The “Team of Destiny” idea is a romantic one to latch onto, but it’s not quite real. Soccer is a chaotic sport, and trying to weave a narrative about a specific team’s success due to outside forces feels futile and arbitrary in equal parts. And yet … how do you explain Denmark at the 2021 Euros? This specific group of players have the air of something beyond the stats and score lines, and the fact that Denmark is still playing in this tournament, just three weeks after Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch, only reinforces that something special might be at work here.
Or maybe Denmark is just really good. Take the first half of the team’s eventually nervy 2–1 victory over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the Euros. To watch the white-shirted blurs carving up the Czech defense was simply to believe in the power of good attacking players in good form. There were lucky breaks, ones that people might point out to either discredit Denmark or advance the “story straight out of a Hollywood movie,” as Ian Darke might say. Denmark’s opening goal, a wide-open header by Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney, maybe wasn’t a corner at all.
And it took a break of soccer fortune for Denmark to even be playing the Czechs at all, though it’s unclear whether it was more due to divine intervention or to the Dutch federation’s incompetence in hiring Frank de Boer and, in a long chain of affected butterflies, to the Czech demolition of the Oranje in the round of 16. In a vacuum, surely the Danes would prefer to face a team like the Czech Republic over the Netherlands, but in the end, does it matter? The old adage of “you can only play who is front of you” rings true here, and Denmark has done what it needed to do to arrive at its first international tournament semifinal since the magical team of 1992 won the Euros as a last-minute replacement.
It’s forgotten in both Eriksen’s collapse and Finland’s subsequent 1–0 victory, but Denmark dominated that opening game, even after the long break and restart following the scariest moment in recent soccer memory. The Danes also played Belgium as well as anyone else has in the last few years. Sure, they lost 2-1, but it never felt like a one-sided beating. The following two matches featured similarly strong performances that at last resulted in wins: first, a wild 4–1 victory over Russia that secured a spot in the knockout rounds, and then a 4–0 walloping of Wales.
The performance against the Czech Republic was the alternate world version of that Belgium game. Denmark raced out to an early lead, only instead of capitulating against a better team, it doubled down against a similar, if not worse, side: a gorgeous outside-the-foot cross by Atalanta’s Joakim Maehle was knocked home by Kasper Dolberg and suddenly, the semis were right there.
Even Patrik Schick’s 49th minute goal, which made him the joint top scorer in the tournament and made at least one humble blogger wonder how he failed at both Roma and Leipzig, wasn’t enough to derail the Danish train. Instead, Denmark hunkered down, played some strong defense, and even created some strong counter chances, particularly after the previously injured Yussuf Poulsen subbed on. His health will likely be key for a semifinal match-up against England, but even without Poulsen at full strength, Denmark has shown that it has enough creators and Xfinishers to bring it to anyone put in front of them. Dolberg has been stellar since coming into the side as its striker, and 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard might have earned himself a big move this summer after entering the side as Eriksen’s replacement. Also, Mæhle might just be the player of the tournament so far; his attacks from left back have been some of the most dangerous of any player.
There is a clear divide between the Italy-Spain-England tier and the lone wolves of Denmark. The Danes should not win these Euros. The other three teams are better from front to back, and they have all been playing great soccer to get here while conquering some challenging opposition. But! Denmark is still here, still kicking in a tournament that could have spiraled away after a terrifying moment in Copenhagen. You could call that destiny, or you could call it added motivation, or you could just simply watch and enjoy a team that is better than most anyone thought, doing its best to keep the party going. Whether it ends on Wednesday, or Sunday, or whether it ends with the second title in the country’s history, it’ll be a story worth telling for years to come.