Twenty minutes after the final whistle, the pitch had long since emptied but the celebrations were still in their infancy and so, one by one, Denmark’s players zigzagged from the sidelines towards blocks of baying supporters, most of whom finished the game several rows further forward than where they started it. Joakim Mæhle freewheeled one way and then another clutching a red-and-white scarf, Kasper Dolberg followed, punching the air with both fists and then Kasper Schmeichel, the conductor of it all, surged across to rejoice.
Where will this adventure end? On an Amsterdam evening when many locals turned out to offer their support to Christian Eriksen, another former Ajax prodigy propelled Denmark into the quarter-finals of the European Championship, 29 years to the day since they won the tournament. Dolberg scored twice, the first a delicious effort that nestled in the far corner, before Mæhle and Martin Braithwaite completed a resounding victory, flattening Wales’s hopes of matching their run to the semi-finals five years ago.
After the third, Yussuf Poulsen, among the substitutes owing to injury, ripped off his snapback cap and bobbed besides his teammates, and when Braithwaite eluded Chris Mepham to drill in a fourth, confirmed following a VAR review for offside, the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, was already proudly displaying the red home shirt previously hidden by a cream blazer. These were snapshots of another joyous occasion for a country that stood still for those agonising minutes in Copenhagen a fortnight ago.
The scenes after Dolberg’s opener spoke to the togetherness that has acted as an umbrella over this Danish team and, in the stands, beer spilled down the terraces as fans allowed themselves to drink in a beautiful strike. The move started on halfway, when Mæhle fizzed a pass into the feet of Mikkel Damsgaard, whose display was bewitching and will only enhance the 20-year-old’s burgeoning profile. Damsgaard spiralled clear of Aaron Ramsey, prodded the ball into the path of Dolberg and the blond forward did the rest. He took the pass in his stride on his right foot, took a feathery touch, and then another to steady himself before sending a curling strike into the far corner.
In truth, Wales were fortunate to go in at the interval trailing by just one goal. Moments after Dolberg’s opener, some slack defending presented Damsgaard with an inviting opportunity to dance in off the byline without any Welsh attention. Damsgaard drilled a teasing low cross into the six-yard box and Dolberg nonchalantly flicked the ball at goal with the outside of his left boot. The Wales goalkeeper, Danny Ward, not for the first time this tournament, made an instinctive right-handed save to keep his team in it.
Wales’s game was as good as over as early as three minutes into the second half, when Dolberg seized on some excruciating defending to double Denmark’s advantage. Braithwaite, hugging the touchline, chested a lofted ball and then puffed out his chest before embarking on an incisive run. He stormed past Joe Rodon with little fuss before sliding a wonderful ball across the six-yard box. None of his Denmark team-mates could keep pace so the ball instead fell at the feet of the Wales substitute Neco Williams, amid seemingly little danger. But the full-back, on in place of Roberts, panicked and hacked a poor clearance straight to Dolberg, who gobbled up
Denmark supporters have fallen back in love with their football team once more, stirred by the Eriksen’s tragic collapse at Parken, and how it showed. In the stands, fans with face paint, Viking horns and jester hats made sure they were heard and, before kick-off, a giant replica shirt bearing Eriksen’s name and No 10 was unfurled on the pitch to rapturous applause. The Wales Gareth Bale also presented his opposite number, Simon Kjaer, with a framed Eriksen Wales shirt that read “Brysia wella” – get well soon.
The galling thing for Wales was that they started so brightly, with Bale particularly bubbly on the right flank. Bale was drifting into roomy pockets, trying his luck and seemingly in the groove. He sent a couple of shots wide, one that swerved dangerously past Schmeichel’s goal. But Wales lost their nerve after Dolberg’s strike and the game unravelled. First, Connor Roberts was forced off 40 minutes into his 64th appearance of a marathon season and then Kieffer Moore – one of five players walking a disciplinary tightrope – picked up a booking that would have ruled him out of a quarter-final.
There was always only going to be enough room for one rousing tale to continue. “Guld for Eriksen,” were the words emblazoned on one Denmark flag draped over the top tier of this stadium and everywhere you looked there were banners with messages of support for the midfielder who called this place home for five years. The Denmark manager, Kasper Hjulmand, clasped Dolberg’s face with affection as the striker departed the pitch to a hero’s ovation but Wales were left with a horrible sense of what could have been.