Denmark’s Kasper Hjulmand: ‘It’s been an emotional year. A horror film but also a fairytale’ | Denmark

Kasper Hjulmand is in reflective mood. The past year has been like no other, the Denmark coach having had to deal with enough emotional drama to last a lifetime. On 12 June 2021, his captain, Christian Eriksen, collapsed on the pitch against Finland, his heart stopping, before being resuscitated and taken to hospital.

Denmark lost that Euro 2020 group game and no one was thinking about football but somehow they rose from the trauma to reach the semi-finals, where they lost narrowly to England. Last summer had it all: a life-changing moment, fear, euphoria and a nation coming together. As we talk on Teams, Hjulmand speaks eloquently about what he calls a “moment of truth”.

What impact have the events at Parken had on you?

You find your real identity, what matters in life. You discover why you do things and the true values ​​of football: friendship, support, tolerance, hard work and compassion. Everything that children learn when they play football actually. Football sometimes gets too far removed from that basic identity. Here we were very close to finding that again. It really was a moment of truth.

But also of total fear?

Of course. It’s the worst you can experience. Losing people you love … And we did, because Christian was really gone for a while. You look at how the staff react, how the players react. This isn’t a team-building drill in the woods with two experts pushing you. This was real. You see your wife, children and parents in the stands. But we couldn’t get to them because of corona. It was something you learn from. We talk about that a lot.

Kasper Hjulmand on the pitch as Christian Eriksen receives medical assistance during the between Denmark and Finland.
Kasper Hjulmand on the pitch as Christian Eriksen receives medical assistance during the match between Denmark and Finland. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/EPA

What have you learned?

A cliche perhaps: but living in the now. Do what feels right now. Don’t spend too much time on the past and the future. That is an incredibly valuable lesson. It has made us better, in many ways.

But it can also become traumatic?

That can certainly happen if you push your emotions away. If you bundle them together, put them in a box and try to lock it. We have said: every emotion is good. If you’re feeling super-sad, that’s OK. If you don’t have that at all, that’s OK too. You may even feel both of those emotions at the same time. It’s important that players and staff can be who they are, that I can be who I am. I also have good and bad things, I also make mistakes. We should not act, but just be ourselves. The players are doing a great job at that.

Do you think that process has been accelerated by what happened to Eriksen?

We were already on the right track. We have worked hard on that too. But if it hadn’t happened, we would have played even better. We would have unleashed the same enthusiasm about our football and achieved at least as good results, I think. But you never know. When something like that happens it makes you stronger. If you do it right, that is. Otherwise it will indeed be a trauma. But it brought a lot of togetherness. Also with people outside of football. They also became part of this journey. Not just the Danish football fans, but all over Europe. Everywhere I go people ask: ‘How is Christian?’

We have become emotionally connected to the people; everyone now wants to be part of the national team. Women, men, girls, boys. That passion and that support that we feel from the Danish people … that’s what I dreamed of when I started. I had two goals. First, win something. Second, to unite the nation. The power of football is incredible. It’s been a great year, an emotional year. A horror film, but also a fairytale.

It was not the first time someone close to you has collapsed on the field. It also happened to Jonathan Richter from Nordsjælland, the team you coached in 2010.

He was struck by lightning and was also briefly dead. With Christian we knew pretty quickly that things were going well, with Jonathan it took two months before we knew if he would survive. So I thought about that too, I recognised those emotions. So I had some experience and I used it.

Kasper Hjulmand and Christian Eriksen during national team training at Helsingoer Stadium in Denmark in September 2020
Kasper Hjulmand and Christian Eriksen during national team training at Helsingoer Stadium in Denmark in September 2020. Photograph: Lars Moeller/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The players said you were incredibly empathetic during that period. You helped dragging the squad through the tournament and afterwards. Did you have room for your own emotions?

I thought I should lead the group. To do the right thing. I thought that was important. But if you want people to talk about emotions, you have to do it yourself. In addition, I had to inform the press and the country about the situation. There was a psychologist with the team during the Euros and I sometimes talk to him. I talk to people at the union and the staff. My goalkeeper coach has cancer and is fighting for his life. We have very good conversations about life and what we have been through.

The match against Finland was eventually resumed. How do you look back on that decision?

It was a stupid decision. I wish I had had the courage to tell the players to get on the bus and go back to the hotel. We were given two options: resume or play a day later at noon. No one wanted to go back a day later. So we kept going, but it was crazy to play. The point was: was Christian OK? It looked good at the time. I’d been to the hospital, hugged him and it felt good. That provided an opening to continue. But we shouldn’t have continued.

You have known Christian since he was 11. What is he like?

He’s a great player but an even greater person. You don’t see many people at that level who always keep their feet on the ground, who are always themselves. His love for football is unbelievable. I’ve never seen him without a ball near him. In addition, he is a very social person, he talks to everyone, whoever you are. I’ve seen so many players “leave earth” when they became successful. That’s why I like him so much.

We have great captains. Simon Kjær is a fantastic leader, Kasper Schmeichel is a great expressive captain. If I talk to Christian, it will be about football within two minutes. He is the captain in the rhythm of the game, reading of the game, the feeling of a match. His eyes see everything. That’s how he leads. He is the heart and rhythm of the team.

And now he is back in football with Brentford …

I am very happy with the steps Christian has taken. He has found something there, that he thinks is just right for him. He has played over 200 matches in the Premier League so it is a league he knows and stadiums he knows. He has found a place where he feels confident to take the next step in the fight to get back on to the field. I’m super-happy that Christian is safe and happy and looking forward to playing football, and that we can all see him play football again.

Christian Eriksen training with his new Brentford teammates.
Christian Eriksen training with his new Brentford teammates. Photograph: Mark D Fuller/

You became a Danish champion in your first season with Nordsjælland and moved to Mainz but returned to Denmark to help care for your brother, who has autism.

At the age of four he was a fluent reader and there is no person I know who knows so much about music. Yet he is made passive by the system. At 18 he was put away instead of trying to help him develop his qualities. We don’t just do this with people with disabilities, we do it with everyone. We think we see something, we label that, when there is so much more. Because of him I look at people in a different way. Sometimes people limit themselves by what they have been taught by teachers or parents. As a result, they quickly think: this is not for me. I want to try to remove those boundaries. That is the job of a teacher. Don’t tell us what you can’t do, but show us what you can do. I learned that from my brother.

In Denmark you have been called ‘the leader of the nation’ since the European Championship. Does your brother understand what you did?

He’s more concerned about smaller things. He likes music so we went to concerts. I try to spend a lot of time with him. If he reads somewhere that I might be going to an English club, he calls or writes: “What am I going to do, where are we spending Christmas?”

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There have been many offers, including some from England, but you decided to stay with Denmark. Why?

I’m still curious about what can be done with Danish football. We play well, get good results, connect people, but we haven’t won anything yet. You can call that a dream, but I like dreams.

A version of this interview was published in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant in January.

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