Updated: July 2, 2021 2:43:45 pm
Just 42 minutes into their opening game against Finland, Denmark lost their hero. Christian Eriksen, their most famous footballer of this generation.
Three and a half games later, they have found a new hero. Kasper Hjulmand, their poetry-reciting, chest-thumping coach.
Eriksen unified and inspired his team and country; Hjulmand forged a strong-willed team, not just a feel-good story, but contenders capable of toppling bigger teams and would start as favourites to beat the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals on Friday night.
Reaching the last eight after the tragedy itself is a stirring narrative of mental fortitude.
But the manner of their journey has reinforced that they are not just an ordinary bunch suddenly galvanised by a tragedy, but with inherent potential and quality to leap deep into the tournament.
For 75 minutes against Belgium, they tigerishly guarded the citadel while storming Belgium’s fort repeatedly, before wilting to the inventiveness of Kevin de Bruyne in the final 10 minutes.
Russia were brushed aside like champions sides consign underdogs. Wales were tactically out-maneuvered. They were not bereft of Eriksen alone, but two others deemed indispensable; their chief goal-scoring outlet Yussuf Poulsen and utility player Daniel Wass.
The trio’s absence was felt, Eriksen’s absence forced a formational and positional overhaul, Poulsen’s minimised their goal-scoring threat, Wass’s meant they were bereft of players who provided versatility and structural flexibility.
But they remained undaunted. Hjulmand had a solution for everything.
After Eriksen’s departure, he moved from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 against Belgium and Russia to a 4-3-3 against Wales. He pushed Pierre-Emile Højbjerg into a more advanced role. Though not as creative as Eriksen, his directness, leadership and passing have made a massive difference.
To fill the hole Højbjerg left in central midfield, he furnished licence for fullback Andres Christen to join the midfield and screen the defence. All of his changes worked. Kasper Dolberg struck a brace against Wales while Jens Stryger Larsen prospered on the right flank, his pace and cunning adding another dimension to the Danes.
Whereas Eriksen was once the focal point of their attacking thrusts, the threat is more scattered. It could come from anywhere. There is also a more directness to the game, with an emphasis on long-rangers than before.
The numbers they have racked up are impressive. Their chances per minute (2.15) is the third-highest of all teams; their 37 touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes is the most among the remaining teams.
There is attacking verse as well as defensive obduracy—letting just six shots on an average, the second-lowest of all teams. The flexibility and pragmatism of Hjulmand, who idolises Pep Guardiola and worships Johan Cruyff, scoffed as a hopeless romantic in his Bundesliga stint, had even his staunchest critics change their mind.
The Danish press has given him a new name: “frelser”, loosely translated as “saviour.” But more for what he has accomplished in the dressing room than he has on the field after the Eriksen tragedy.
After the game against Russia, captain Kasper Schmeichel, said: “The players are rightly getting a lot of praise but there is one person we shouldn’t forget and that is Kasper Hjulmand.”
Defender Joakim Mæhle elaborated his influence in the dressing room: “He is good at talking with the player and giving that freedom that many players need. He also showed his feelings after what happened with Christian and that he needed help too. What we have been through has just brought us closer together. He is a good coach and now a friend for us too.”
Hjulmand himself was distraught. He and Eriksen were good friends and admitted he felt blank and vulnerable for days after the incident. “I felt football was meaningless,” he said.
It helped that he had experienced something similar during his days as the assistant coach of Nordsjaelland in 2008. In the middle of a reserve game, a midfielder was struck by lightning, and subsequently had a heart attack so severe that he was in a coma for two weeks and his left leg amputated. Hjulmand had endured setbacks in his playing career, having his knee operated nine times before he quit professional football at the age of 26 and went to the USA to complete masters in business studies in North Florida.
He had to tolerate a considerable amount of ridicule when he became the coach of Denmark last year, succeeding the highly successful Norwegian, Age Hareide. A week after he took over, he invited leading sportsmen, former footballers, politicians, artistes, and businessmen over to a board room to discuss the identity of Danish football, “the ideals that should reflect in their football team.”
The philosophical leanings saw him being called “dreamer,” “poet” and even “drifter” in a negative sense. One whose stint was destined to be doomed.
But no longer though. He has won swathes of admirers in the last fortnight. “This is how a modern leader acts, and Kasper Hjulmand has shown the way for all other leaders in this country. Hjulmand is the leader of the year,” wrote Danish newspaper BT in an editorial. A magazine Euroman observed: “We may not become European champions. But instead, we have a new world champion in management.”
A coach who has his grasp over tactics but is also humane. A hero, or better still a frelser.
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