England vs Denmark: Two towering Euro 2020 narratives, but only one will get a final chapter

The two nations meet at Wembley on Wednesday evening with a place in Sunday’s final on the line.

Kasper Dolberg of Denmark celebrates with Jannik Vestergaard. (Photo by Valetin Ogirenko - Pool/Getty Images)

In that dreadful moment a little over three weeks ago, the eyes of a continent were painfully transfixed on a football pitch in Copenhagen.

At this point, there’s nothing to be gained from reliving the minute, desperate details of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest during Denmark’s Euro 2020 opener against Finland. We’ve all seen the footage of the incident and the aftermath – even though we categorically shouldn’t have in the case of the latter – we all waited anxiously for any inkling of good news on the 29-year-old’s condition, and we all felt the monumental surge of relief when we heard that he was, against all odds, conscious and conversing with loved ones from a local hospital bed.

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The whole episode was a chilling reminder of the fragility of life, and a shot of perspective in a sport which can so often lose sight of the things that truly matter.

Kasper Schmeichel. (Photo by Peter Dejong - Pool/Getty Images)

As a spectator hundreds of miles away settling down to casually watch a game of football on a Saturday evening, it was devastating. To be a Danish player in the stadium at the time, shielding your friend and colleague from the leer of countless lenses as he fought for his life, must have been beyond harrowing.

Nobody would have blamed Denmark if they had crumbled in the days that followed. The fact that Kasper Hjulmand’s side returned to the pitch just hours later to play out a 1-0 defeat was an act of strength and heroism in its own right.

But instead of falling apart, this Danish squad has pulled together in ways that many might have considered unimaginable given the tests they’ve been through.

From the second minute of their next outing against Belgium, when Yussuf Poulsen scored their first goal of the tournament, it was clear that this is a team laced with a granite-like spirit. The Danes would go on to lose that match, but the message was unambiguous – they weren’t done just yet.

Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty during the European Championship Finals semi-final between England and Germany at Euro '96. (Photo by Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images)

And so it has proved. Wins over Russia, Wales, and the Czech Republic have catapulted them to a semi-final date against England at Wembley on Wednesday evening, and have left them just two games away from achieving something that would fall short of impossible, but not by much.

Prior to the tournament, many observers had Denmark pegged as dark horses, but few dark horses have been through such dark times, and yet, if anything, they look to have been steeled by their tribulations.

Of course, the Danes aren’t exactly strangers to an extraordinary European Championship narrative. It’s been just under thirty years since they lifted the trophy having failed to even qualify for the finals in the first place. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the conflict that followed around the time of the 1992 tournament saw a vacancy open up at the eleventh hour, and they promptly ceased their chance with both hands.

As far as this current Denmark side goes, it would be insensitive to romanticise their journey too much.

Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of England. (Photo by Alessandra Tarantino - Pool/Getty Images)

For one thing, they are a superbly talented group of players, deserving of their spot in the last four on footballing merit alone, not some ragtag crew of plucky underdogs. More to the point, even if they were to reach the final on Sunday, even if they were to score an improbable triumph, the remnants of the trauma from that evening in Copenhagen are still very real. The potential curtailment of Eriksen’s glittering career is still very real. It would be an incredible achievement, but it would be one not without its sobering elements.

It will also be one that England are determined to prevent at all costs.

While in no way comparable to Denmark’s brush with tragedy, there’s no doubting that the Three Lions have a remarkable narrative of their own brewing.

If anybody is deserving of a fully-realised redemption arc, it’s Gareth Southgate.

For a quarter of a century, the England manager has been intrinsically linked with one of the country’s biggest footballing heartbreaks. It was his missed penalty in a semi-final shootout against Germany that brought the halcyon summer of Euro ‘96 whimpering to a halt, his timid effort that extinguished his side’s best chance of winning a trophy since 1966.

Nobody in their right mind would truly blame Southgate for that crushing exit 25 years ago – after all, penalties are, infamously, something of a lottery.

But the point remains that there are demons to be exorcised, and while the 50-year-old’s soothing demeanour and level-headed outlook would suggest that he’s not in the business of self-flagellation, he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t recognise the opportunity for personal exoneration that he is standing on the brink of.

The first tentative step came when he saw his side outwit Germany at Wembley last week. Calm and unflappable as Southgate can be, there are moments when his passion bubbles and bursts through the surface of his persona like a rarely-spotted geyser. That won over the Germans was one of those moments.

In some ways, Saturday’s commanding victory over Ukraine, although fully expected, was no less remarkable. To see an England side control and dictate a quarter-final in such a manner, no matter the opposition, was downright alien. The measured approach, the quiet assurance underpinning everything – in a lot of respects it was emblematic of the manager himself.

On Wednesday, Southgate will once again lead his men into unchartered territory. Unlike at the 2018 World Cup, England go into this semi-final as clear favourites – not to mention the fact that they will be lining up on home soil in front of a rabid crowd that have been reciting the chorus of Three Lions like the demented followers of an unwavering religious cult for best part of a month. Football is coming home – non-believers will be shunned if they dare suggest otherwise.

That in itself will present England’s young squad with a new type of pressure, but the reward for withstanding it will be a chance to etch their names into the collective consciousness of a nation alongside the likes of Charlton, Banks, and Moore. In the process, they would grant their manager the kind of neat resolution usually reserved for feelgood Hollywood sensationalism.

Again, this Denmark side – stoic and uninterested in pity – will be determined to prevent that at all costs.

When all is said and done, this is a meeting between two towering narratives that could come to define Euro 2020 in the long corridor of history.

Nobody who witnessed Eriksen’s horrendous collapse will ever forget it, nor will they feel anything but gratitude for the fact that he is still with us.

From an English perspective, win or lose, this is a match that will be remembered and pored over in agonising terms for decades after the fact – something Southgate himself can attest to only too well.

For wildly differing reasons, England and Denmark are two teams with noteworthy stories to tell, but only one will get the opportunity to pen a fitting final chapter come Sunday evening.