ENGLAND vs DENMARK
Wednesday July 8th, 8pm
England @ 3/4
Draw @ 5/2
Denmark @ 17/4
‘Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, Cnut the Great, Yorick the Jester, Søren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, Lars Ulrich, Sandi Toksvig, Mads Mikkelsen, Helena Christensen…er…Whigfield. Can you hear me, Whigfield?! Your boys…your boys…have had a hell of a tournament…’
I’ve always had a soft spot for Denmark. The first major tournament to fully envelop me within its tentacles was Mexico ’86, where the Danes dazzled during the group stages. Michael Laudrup slaloming lithely through a hapless Uruguayan defence to score one of the goals of the tournament; Preben Elkjær adding a hat-trick as part of a stunning 6-1 victory of style over scything tackles. Cool, skilful, and ultimately underachieving, they were the hipster choice before such a concept even existed.
The ‘Danish Dynamite’ of the 1980s was especially remarkable coming from a country that only established a professional domestic league in 1978.
By 1992 finesse had been replaced by pragmatism, but the less-adventurous incarnation somehow won that year’s Euros, concluding a stunning underdog story.
Denmark, famously, had failed to qualify for the tournament and was only admitted at the last minute after UN sanctions were placed on a war-buckled Yugoslavia, thus preventing their participation. Peter Schmeichel and friends were not literally on the beach when the news came through, as legend sometimes has it, but they were without Michael Laudrup – who had withdrawn following a fall-out – relying instead on Laudrup the Younger, Brian, to provide a soupçon of creative élan for the side.
Their surprise victory came soon after the country’s ‘no’ vote on the Maastricht Treaty, and subsequent rejection of the single European currency, leading Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen to quip at the time, ‘If you can’t join them, beat them.’
At Euro 2020/1 Denmark once again find themselves on a journey through a Championships threaded with a supremely compelling underdog narrative.
When Christian Eriksen collapsed to the ground during their opening match against Finland the future looked grim. For him, for his family, his team, his country, and for the tournament as a whole. A vast, leaden cumulonimbus would have hung over the entirety of the event had the much-admired player not regained consciousness that late afternoon on June 12th.
An unsurprisingly punch-drunk Denmark initially struggled, then rallied to thrilling effect – clambering over adversity – unleashing rousing, unifying thrashings upon Russia, then Wales. A semi-final against England now awaits, who will be hoping to tear out the last few pages from the Danish script…
…and replace them with their own. Because England too have a well-crafted narrative currently in development. One that is a full 25 years in the making, and one that employs an engrossing, cathartic, and redemptive story arc…
Since 1996 Gareth Southgate has been haunted by the spectre of his missed penalty in the losing semi-final shootout against Germany. Self-deprecating pizza adverts, perhaps unsurprisingly, have failed to absolve him of the guilt he feels deep down. But he now has the chance to exorcise his demons; and, in the process, to take England further in a tournament than anyone before, since the near-mythical success of 1966.
Southgate has been stoic and controlled – eschewing histrionics in the face of significant criticism – as he has meticulously set about achieving his singular goal. (Cue a montage of Southgate writing and wiping thousands of notes and arrows on a dozen different whiteboards in a deserted, moonlit training ground office.) And the side he has built now appears to be close to assuming its final form: it can defend, it can create, and it can score.
But who gets the chance to write the final scenes? Who is really in control of their narrative? Whose current story ends on Wednesday night? And whose legends of old will witness their boys taking a hell of a beating…?