's why I am doing many tests to make sure that it is okay.
"It’s not going to affect me in 30 years what I am doing now and that was the main aim, otherwise if they tell me something has changed then I will be on another page.
"I don't see any risk. I have an ICD, if anything would happen then I am safe. With an ICD there are no limits; people can run marathons, deep dive, all sorts.”
Christian’s contract with Inter Milan was cancelled by mutual consent in December; players fitted with an ICD cannot compete in Serie A.
After leaving the Italian giants – with whom he won the league title in 2020/21 - Christian began training alone at Danish side Odense Boldklub and stated his desire to resume his playing career. There were no shortage of takers for the five-time Danish Footballer of the Year. Christian recognised the importance of his next move.
Shortly before Christmas came a phone call from his former Denmark under-17 boss, Thomas Frank. The pair kept in touch when Christian joined Ajax and re-kindled their friendship when Thomas moved to London six years ago
“The first phone call was just to say hello and see how I was,” Christian recalls.
“He wanted to know where my thoughts were in terms of getting back to football. It was a good phone call and it took off from there. We said we’d keep in contact and see what happened.”
On 31 January – transfer deadline day – Christian was unveiled as a Brentford player. The fans’ excitement mirrored the feelings of The Bees Head Coach.
“I am looking forward to working with Christian again,” said Thomas, after the midfielder’s signing was confirmed.
“It has been a while since I last coached him, and a lot has happened since then. Christian was 16 at the time and has become one of the best midfield players to appear in the Premier League. He has also won trophies all over Europe and become the star of the Danish national team.
“We have taken an unbelievable opportunity to bring a world-class player to Brentford. At his best, Christian has the ability to dictate games of football. He can find the right passes and is a goal threat. He also has very, very good set-piece delivery, both from corners and direct free-kicks.
“He is a player you can find with the ball, and he will come up with a solution to the problem in front of him. Christian will also bring experience of top-level football to the Club. I expect him to have an impact in the dressing room and at the training ground.”
Christian was equally pleased to be linking up with his fellow countryman.
“He’s got the same hair as before,” Christian laughs. “Always the same. For me it’s difficult to remember those days - I was very, very young – but I we had some good times and some good wins. We had a good team back then. To have him now as my coach feels like I’ve come full circle. I’m happy that he’s the coach.
“I spoke to Thomas a few times. I had a good feeling. London is a good place to be, a good place for my family. I’m playing in the Premier League. Brentford was the best mix; from the outside it looked very familiar and a good place to work.”
Only five non-British players (Cesc Fàbregas, Dennis Bergkamp, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Thierry Henry) have supplied more Premier League assists than Christian (62). Esteemed company, indeed. With last summer behind him, Christian returns to England looking to add to an already impressive legacy. His sights are set firmly on the road ahead.
“Getting on the pitch, touching the ball and smelling the grass – everything has come back. The excitement has returned to watch games, be in a stadium and involved with a team.
“I’ve always loved playing football – that didn’t go away because of what happened. I’ve missed the environment, going into a stadium and doing something in a football game. I’ve missed the atmosphere, being with my team-mates and celebrating wins.
“I’ve been given the green light from the doctors that I’m able and capable of being the footballer, Christian. Of course, I will always have the experience with me, everyone will have the memory of what happened last time I played, but I think now is the time to make new memories and look forward. I’m excited to show that with an ICD – if you do the proper tests and everything is okay – you can play again. I’m happy about it.
“I want to get back to playing. It was six months of waiting and hard work to get to where I am now. I want to touch the ball, to play some football, to score some goals and get some assists. I want to see where it takes me. I know myself; I want to be as good as possible.”