Illustration by Suneesh K.
There were never any doubts about the fairytale nature of Euro 2020. That such a tournament, with 24 teams playing across a dozen venues in Europe, could even be envisioned by Michel Platini and his team as a "romantic one-off” event to celebrate the 60th birthday of the European Championship, was a mini-miracle.
And that was before the pandemic hit and the original schedule of June 2020 had to be junked.
A year later, the tournament is on and being played in front of joyous crowds at 11 of the original 12 stadiums. The proceedings have been understandably subdued. Not quite the party that was envisaged, with passionate fans of the 24 teams, some of which had qualified for the first time, criss-crossing the continent spreading their distinct brand of cheer and celebrations from Budapest to Baku.
The football so far hasn’t been great. But that’s to be expected. Legs tired after running themselves ragged in a long-drawn league season and bodies weary of quarantines and bubbles can only produce so much magic. There were glimpses though. Czech Republic striker Patrik Schick’s 40-yard screamer in the game against Scotland, and Andriy Yarmolenko’s left-footed beauty which brought Ukraine level against the Dutch gave an early hint of the sublime skills on display.
But like all fairytales, this one too needed a hero. And just two days into the tournament, we had our first hero in Denmark’s captain Simon Kjaer. For 40 minutes of the game against Finland, he had done little of note as Denmark struggled to breach a stubborn Finnish defence. And after the game’s resumption following a 90-minute break, he could do little to prevent his fancied team from going down to the debutants.
But in the minutes that Christian Eriksen went down tragically following what was later revealed to have been a cardiac arrest, Kjaer showed us the stuff he’s made of. According to reports, before any of the paramedics on duty could reach the felled player, Kjaer had propped him up to ensure his airways stayed clear and had also begun CPR.
It was a critical bit of intervention, one that may have gone some way in saving his younger colleague’s life. Even after the medics took over, the 34-year-old stayed in charge, leading his teammates into forming a ring around Eriksen as he battled for his life on the ground, all the while comforting the latter’s distraught partner.
Over the years, we have seen plenty of on-field heroism. Kapil Dev bowling India to a come-from-behind win against the Australians in 1981 while nursing a serious groin injury or Paul Ince battling on against Italy in 1997 despite his shirt being soaked with blood, are just some of these instances. It is after all what sportspersons are trained to do, to play on despite the odds.
Kjaer’s heroism is more rare, since there is no playbook for it, no video recordings to learn from nor coaching manuals to turn to.
It was the spontaneous gesture of a born leader of men.
Heroism in our times is often so exaggerated and magnified that we are always sceptical about it. The socialite who feeds a few dogs and announces it on Twitter or the billionaire who spares some loose change for a cause, before his publicists swoop down on it, leave us cold. At the Euro 2020, just a few days later, Portugal's captain and the world's best known footballer Cristiano Ronaldo chose to swap two carefully perched bottles of Coca-Cola with a bottle of water while addressing the press before his team's opening game against Hungary. Coca-Cola is one of the sponsors of the tournament and when someone like Ronaldo, who's made proselytizing for a healthy lifestyle a personal mission, says no to the drink, it has consequences. The beverage company did lose $4 billion in market cap in trading the next day but Ronaldo’s gesture wouldn’t go into the book of heroism.
Oh and if we were looking for a Cinderella story, there was that too. Five years ago, North Macedonia were ranked 162 out of the 200 teams in the world of football. They had never even been close to qualifying for any major tournament before a 1-0 win over Georgia in their playoff last year turned them into a Euro finalist. Despite two losses in their opening games, the country of two million is already a winner.