England snuffed out the Danish fairy tale on Wednesday, concluding a fantasy that had scattered magic dust throughout the European Championship as one of football’s more heartening, feel-good stories stretched long enough to reach the Wembley semifinal.
Hans Christian Andersen could hardly have written it better. But then, even the happiest dreams have to come to an end, and it was the Three Lions that roared the wake-up call.
But Denmark nearly slept through it.
Having withstood the early onslaught of their Wembley hosts, they settled nicely into the opening period and took the lead through Mikkel Damsgaard’s spectacular free-kick on the half-hour mark. Bukayo Saka’s cross to the excellent Raheem Sterling drew Simon Kjaer into conceding an own goal nine minutes later, and with the mistake came the reality that the Danes were being roused from their dream.
How they wanted to keep dreaming. How they tried to remain in an enchanted slumber that had so charmed the European Championship for nearly a month.
It was back on June 12, in their opening match against Finland, that their best player, Christian Eriksen, suffered an on-field cardiac arrest. The heroic actions of Kjaer, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and manager Kasper Hjulmand were inspiring to watch in real time, and the goodwill generated by the incident (Eriksen is now out of hospital and, by all accounts, doing quite well) quickly turned Denmark into "everybody’s second-favourite team."
After barely qualifying for the knockout stages, they trounced Wales 4-0 in Amsterdam and edged Czech Republic 2-1 in Baku before travelling to London for Wednesday’s showdown with England.
And they almost kept going, kept dreaming.
To be fair, the English were deserved 2-1 winners. They kept 58 per cent of the ball and attempted 20 shots at Schmeichel, who made more saves against an England team than any Denmark goalkeeper before him — including his father, Peter, the hero of Euro ’92. He even saved Harry Kane’s controversial penalty in extra time, only for the Tottenham striker to convert on the rebound.
That goal, the winner, came in the 104th minute and represented the first time England had led in the match. It came after Sterling was judged to have been brought down — perhaps a generous ruling — but by then Denmark were hardly posing a threat. It was time to wake up.
And so, with Denmark’s Euro 2020 exit and the closing of their storybook run, it’s England turn to tell a tale — and they’ve already been spinning quite the yarn.
"It’s coming home," they say, as in football, and as in England being football’s home.
It’s not, of course. Even a basic understanding of the sport’s history places the origins of a kick-ball game in any place, and at any time, in which legs and feet have been tempted to boot something round. The codification of the sport? Sure. That’s theirs, and if they want to celebrate it they can certainly do so.
But it’s actually a good story, too, what with the country’s last major final being well beyond the memories of most of its fans. That was in 1966, when they won the World Cup. Sunday’s match against Italy already represents the closest they’ve come to winning the Euros.
Sterling, so far, is England’s hero, and one of the narratives to keep an eye on over the next few days is the credit he’ll be paid, or won’t be, by a race-baiting tabloid establishment that goes well out of its way to gloss over the Manchester City forward’s accomplishments.
Then there’s Kane, whose 10 goals at major championships has him level with Gary Lineker. Incidentally, it was the 27-year-old’s playmaking acumen that picked out Saka with a superb pass ahead of the Kjaer own goal. He can do more than score.
This England team are very good. They’ve yet to concede a goal from open play at Euro 2020, and Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have dominated the centre of the park in each match they’ve played.
It’s something that’ll be rather more difficult against the Italians, who seem to have the look of champions and survived a crucible of their own in their semifinal win over Spain on penalties. On the balance of play, Spain were the better side on Tuesday and, but for better finishing, would have probably still been in London, preparing for Sunday.
As semifinals go, it’s hard to imagine a better penultimate pair of matches than that which was played this week. Football simply doesn’t get much better than that. And it’s why, even with Denmark gone, the dream continues — a dream for fans of the game.
It’ll be oh so difficult to wake up on Monday when this memorable, thrilling, magical European Championship is over.