UEFA handling of Christian Eriksen ordeal is problematic


Everyone deals with grief and trauma differently.

It was hard not to feel either (or both) when Christian Eriksen collapsed on Saturday at Euro 2020. It was even harder when you process the moment in its entirety.

Here was a 29-year-old in better physical condition than, quite literally, 99.9% of the planet, keeling over on the field due to cardiac arrest. Medical professionals had to be rushed to his side. CPR and oxygen had to be administered. Denmark’s team doctor described him as “gone” for a brief period of time.

It was mortifying. The Danish players’ faces told stories you’d never want to read again. And less than two hours after the incident, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, forced a decision upon Denmark that has no place in a progressive society.

Players and coaches said the choice was this: finish playing the game Saturday night, or do so on Sunday. That’s it. Zero wiggle room. 

Grief and trauma are different for every person. So why on earth was everyone forced to deal with it the same way? By finishing a match when they were, by their own admission, elsewhere mentally?

“I felt that the players — and us close to them — were put under that pressure and were given that dilemma. It was a hugely difficult situation to be in,” Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand said on Tuesday. “The only real leadership would have been to put the players on a bus and send them home and then deal with it after.

“You don’t necessarily find good leadership in the protocols. Good leadership can sometimes be to lead with compassion.”

Denmark had no choice, quite literally, but to finish its match after Christian Eriksen collapsed either the same night or the next day. That’s not good enough. (Photo by Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images)

Hjulmand is right, and “compassion” is a key word. For too long, sports have shaved down suffering and demanded participants simply deal with whatever’s afflicting them in service of the competition. Push through it. Finish the job, no matter the cost to your own well-being. In fact, our self-worth has often been branded as contingent upon these distillations, whether by athletes themselves or sporting goods manufacturers, even if it’s a breathlessly stupid way to live your life.

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It’s important to be tough and resilient, but it’s equally important to take care of your mental health so you can be those things in the first place. You can’t help anyone if you can’t help yourself. It’s not weakness to admit as much. Rather, such reflection and observation is thankfully being de-stigmatized more with each passing day.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t hit Euro 2020 yet. In the immediate aftermath of Eriksen’s collapse, UEFA callously and disingenuously characterized the decision to finish the match as the “request” of both teams.

Request? Try “ultimatum.”

How often have games continued because “it’s what [insert athlete/coach/etc.] would have wanted?” Those considerations are important — Eriksen himself reportedly asked his teammates to finish the match against Finland via FaceTime — but it’s also easy for them to be manipulated in rotten faith.

Like, for instance, by UEFA, which stuffed Euro 2020 into the tail end of an overcrowded soccer calendar that’s exhausting players like never before. Even if overexertion didn’t play a direct role in Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, it’s naive to assume UEFA’s imperative in finishing the match was anything other than keeping the Euro 2020 money machine chugging along.

The Danes, at the very least, aren’t buying it. 

“Coronavirus allows you to postpone a match for 48 hours. A cardiac arrest obviously does not. That, I think, is wrong,” Hjulmand said. “There is learning here. It was not the right decision to continue playing. The boys showed so much strength by going out and playing on.”

They did show strength. In a way that’s less direct but still significant, so did everyone who’s called out UEFA’s handling of the situation. This is how change can happen, slowly but surely.

Eriksen’s health is the most important thing. With him recovering and feeling “fine under the circumstances,” it’s no longer just about what happened to him, but what happened to his teammates.

What happened is unacceptable. How does it get fixed?

There’s no easy answer. Except to acknowledge the antiquated demand made of Denmark has no place in sports anymore.

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