One of the pre-tournament themes of this World Cup was one-man teams. Robert Lewandowski’s Poland; Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal; Lionel Messi’s Argentina; Mohamed Salah’s Egypt; Heung Min Son’s South Korea. Unfairly reductive in most cases? Probably. Understandable? Oh yes.
Add to that list Christian Eriksen’s Denmark. Eriksen isn’t just the most famous Danish player at club level (for once this is no lazy journalism); he is their talisman. Few players at this World Cup will make a greater difference to their country’s fortunes. Yes, even Ian Smith with Costa Rica.
From a position of strife early on in their World Cup qualification, Denmark mastered the art of finding a way. After three matches of their campaign, Denmark had won once (vs Armenia at home) and lost to Montenegro and Poland. They were fourth in a group from which only one would qualify automatically and another face the play-offs. From then, Denmark took 17 of a possible 21 points and then thumped Ireland 5-1 in the second leg of their play-off game. Age Hareide’s team is unbeaten in FIFA-recognised matches since October 2016.
A lucky general is as useful as a good one, particularly in the hyper-pressurised environment of a World Cup. After victory over Peru in their first group game, Hareide at least had the good grace to concede his side’s fortune.
“They got very little and probably deserved more – sometimes that happens,” Hareide said. “We were on the lucky side.” Grace is an easier emotion to bear in victory than defeat.
Against Australia, Denmark could consider themselves unlucky to have fallen foul of VAR’s latest controversy. They were also below-par again, allowing an Australia side who have now scored four of their last five competitive goals via Mile Jedinak penalties to push for a winner in the second half. Australia had 13 shots to Denmark’s eight, led 5-3 on corners and also had the majority of possession. But Denmark held on, temporarily going top of Group C. Finding a way, again.
It comes as no surprise that Eriksen is the poster boy of this recent Danish improvement, a country that reached the World Cup despite failing to take part in a 24-team Euro 2016 after finishing behind Albania in qualifying. But it is striking how much he has reinvented himself within international football. At Tottenham Eriksen is a pure creator, perhaps the best in the Premier League. Since the start of 2016/17, only Kevin de Bruyne (209 vs 207) has created more chances.
But with Denmark, who have no Harry Kane-style dominant centre forward to take shot after shot and score goal after goal, Eriksen has taken on the mantle of goalscorer. This is a country for whom part-footballer part-parody Nicklas Bendtner almost made the World Cup squad. After Eriksen, their next highest goalscorer in Russia is 27-year-old Nicolai Jorgensen with eight.
During that nine-game unbeaten run from Montenegrin defeat to Irish slaughter, Eriksen scored ten times. His thwacked left-footed finish against Australia, a wonderful piece of majesty-made-to-look-easy, made it 11 in 11 competitive international matches, as many as he’s scored in his last 44 Premier League games. Eriksen is now the ninth-highest goalscorer in the history of the Denmark national team. He is 26. He is a midfielder.
That is not to say that Eriksen couldn’t be a more regular goalscorer for Tottenham if the make-up of their squad demanded it, nor that his club goalscoring record is shabby. But it takes some effort to flit between ice dancer to figure skater depending on what his manager requires.
Things have not always been this smooth. In October 2014, then-coach Morten Olsen publicly lambasted Eriksen for being too passive for his national team. Leadership through personality rather than example is not something comes easy to shy, quiet people. The only solution was for leadership by example to be so effective that there was no need for chest-beating.
Denmark are not used to playing the role of villain. With their sexy players, sexier kits and surprise tournament victory from way out in left field in 1992, this team has perennially been cast as people’s champion. But if narrative demands that every match needs a good guy and a bad guy, Denmark were thrust into the role of villain against Peru. They hardly regained all of their goodwill by virtually eliminating Australia.
Still, you can’t stay angry at any team containing Eriksen for long. Denmark will not go deep into this competition, and have got beyond the last-16 stage once in their history. They may not even go beyond the group stage, if Peru take something off France. But as with several other countries in this World Cup, there is one player who deserves to escape all criticism. Christian Eriksen, creator and goalscorer. Master of all trades, Jack of none.