Sportsman Of The Year
Thursday, June 17, 2021. 610pm on a warm, pleasant Copenhagen evening.
25,000 fans rise to their feet at Parken, Denmark’s national stadium. The on field action comes to a pre-arranged halt. Yet the applause, equal parts love, appreciation, gratitude, and pure relief, swells through the ground. It honours a young man, a Danish soccer star named Christian Eriksen, lying in a hospital bed just a few blocks away.
The drama has its roots five days earlier, just minutes before halftime of Denmark vs Finland, one of the opening games of the much-anticipated Euro 2020 soccer tournament. People, sick and tired of the Covid pandemic, finally have an event to look forward to. In a party atmosphere, most of the crowd are decked out in red and white, the national colours. Denmark, like much of Europe, is finally free of many restrictions for the first time in a long while.
Out of nowhere, suddenly, horrifyingly, Eriksen, a 29-year-old midfielder in supreme physical condition, slumps to the turf. Most everyone in attendance reacts in shock and fear. A life hangs in the balance.
Fortunately, in times of crisis, when one’s world turns upside down without warning, heroes emerge. Enter Simon Kjaer.
Amidst the deeply distressing and panicky scenes on the field, Kjaer, the Danish captain, first secures Eriksen’s neck. He then clears the player’s airway, administers emergency CPR before medics arrive on the scene.
As Eriksen lies lifeless on the ground, Kjaer does more. Summoning team personnel, he directs them to form a protective shield around their stricken teammate. In this way, he shields the prone body from prying eyes, blocks media and cameras from filming any impending tragedy.
Finally, Kjaer seeks out Eriksen’s wife. He shows great empathy in consoling her in such a terrifying situation. His calm and composure are remarkable.
Eventually, the fully trained paramedics take over. Time is of the essence. CPR continues and an external defibrillator (AED) restarts the heart. An ambulance arrives and Eriksen is taken to hospital.
Happily, soon there is reassuring news. The player is conscious, alert and resting comfortably. Information filters out that he will be fitted with an ICD, a type of pacemaker, which will prevent cardiac arrests by discharging a jolt which restores regular heart rhythm.
Incredibly, after a two-hour delay, Denmark and Finland return to the field and complete the game. It is a hugely controversial decision forced upon them by UEFA, the tournament’s governing body. The hosts somehow raise themselves, dominate possession and territory, but lose 1-0 to an unlikely Finnish goal in the 60th minute. Yet, everyone knows that, given the earlier shocking circumstances, the result is totally irrelevant.
Days pass. They are a time for sombre reflection. However, slowly, a sense of normalcy returns. The Danes return to training, begin preparation for their second game, vs Belgium. The teams agree on the stoppage of play ten minutes into the contest, as a tribute to Eriksen who played in his country's #10 jersey.
The sun shines once again and Denmark surprises, ripping into the favoured Belgians in the opening minutes to lead 1-0. Yet, the visitors, who contribute significantly to what is an emotional occasion, fight back after half time to secure a narrow 2-1 victory.
Nonetheless, as was the case earlier, a sense of perspective remains. Indeed, the Sunday edition of the Danish national newspaper, Ekstrabladet, summarizes events accurately and succinctly.
“Danmark taber. Livet vinder” blares the headline. Denmark loses. Life wins.
I can’t agree more. I recall too many other ridiculously skilled, top level athletes, in all manner of sports, taken far too soon by cardiac failure. Christian Eriksen is luckier than them, saved by medicine and technology, and by the people who look after him, particularly in the critical minute after he collapses.
Especially Simon Kjaer, whose humanity, dynamic leadership and decisive action help prevent a catastrophe. Instead, a potentially tragic event becomes, in its own way, both a triumph and a feel-good story.
And that’s why he resonates with me, and I am sure with millions of others around the world. And why the votes are already in and counted.
Simon Kjaer, 2021 Sportsman of the Year.