LONDON — Christian Eriksen waved his right arm in frustration and headed straight for referee Mike Dean as the final whistle blew on Brentford‘s 2-0 defeat against Newcastle. The midfielder spent the next sixty seconds berating the official about his decision-making, suggesting he had missed too many fouls.
It all felt so incredibly normal, but it was really anything but. Just 259 days ago, the 30-year-old died on a football pitch while playing for Denmark in a Euro 2020 game against Finland in Copenhagen.
That is not hyperbole. Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest and lost consciousness for five minutes, collapsing to the ground as a consequence. The images that followed of his Danish teammates forming a protective circle around their stricken friend and colleague while medics attempted to resuscitate him have become some of the most unforgettable ever witnessed in a sporting arena.
Denmark captain Simon Kjaer then embraced and shielded Eriksen’s girlfriend, Sabrina Kvist Jensen, after she ran onto the pitch in a desperate attempt to be close to her partner. Kjaer would later win the UEFA President’s Award for his actions during those terrible moments at the Parken Stadium last June.
Eriksen has since said that he “died for five minutes” during that afternoon in Copenhagen. Even as he was wheeled off the pitch by paramedics, having regained consciousness, it seemed inconceivable that the former Ajax and Tottenham midfielder would ever play again and put his body through the daily demands of being a professional athlete.
Simply surviving such an awful ordeal and enjoying the rest of his life was surely the only scenario for him to consider.
But nine months after Eriksen collapsed on a pitch in Denmark, here he was, playing in the Premier League for Brentford on Saturday, complaining to the referee as though it was perfectly routine before eventually applauding all sides of the stadium as he walked off the pitch and back to the dressing room without wanting to draw attention to himself.
“If you take away the result, I’m one happy man,” Eriksen said after his 38-minute substitute outing. “To go through what I’ve been through, being back is a wonderful feeling.”
All of Christian Eriksen’s family and some of his doctors were on-site to see his return to football after he nearly lost his life playing the game 259 days earlier. Mark Leech/Getty Images
“Everyone is here. My family, my parents, my kids, my mother-in-law and some doctors who have been helping me back and forth. What they’ve been through is even tougher than what I’ve been through.”
The emotional toll on Eriksen and his family since that day last June is unimaginable. The agonising moments on the pitch, the days of uncertainty spent in Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet and then the question of whether he would, or could, ever play again.
After the medical necessity of being fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, Eriksen was unable to continue to play for Inter Milan due to Serie A regulations prohibiting players taking the field with such a device. But in an interview with the Brentford match programme about his collapse, it is evident that simply surviving his experience has been Eriksen’s biggest victory.
“I had those lost minutes,” Eriksen said. “I was on my back when I woke up. I felt them (medics) 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 had broken 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. It wasn’t until I was in the ambulance that I realised I had been dead.”
Eriksen told the ambulance crew: “Keep my boots, I won’t need them,” but since having his ICD fitted, he has slowly returned to physical activity, training with Danish team Odense Boldklub before linking up with Brentford in January.
Brentford’s 2-0 loss to Newcastle wasn’t ideal, but the day was about Eriksen’s return, as the match programme and merchandise at Brentford Community Stadium made clear. Luke Walker/Getty Images
“I don’t see any risk,” he said. “I have an ICD, so if anything would happen then I am safe. With an ICD there, are no limits — people can run marathons, deep dive, all sorts.”
Risk is subjective and only Eriksen knows how much he is prepared to take, but at 30, he potentially has another six or sevens years in the game, so playing top level football again is a risk he has accepted.
Eriksen has always been an understated character. He is an exceptional footballer, a gifted playmaker, but everything is done with the minimum of fuss. That includes, it seems, his remarkable return to action after it appeared he had no chance of ever doing so again.
Having signed a six-month contract in January at Brentford — coached by his former Denmark U-17 coach Thomas Frank — Eriksen has slowly built up his match fitness in training and with two outings in private friendlies against Southend and Rangers.
And with his new team on Saturday trailing 2-0 and down to ten men following an 11th minute red card issued to Josh Dasilva, Eriksen made his competitive return on 52 minutes by replacing Mathias Jensen, his Denmark international teammate and, poignantly, the player who replaced Eriksen in the game against Finland last summer.
His entrance into the action was greeted with a standing ovation from every supporter inside the stadium, Brentford and Newcastle, while the opposition players also applauded his return. Ryan Fraser, the Newcastle winger, high-fived Eriksen as the stadium cheered his appearance.
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“For everyone in football, it was a big moment,” said Frank, the Brentford coach. “It was fantastic to see, he got a big reception, it was big for Christian and his family. Hopefully now he only needs to talk with his feet and about football, nothing else.”
Understandably, having not played at any level for nine months, Eriksen appeared rusty during his 38 minutes, but his class still surfaced with the odd touch or pass. A long ball to forward Bryan Mbeumo on 70 minutes was the kind Eriksen would often put through to Harry Kane at Tottenham, and it was a sign of what may be to come in a Brentford shirt.
Brentford, having now lost seven and drawn one of their last 8 Premier League games, have been sucked into a relegation battle, so Eriksen will have no time or space to acclimatise to life back in the fast lane.
But now he is back on the pitch, his objectives are simple: “First of all, to get the feeling and touch back, that football feeling, and to help Brentford stay in the Premier League,” he said.
They are simple, basic targets, but considering what he has been through, everything will now seem straightforward for Christian Eriksen. Nothing will match the challenge that he has been through.