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Christian Eriksen: From near-death to Manchester United

Travelling in an ambulance from the Parken Stadium in Denmark to the nearby Rigshospitalet emergency room, Christian Eriksen turned to his wife and conceded his football career was over.

“I told Sabrina I may as well leave my boots here,” he later recalled.

Those fears, and worse, were shared by millions of people across the world after watching Eriksen collapse on the pitch during Denmark’s Euro 2020 fixture against Finland on June 12, 2021. As Eriksen dashed to receive a throw-in, he fell face-first into the turf. It did not look like a normal fall.

His team-mates and the English referee Anthony Taylor instantly realised. Denmark’s captain Simon Kjaer sprinted over and placed Eriksen on his side, helped clear his airways and ensured he would not swallow his tongue.

The Denmark team doctor Morten Boesen was on the scene within 45 seconds. His brother, Anders, soon joined him. Pitchside medics arrived too. Together, they kept Eriksen alive.

He received emergency treatment on the pitch for 13 minutes. He was resuscitated and defibrillated. Graphic live television footage showed his team-mates forming a protective ring around him. Several Danish players shed tears. Striker Martin Braithwaite prayed.

Kjaer and Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel sought to support Sabrina Kvist, Eriksen’s partner and mother of his two children, who was being tracked by cameras as she entered the field of play. Kjaer’s forehead met Kvist’s, the pair’s distress meeting as one.

As Eriksen was carried off the field on a stretcher, the concerns were not whether he would ever play again, but whether he would live.

Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen is carried off the pitch, surrounded by players and medics (Photo: Wolfgang Rattay/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet 14 months on, Eriksen has returned to the highest level of English football, signing a three-year contract with Manchester United, having joined from Brentford, the club that took a chance on him in January and re-integrated him into the Premier League.

Eriksen, those close to him insist, does not like to be known as a medical miracle. Earlier this year, he said: “With time, it is definitely going to be about the football and not the guy who did something last summer. It will be about the next game and people will say, ‘He can’t pass the ball’ or ‘He can pass the ball’, ‘He missed this big chance’, ‘He is bad’, and so on. I can’t wait to go back to that. I want to show that I am still the same player as before.”

Here, The Athletic charts a return to prominence that appeared so improbable.

What happened after Eriksen left the pitch during Denmark’s fixture against Finland?

The first ray of hope came when a photographer snapped an image of Eriksen appearing to sit up with his eyes open as he was carried off on a stretcher. The Danish football federation later confirmed Eriksen was awake. The player had also spoken to doctor Morten Boesen before leaving the stadium.

Remarkably, the game restarted that evening: Denmark lost 1-0. Eriksen had apparently given the players his blessing to continue. Denmark’s captain Kjaer struggled to focus and was substituted early in the second half.

Eriksen was stable enough to watch the final 10 minutes of the match from his hospital bed, just a four-minute drive from the stadium. He would later tell friends he could see the light of the stadium through the window.

After the match, he chatted to his team-mates over the phone. The families of Denmark’s players were not permitted to spend time with the players immediately after the game due to COVID-19 protocols — several were desperate to hug their sons after the awful reminder of mortality. The rules were briefly relaxed in the following days.

A source close to several Denmark players, who wished not to be named to protect those relationships, recalls: “After the game, the players were shell-shocked. Even the next morning, it was like they had woken up in Zombieland. They had all these negative emotions but nobody knew how to convey them to a group of men.

“There was in the end an agreement for the player families to go into the camp, which was a breach of the protocols, but it needed to happen for sanity. Kjaer and Schmeichel left the training camp to go and see Christian in hospital in Copenhagen. They saw he was actually OK, he was still Christian, and then there were FaceTime calls between Christian and the team.”

Eriksen, however, has mostly insisted that the pain and fear felt by others on his behalf was not always shared by him. He recalled wanting to play the final 30 minutes against Finland.

He later told Brentford’s club website how, within two days, he started to believe a return to football may be possible: “I recognised what happened to me later on that night and the next few days. Then all the tests started and all the knowledge started to come in and all the questions were being asked — ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ — and listen to the doctors.

“Then after that, it slowly took off in a way that if I can do tests with a doctor along the way then I can slowly get back to playing football. There were a lot of tests to see how the heart reacted to physical training again and luckily nothing came out of that and everything was good.”

At the time of the incident, Eriksen was registered at Inter Milan. Why did he not remain?

On the night of Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, he sent a message to the Inter group chat on WhatsApp to reassure team-mates, with whom he had celebrated winning Serie A only a few weeks earlier under head coach Antonio Conte.

Christian Eriksen, Inter Milan

Christian Eriksen with his Inter Milan teammates lifting the Scudetto trophy on May 23, 2021 (Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“We want to hold onto him for a long time in the hope he can resolve his health problems,” said Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta.

Yet Marotta moved to source a replacement for Eriksen and 10 days after the incident in Copenhagen, Inter announced the signing of Hakan Calhanoglu on a free transfer. Inter had little choice. The decision to fit Eriksen with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) meant the Italian Olympic Committee, which governs sport in the country, would not sign-off his physical.

Italy has a very high bar when it comes to heart checks. The death of Perugia midfielder Renato Curi, who suffered a cardiac arrest during a game against Juventus in 1977, had a profound impact. The rigorous screening subsequently put in place detected Nwankwo Kanu’s heart defect when he left Ajax for Inter in 1996. Inter’s owner at the time, Massimo Moratti, sent Kanu to a specialist in Ohio and he was able to resume his career in Italy.

Sensitivities have only deepened since Livorno midfielder Piermario Morosini suffered a fatal cardiac arrest on the pitch in 2012, and the Fiorentina captain, Davide Astori, died of a cardiac arrest in his sleep in the team hotel the morning of a game against Udinese in 2018.

When Eriksen returned to Milan this time last year, talks were held with Inter about the next steps. His salary, the highest at the club at the time, was covered by UEFA through FIFA’s “club protection programme” because his injury occurred while playing with Denmark at a major tournament.

“Christian wants to continue training in Milan, that is where he and his family live,” Eriksen’s agent Martin Schoots said. “He wants to continue away from the club, because in Italy you are not even allowed to go to the gym with a defibrillator.”

The player’s contract was terminated by mutual consent on December 17, 2021, and a note in Inter’s financial statement said, “Impairment of assets amounting to €15.3m (£12.9m, $15.7m) related to the write-down of the net book value of the registration as of the date of resolution, on mutual consent, of the contract with first-team player Christian Eriksen who, following a serious injury during the European Championship in June 2021, was banned by the Italian medical authority in December 2021 from playing in Serie A.”

Eriksen visited his team-mates one last time at Inter’s training ground. “I would have liked to coach him,” said Inter coach Simone Inzaghi. The club published a letter recalling Eriksen’s unveiling at La Scala — “when class met elegance” — and noted: “Although Inter and Christian are now parting ways, the bond shall never be broken. The good times, the goals, the victories, those scudetto celebrations with fans outside San Siro — all this will remain forever in Nerazzurri history.”

Eriksen began training across the border in Switzerland as a guest of FC Chiasso, an hour’s drive from Milan. Access was organised by Fabio Pinna, Inter’s former team manager who occupies the same role at the Swiss club.

“He asked us if he could use our facilities to keep fit,” Chiasso general manager Nicola Bignotti explained to Swiss TV. ‘The agreement was for three days. If he still needs us we will certainly be available. We respected his privacy as much as possible.”

Unable to play in Italy, where did Eriksen turn? 

During Eriksen’s early conversations with his cardiologists, he declared his intention to return to football at the very highest level: he wished to play at the World Cup.

His agent Schoots said publicly in December that a handful of European clubs were interested. In early December, he trained with his boyhood club Odense, incorporating ball work into cardio workouts.

Eriksen had discussed a possible return to football with his family. He also revealed at a press conference after joining Brentford that they had spoken to a psychologist who helped them navigate their trauma. Eriksen also made contact with the Ajax defender Daley Blind, who also plays with a pacemaker, to hear how he successfully returned to football after being diagnosed with heart inflammation in 2019.

Though Eriksen did not wish to be defined by the incident, there was a positive legacy. On August 3, 2021, the Premier League committed to the provision of funds for automated external defibrillators at thousands of grassroots football clubs and facilities in England. The Premier League said more than 2,000 sites would benefit. This had already been discussed by the Premier League, but the Eriksen incident accelerated the funding.

In January, a Premier League club made an enquiry. Brentford manager Thomas Frank had coached Eriksen for the Danish under-17 side. Over the festive period, he called Eriksen, who told the coach he had considered making the call in the opposite direction. For Eriksen, the appeal went beyond the coach. He lived in London while playing for Tottenham between 2013 and 2020. He also knew Brentford players Mathias Jensen, Jonas Lossl, Christian Norgaard and Mathias Jorgensen from international duty.

Eriksen turned 30 earlier this year and the signing was a change from Brentford’s usual strategy of recruiting promising young players aged 23 or below, but they sensed an opportunity. Phil Giles, the club’s director of football, and Lee Dykes, director of recruitment at the time, gave their blessing.

Frank said: “Christian deserves to play at the highest level, and I hope he will. Under normal circumstances, there would be no rumours (linking such a player) with a club like us. We should be flattered by them.”

Due to the player’s ordeal, the transfer took a while to process after being agreed in early January. Eriksen underwent a thorough medical examination and Professor Sanjay Sharma, a cardiologist for the English Institute of Sport and the Lawn Tennis Association, was consulted. Giles said Brentford undertook “significant due diligence to ensure Christian is in the best possible shape to return to competitive football”.

Brentford kept Eriksen’s salary within the club’s wage structure, offering a six-month deal with the option of a further year. The player’s camp decided to keep it at six months so his options would be open for the summer.

Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen poses for photographs after being unveiled by Brentford on February 11, 2022 (Photo: Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, also in January, Eriksen trained with Dutch side Ajax, spending time with the club’s head coach Erik ten Hag, who would go on to become manager of Manchester United for the following season.

From a medical perspective, what does it require for a player to return safely after a cardiac arrest?

Professor Guido Pieles is the head of sports cardiology at the Aspetar Sports Medicine Hospital in Doha, Qatar, and has been asked by FIFA to oversee the implementation of a 24/7 bespoke cardiac assessment service at this year’s World Cup.

He clarifies that he does not talk about individual cases but explains that following a cardiac arrest, any individual would spend some time in hospital, first to stabilise the heart and second, to have tests to find out why the arrest occurred and whether there have been any consequences.

Pieles says: “This is not only for the heart but particularly for the brain because when you have a cardiac arrest, your heart stops and the brain is highly dependent on oxygen, which obviously ceases to flow as well.

“That’s why it’s so important to have resuscitation facilities and trained staff available to do immediate resuscitation, because every minute delay increases the mortality in these scenarios. So this is the first thing we assess: if the athlete has recovered well.”

When trying to find out the cause of the cardiac arrest, Professor Pieles explains that there are genetic or inherited cardiac diseases, which are checked for when an athlete undergoes primary screening.

“These are diseases that people are born with because of genetic mutations but which don’t always become apparent. These diseases often lie dormant, so people might have the gene but not the disease. But if you stress your heart a lot there is a higher chance that these genetic diseases become apparent. That’s one reason the risk for a sudden cardiac arrest is higher in athletes.”

Some of these heart muscle diseases (also called cardiomyopathies) are known to be exacerbated by physical exercise. For example, English cricketer James Taylor was forced to retire in 2016 at the age of 26 after being diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a condition that affects the right side of his heart and is known to be aggravated by vigorous exercise.

“It’s very important to make sure we know what is the underlying cause. Was it, for example, just a transient occlusion of the coronary arteries, the arteries supplying the heart? Well, we can treat this. Was it an inflammation of the heart; so-called myocarditis? This is difficult to diagnose and can happen in athletes, but it does not always go along with chronic, long-term damage and patients can recover fully.

“If they have a viral infection — gastroenteritis, a severe cold, a fever — and then train through this, these infections can in some cases also affect the heart and cause cardiac arrest. So I would always recommend to anyone not to exercise if you have a fever or any viral infection with symptoms — particularly also with COVID.

“Of course, these are reversible causes, not genetic diseases. So in these cases, we might allow the athlete to compete again.”

Once the underlying cause has been found, a decision is made about further treatment. In the case of an athlete for whom their sport is also their livelihood, it is common for many experts to come together to form a general opinion and give recommendations.

Professor Pieles continues: “Further treatment might be medication. It might also be the implantation of an internal cardiac defibrillator (a small device that sends electrical pulses to regulate abnormal heart rhythms, especially those that could be dangerous and cause a cardiac arrest).

“There are also preventative measures including lifestyle alterations — for example, energy drinks and high doses of caffeine can trigger rhythm problems — and participation and exercise recommendations.”

Once the athlete has had time to recover, doctors need to assess the heart. They do this using a standard battery of tests including an electrocardiogram (ECG), which is an electrical trace of the heart, an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, and a cardiac MRI scan, which shows the heart in 3D and highlights if there is any inflammation or heart muscle disease present. For athletes, one of the most important assessments is the exercise stress test, or cardio-pulmonary exercise test, where the heart is assessed during exercise using an ECG.

Professor Pieles explains: “When we do the stress test we will also measure the breathing, the oxygen consumption, metabolic parameters such as the anaerobic threshold, the fitness level and most importantly we measure the heart rhythm while we push the athlete to the maximum.

“This can be done in the laboratory on a treadmill, bike or rowing machine, or in a hospital. But more and more, progressive cardiologists do this on the field using advanced mobile tools.

“So we let the athlete train but we record the heart rhythm over the training session or over 24 hours or even longer. It’s about monitoring the heart’s rhythm activity. Whereas older people suffer from heart failure when the heart muscle is too weak to work properly, in young people and in athletes this is very rarely the case unless you have an underlying heart muscle disease.

“In this population, rhythm problems are usually the issue. This is when the heart stumbles, when the heart has extra beats, when the heart goes into a rhythm that is so fast that even while beating it actually prevents blood from being expelled and carried around the body.”

Cardiologists such as Professor Pieles follow guidelines and recommendations set out by the European Society of Cardiology and the American Heart Association when working with an athlete wanting to return to competition.

“There are so-called risk factors,” he says. “We call it risk stratification. Assessing the risk is something you would do in any sports activity. So, if you want to go sailing you first check the wind, the tide, you check your boat and you check your course. Then you weigh up whether you can set sail or not.

“That’s what we are doing with the hearts of athletes. There are certain triggers — risk factors — that would make us worry. For example, if we see abnormal rhythms during exercise, if we see scars (fibrosis) in the heart muscle or if indeed the heart function is reduced. If these risk factors are not there or are not significant, then we can say yes, it is possible.”

In the past, the decision would have been made solely by a medical professional, but Professor Pieles says the athlete is much more involved in the process these days. “The whole journey needs to be done with the athlete in the centre,” he says. “And if he has a family and if he wishes so, with the family too. Because we are not making a decision for him. We are making a decision with the athlete.

“Once an athlete has made their decision and returned to competition they must be closely monitored for the remainder of their career, and possibly even beyond that, says Professor Pieles. “For example, every six months they need the whole arsenal of tests — an ECG, heart ultrasound, MRI scan and an exercise assessment.

“So it’s not that we let the athlete go out into the sporting world and never see them again. It’s very important that these athletes are followed up closely as things can change.”

So, having been signed off to play, how did it go at Brentford?

In short, superbly. It took a while to build up his fitness, with Eriksen making his debut as a substitute on February 26 in a 2-0 defeat against Newcastle.

Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen returning to top-flight football for Brentford on February 26, 2022 (Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Images via Getty Images)

This was his first competitive appearance since his collapse in Copenhagen the previous year. He had played in behind-closed-doors friendlies against Southend and Rangers, with Brentford’s owner Matthew Benham appearing at the training ground to watch the Southend fixture.

Against Newcastle, the audience was larger, as 17,039 fans filled the Brentford Community Stadium and gave the midfielder a rousing reception in the 52nd minute. Eriksen’s fiancee Sabrina and their children were in the crowd.

“If you take away the result, I’m one happy man,” Eriksen said at full-time. “To go through what I’ve been through, being back is a wonderful feeling.”

Eriksen had insisted to his team-mates that there should be no let-up in training. Eriksen said: “There was a meeting before training and I said a few words. I said, ‘I’m here because everything has been cleared. If there are any questions you want to ask me, you can always ask me. Don’t go easy on me, because if there was any concern I wouldn’t be here’. I told them that from the beginning.”

On the field, Eriksen quickly had an impact. From his first start against Norwich City on March 5, only Liverpool (29), Tottenham Hotspur (26) and Manchester City (24) won more points than Brentford (22) in the Premier League during a 10-game period. Brentford had taken four points from their previous 11 games. After a stunning 4-1 victory away at Chelsea, Thomas Frank said: “You can always give it to Christian and he will find a solution.”

Eriksen was clear: “I have not forgotten how to play football. My body is still the same and my vision and my ability will still be the same — that has not changed.”

So, the season ends, and Eriksen’s contract is running out at Brentford. What happened next? 

Frank spoke repeatedly about his desire to keep the midfielder, whose contract ran out at Brentford in June, but the competition for his signature intensified.

In the middle of May, Eriksen told Viaplay: “I have different offers and options, which we are considering, and then we make a decision. I would love to play Champions League football again.”

Towards the end of last season, Frank’s press conferences were dominated by the topic of Eriksen’s future. Frank said it was “no secret” they wanted him to stay, but a new contract would only be discussed after the club’s final game. Privately, Brentford wanted him to sign a long-term deal as quickly as possible.

The Athletic understands that at the beginning of May, Brentford presented an offer to the midfielder, which would have made him the best-paid player in the club’s history. Giles also sat down with Eriksen and spoke in detail about the club’s long-term vision in an attempt to persuade him to stay.

There was a feeling that the 30-year-old would decide his future after representing Denmark in the Nations League in June. Denmark beat Austria 2-0 on June 13 and Eriksen met up with Frank the following evening for dinner in Copenhagen. Frank left the meal feeling Brentford had a genuine chance of keeping him.

However, there was very little communication between Eriksen and his representatives with Brentford afterwards. The club’s offer remained on the table, but nearly two months had passed and hope dwindled.

At one point, there were links with a return to Tottenham, which would have offered a route into the Champions League. Eriksen had played for Spurs coach Antonio Conte at Inter. The pair had also stayed in the same central London hotel when Eriksen signed for Brentford, and they had spent time chatting.

Newcastle also registered an interest, but the two main interested clubs were Brentford and Manchester United. The financial might of the latter was such that they could still offer considerably more money than Brentford, although the salary does not come close to United’s very highest earners David de Gea or Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was felt that all possibilities remained open up until Eriksen ultimately signed for United and received a multi-million-pound signing-on fee. He also had to undergo a stringent medical test before the transfer was concluded. The club insist the level of due diligence would be common to any player where the individual is known to have a history of injury or a medical condition.

Christian Eriksen, Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford

Christian Eriksen walking out with his new team-mates Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford at Old on August 7, 2022 (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

New to United’s Carrington training base this season is an on-site ambulance — from a private provider, so it does not take up any NHS resources — which coincided with Eriksen’s arrival. United insist the extra paramedics are there to protect the safety of the more than 100 employees who may be present at any given time.

Eriksen’s intention to join United was revealed by The Athletic on July 4, which is how some senior personnel at Brentford discovered he would not be taking up their offer of a contract. Eriksen did subsequently call Frank to explain his decision, and the club have now signed Mikkel Damsgaard to replace his creativity.

As for Eriksen, he has since revealed that he spoke to Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer about joining Manchester United during their respective Old Trafford reigns. Under Ten Hag, the dream is reality.

(Additional reporting: Laurie Whitwell, Sarah Shephard, Jay Harris and James Horncastle)

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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