The King of Denmark
Christian Eriksen was born in the idyllic town of Middelfart, Denmark. Having come up through the youth ranks at local sides Middelfart and Odense, the midfielder’s breakthrough from the Ajax academy paved the way for a career-defining move to London. Since his arrival at Tottenham in 2013, the Dane has become a Premier League superstar and his country’s hero.
Goal and SPOX have spoken to Eriksen’s former coaches Morten Olsen, Martin Jol and Glen Riddersholm. Mario Gotze, who Eriksen was so close to replacing at Borussia Dortmund, offers his insight as well, in addition to ex-colleagues Urby Emanuelson and Lesly de Sa.
It’s a story of humble beginnings, a quiet boy transforming into a formidable talent while making refreshingly rational career decisions along the way. Unfazed by the glittering allure of top clubs like Chelsea, Eriksen chose the path most suited to himself.
Yellow confetti is raining down on the shoulders of the slim, blonde teenager. The Breda fans bellow loudly, a cacophony of song and noise. Christian Eriksen looks up at the source momentarily, as yellow scraps of paper continue to fall around him.
He takes his place between Rasmus Lindgren and Kennedy and stares straight ahead. The noise from the opposition supporters doesn’t bother him. You wouldn’t have thought that, in a few minutes’ time, he was about to play his first senior game as a professional footballer.
It was only the day before that coach Martin Jol flirted with the idea of letting him start. It still came as no less than a shock, though, when he saw his name on the Ajax tactics board before the game.
“Christian was only 17, but he was already so good that I thought it would be wrong not to have him start,” recalls Jol.
“It was as if Christian had no emotions. He looked right at me and said, ‘Alright. I’ll play.’ Usually, boys that age would be worried or overthinking it, but Christian wasn’t like that.”
The home fans continue to bellow in song. So loudly, in fact, that Eriksen later recalls being impressed by the sheer force of it. Today’s game isn’t just a milestone achievement for the Dane.
Shortly before kick-off at the nearly sold-out NAC Stadion, Eriksen is hugged by Luis Suarez who, at the time, was making his debut as Ajax captain. The Uruguay international and current Barcelona superstar, sporting long hair and the number 16 on his shirt, whispers words of encouragement in his ear.
Eriksen nods in appreciation of his captain’s advice. Shortly afterwards, he makes his first contact with the ball. It’s the touch that marks the true beginning of his senior career – and the start of a remarkable and formidable rise.
Eriksen was already a young talent during his time in the Netherlands, and his early promise would eventually shape his years as an extraordinary playmaker first in Amsterdam, and then in London. Goal and SPOX have talked to former team-mates and coaches of the Dane who helped transform him from a promising youth player for Middelfart in Denmark into a member of football’s elite.
A toddler gazes into the camera with wide-eyed wonderment. “My story started in Middelfart,” wrote Eriksen on Instagram in July 2016, “where I dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. Now, I’m living my dream.”
The child in the photo? Eriksen. For him, Middelfart is the place where everything began. Middelfart is located in the south of Denmark on the island of Funen. In the Middle Ages, Middelfart was known as an important dock.
Today, however, the town boasts a population of 15,000 and doesn’t even rank in the top 20 largest municipalities of the Syddanmark region. It’s a peaceful town. It has a wildlife park, a ceramics museum, a theatre, a cultural centre, a small harbour, and a 1,700-metre-long motorway bridge. And it, of course, has plenty of football pitches
The Middelfart senior men’s team and academy train across eight different fields. Six hundred children and young adults between the ages of five and 17 are active with the club, whose senior team currently play in the Danish third division. The club’s endless square metres of green, the cafeteria and recreational centre were Eriksen’s home for about a decade. It was here that he spent his formative years as a kindergartner to a teenager, and where he learned the foundations of what would turn him into one of the greatest playmakers of his generation.
The Eriksen family live just a stone’s throw away from club grounds, and Christian’s parents Thomas and Dorthe still reside there. Christian visits home as often as he can, and still sees his childhood friends. By the age of three, he was already playing football, starting in the garden of his parents’ home.
“Football has always been a big thing in my family,” says Eriksen.
His little sister played football as well, in addition to both of his parents. His father, a sales manager in the car industry, was so talented that he nearly became a professional footballer himself.
“From the very start,” says Eriksen, “I’ve always played football. I played badminton and even won a tournament, but it was all about football for me.”
It was clear that Eriksen was special even from a very young age. “Our neighbour’s son was about three years older, and one day he was just playing football with his friends,” recalls Thomas in an interview with Jyllands-Posten.
“Christian ran over to them and joined in. From there, we saw that he was as good as someone twice his age.”
The ball was his best friend. Literally. “He slept in bed snuggled up with the ball until he was 10 years old. The ball was his stuffed animal,” says Eriksen’s father.
It was also his father who taught him one of the most important lessons still ingrained in Eriksen’s footballing DNA: that you must always be aware of your ego and have humility.
“His father trained him as a child and told him that a single footballer is worth nothing. It’s stayed with Christian to this day,” recounts Glenn Riddersholm, who coached Eriksen in the Denmark Under-17 team.
Thomas was the coach of one of his son’s most talented youth sides. In a 2004 U12 tournament that featured the best clubs in the country, Middelfart finished fifth. In four out of five seasons, the team competed in the local championships without falling to a single defeat.
“We tried to teach them that it’s good to have the ball and do something with it,” Thomas told the Guardian. “We played forwards, not backwards.”
His father was also the one who would immediately discuss areas of improvement in the car ride home from the match. A friend who was always at Eriksen’s side is Rasmus Falk, who is currently under contract at FC Copenhagen and a player who Eriksen has known since he was five.
One time, when Middelfart were 4-0 down at half-time, they seemed to be out of options. Nothing was working. Tonny Hermansen, who coached the team after Eriksen’s father, remembers how the clever duo took the game to the next level: “Christian and Rasmus got the ball, combined and scored. And then they scored again, and again. And again.”
The young Eriksen loved to dribble, constructing makeshift goalposts in the garden and emulating his childhood idols Francesco Totti and Brian and Michael Laudrup. Today, Eriksen still plays an important part at Middelfart.
His shirts adorn the club’s facilities, and his story has inspired countless young Danish talents to follow in his footsteps and push them to make their dreams come true as well.
“Nowadays, the name Middelfart is important,” Claus Hansen, the club’s president, said to the Guardian. “The kids think: ‘Christian Eriksen is from Middelfart, so I want to play at Middelfart, too.’”
After 10 years, however, it was time for Eriksen to leave the nest and move on. At 13, he moved to the Odense youth academy in order to stay as close as possible to his hometown. It was here that he matured from talented C-list youth star to Danish talent of the century, and it wasn’t long before he was hunted by top clubs and watched by millions.
The talent of the century
Over his career spanning 24 years, Riddersholm coached just one player he rarely had to criticise.
“You have to keep in mind that he was 17 years old and yet so eager to develop. I didn’t even have time to take him under my wing,” the 46-year-old remembers. Riddersholm currently coaches Danish first division side Sonderjyske.
He continues: “My time with Christian was something that I experienced with no other.”
Riddersholm was Eriksen’s coach for the Denmark U17s, and he still fondly recalls the time when ‘Christian Eriksen: Middelfart youth prodigy’ became ‘Christian Eriksen: international superstar’.
“I knew that there was this boy who was so good that everyone just talked about him constantly,” he says. “When I became his coach, I saw that the praise was no exaggeration. He reads games cleverly and sees things that the others don’t, and he’s by far the best I’ve ever trained.”
No matter who you talk to about the young Eriksen, everyone is in agreement; they had never come across such a sensation before.
“He’s definitely one of the most gifted players I’ve ever watched,” says former Netherlands midfielder Urby Emanuelson, who played with Eriksen at Ajax.
And Jol, who handed Eriksen his first senior start in the Eredivisie, is unwavering in his praise.
“He was the most skilful player I’d ever met of his age, and of course I’ve been able to work with some top talents at Tottenham and Hamburg. But nobody was as good as him.”
In the town of Odense, located 45 kilometres east of Middelfart, the young Eriksen worked hard to realise his journey as a footballer, just as he would do in his senior career. At the core of Eriksen’s philosophy was valuing modesty.
“Christian was always down to earth,” says Riddersholm. “His colleagues would always be aiming for recognition and fame, but Christian never saw himself as anything particularly outstanding.
“When he was younger, everyone around him raved about his skills and praised his abilities. But Christian remained calm and unbothered. He worked hard and was always critical about himself.”
Despite his modesty, though, Eriksen was aware that he had some talent. Once, Riddersholm asked him during training if he was aware of just how good he was.
“He looked me in the eye and said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world: ‘Yes coach, I know that.’ That’s what set him apart from most other kids his age. Instead of letting it all go to his head, he just never made a big deal out of anything. It just drove him forward.”
He continues: “He was a very quiet boy. Not shy; just introverted. Though he wasn’t outspoken vocally, he was a natural leader on the pitch. He led by example, and would do simple things in games that were just quietly spectacular.”
One time, the Danish youth side took part in a junior tournament. Eriksen missed an early penalty in an important game.
“He didn’t hang his head up in shame for a second. Instead, he claimed responsibility and took charge. He ended up scoring a brace to win the game 3-1,” recalls Riddersholm.
“This game showed how gifted he was. He wasn’t only physically skilled – he was mentally intelligent as well.”
In 2006, Eriksen won the U16 championships with Odense alongside his team-mate and friend Rasmus Falk. The duo attracted large-scale attention, but this time, the interest extended past the Danish borders.
Scouts from afar came to watch Eriksen play and they were treated to sights of the young playmaker making dream pass after dream pass, free kick after free kick. Even today, during their seminars, the Danish Football Association still show videos of Eriksen taking free kicks in training.
After three years at Odense, Eriksen was ready to take on the world. He had offers from several top clubs, and everyone knew that it was time for the young talent to leave the comforts of his home country and start to make history elsewhere.
At Dutch side Ajax, there are strict rules. One such rule is that youth players are required to undergo a trial before negotiations even begin. There are no exceptions. Except for Christian Eriksen.
Ajax had made their interest in Eriksen known to his father Thomas and his former club Odense, and they asked him to come to Amsterdam for a trial. But Eriksen’s father refused their request.
“Christian has moved so many times and he’s already played for the U17 national side. He also has to go to school,” Thomas Eriksen said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten.
It was a career-defining decision, and one that could have shaped the course of Eriksen’s future – for better or for worse.
There was one man in particular who understood the seriousness of the case: John Steen Olsen.
Olsen, once a professional footballer and Denmark international, started working as a scout for Ajax in 1995 and specialised in identifying talents from Scandinavia. He spearheaded the transfer of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2001, and is known for having a special eye for singling out young, emerging talents.
The 76-year-old was so excited by the prospect of Eriksen that he was able to convince Ajax sporting director Danny Blind to accompany him to Denmark and attempt to persuade Eriksen’s family to change their minds.
When Eriksen first arrived at the Odense youth academy in 2005, he had already attracted the interest of top European clubs. There were times when scouts observed the Odense players almost daily, and there were representatives from the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea and AC Milan in addition to Ajax.
“My buddy Rasmus and I went to Chelsea for a trial,” Eriksen says. “I played three games for their U18 side, and then did the same at Millwall, West Ham and another club whose name I can’t think of right now. I saw people like Jose Mourinho and Didier Drogba walking around and famous players all having lunch together. But for me, at the time, it was all too much. It was just too big of a step.”
Eriksen was equally surprised as he was irritated by the elite professionalism and discretion shown on the Blues grounds. It was the first time he had truly encountered quite an established football club, and sure enough, it wasn’t like anything he had experienced back home.
“Where I come from, everything was freely accessible. Anyone could enter the training ground and do whatever they liked,” he recalls.
“At Chelsea, there were two gates that were guarded by security staff 24 hours a day. It made me realise just how huge the club was. That made me back off a little. As a quiet Middelfart boy, it was a completely different world.”
Eriksen also completed a trial in Catalonia, spending five days with the Barcelona youth side.
“We played against the Catalan national team and I touched the ball three times in 90 minutes,” remembers Eriksen.
“I ran around for 90 minutes chasing the ball, but I never got it. I don’t know what happened to me that day. Training went fine, but during the game I thought to myself: ‘I won’t be here anyway.’ Maybe it was because everyone was speaking in Spanish.”
Ultimately, trials became a formative experience for Eriksen. He completed a third trial in Italy, at the club for which his idol Brian Laudrup once played for.
“We spent a week at Milan when Christian was just 16,” says his father Thomas. “It was really nice. They had a good training ground and good staff, and we talked to the youth coaches who also were interested in Christian. But Odense demanded a fee that was much too high.”
Father and son probably would have agreed to a move elsewhere, says Thomas, but there weren’t even concrete talks between the club and the player. While other teenagers might have been disheartened, Eriksen just held his head high.
His former coach Anders Skjoldemose told the Guardian:
“When he would return from the trials, the other boys would ask him, ‘What was it like in Milan?’ Christian would reply, ‘It was okay. Are you ready for training now?’ Other children would just have never left cloud nine.”
Eriksen Sr. confirms: “He had just as much fun training with Odense again the next day. That’s where his mental strength comes in. It didn’t affect him that these big clubs kept showing their interest in him.”
Eriksen’s level-headedness was apparent once again when he moved to Ajax. As it turns out, it was the move that proved to be the most crucial.
The game against Breda ends in a disappointing 1-1 draw. It’s an underwhelming result for powerhouse Ajax against a minnow of a side. The gap between themselves and PSV is already at nine points. And yet, despite the tough uphill battle, there was a bright spot in Eriksen.
“He played like a 25-year-old. When you’re that young, you usually don’t want to be too adventurous with the ball so you don’t make mistakes. But Christian never played like that. He always took risk after risk,” says Jol on Eriksen following his senior debut, which was met with praise from the Dutch press. Some journalists even branded him as the ‘new Wesley Sneijder’, the Ajax icon who left for Real Madrid in 2007.
“What I’ll never forget,” remembers Jol, “is his smile. Christian was not one who laughed out loud. No – he smiled, and when he smiles, you know he’s happy. If he played well, there was always that smile of his after the match.”
Jol is one to know. He knows this smile all too well. After he promoted Eriksen to the first team and handed him his debut on that cold January day, Ajax remained unbeaten for 23 Eredivisie games in a row. Eriksen played 18 of those games.
And yet, it was unfamiliar times for Ajax. They hadn’t won the Eredivisie in a while. They were going through a bit of a dry spell.
The squad was made up of current Spurs stars Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, as well as former Barcelona players Oleguer and Gabi and the now ex-Manchester United player Daley Blind (who has since returned to Ajax). Then there was Luis Suarez, possibly the best number nine in the world today, as well as Marko Pantelic, Maarten Stekelenburg, Emanuelson and Gregory van der Wiel. So, it was an elite collection of star players who had already established themselves at the top level.
“We didn’t have a number 10 at the time. We played in a 4-3-3 system with a number six and two eights, but I wanted a true number 10,” Jol recalls. He tried Siem de Jong out as playmaker, but he wasn’t satisfied. “He was good, but Christian was unique,” he adds.
Eriksen was already showing so much promise at the tender age of 17 that Jol simply had no choice but to sign the youngster.
“Now, Ajax has Frenkie de Jong, who has had a similar career path. But Christian is still probably the club’s greatest talent from the past 15 to 20 years.”
Eriksen was included in 14 of the 16 remaining league games. Indeed, after his debut, they won 15 of their 17 league games (drawing the other two), but at the end of the season it wasn’t good enough to clinch the title.
In the first half of the following season, Ajax started decently again - winning 10 of 17 games. Eriksen only contributed a minor part during this period, and started just four games. By December, Ajax sat in fourth place behind PSV, Twente and Groningen.
Jol was dismissed from his post and managerial duties were handed over to U19 manager Frank de Boer. It was here that the next chapter began. For Ajax, and for Eriksen.
De Boer took over as Ajax coach on December 6, just two days before the game that changed everything.
The traveling Ajax fans took their seats at the sold-out San Siro, guests at the legendary ground that Milan called their home. Their fortress. The floodlights illuminated the evening, the Champions League anthem was sung, and it was an atmosphere that invited goosebumps – as well as the biggest names in football.
Ronaldinho, Robinho, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Thiago Silva, Massimo Ambrosini and Mathieu Flamini were among the Milan players who started the game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kevin-Prince Boateng would come on as substitutes later on. On the opposite side of the pitch stood 18-year-old Christian Eriksen. Eriksen didn’t have a particularly memorable game, but he played with the confidence of a seasoned world-class talent.
The young Dane shot and passed from distance. Right, left and right again. Eriksen won his physical duels and fed Suarez more balls than any other player. One of the most dangerous shots from the Uruguay international came from an Eriksen pass and it soared high above Milan goalkeeper Marco Amelia and over the crossbar.
Ajax won the game 2-0 thanks to goals from Demy de Zeeuw and Alderweireld. It was here that Christian Eriksen, who maintained a 93 per cent pass accuracy, had announced himself on the big stage. From that moment on, Eriksen played each and every game.
Under the management of De Boer, who was already familiar with Eriksen from the U19 side, the Dane started all the remaining league games of the 2010-11 season. He completed the full 90 minutes a total of 15 times out of 17 games. Eriksen was key in making sure that Ajax didn’t struggle when captain Suarez left for Liverpool that very January – and it was later that season that they finally became Eredivisie champions once again.
“It was the first title in seven years, so you saw how much that meant to everyone in the club. That was a big deal,” recounts Eriksen.
The next two seasons brought Ajax two more title wins. Eriksen was crucial in their Eredivisie-winning campaigns. In his final two terms at the Dutch club, he racked up 30 assists (the second-best total in the Eredivisie after Dries Mertens with 31), maintained the best pass accuracy and had the most assists from dead-ball situations.
Emanuelson, who is five and a half years older than Eriksen and was, at the time, the undisputed star player at Ajax, recalls: “After the departure of great playmakers in Rafael van der Vaart and Sneijder, Eriksen filled their shoes quickly.” It’s the natural ease of Eriksen’s play that sets him apart from his peers.
“He played as if he were on the bench or in the park, without nerves, as if there was no pressure at all,” says Jol. “He’s always on the move, he thinks fast and also seems to have his eyes in his back! If you think he can’t spot you, he’ll spot you anyway,” says De Boer.
Eriksen’s former team-mate Lesly de Sa remembers: “The main difference between Eriksen and the other players is that he didn’t change his game after moving from the youth academy to the senior team. He just always did his own thing. It’s also a testament to his mentality as a player. His confidence in his own abilities is what makes him unique.”
Even from a young age, Eriksen was seen as the complete player. He had great awareness and tactical intelligence and was a gifted goalscorer.
“He was brilliant. His movements, his passes, his technique were all really good. But my God, his shots were outstanding. As soon as you gave him space, he took advantage of it. He could decide the course of a game with a single touch,” says De Sa.
Even off the pitch, Eriksen is able to assimilate to his new surroundings quickly.
“After only a few months, he became fluent in Dutch and was able to communicate with his team-mates easily,” recalls De Sa.
Emanuelson adds: “Eriksen used to joke around, but only when the time was right for it.” Jol says: “His mind was football, football, football. You never had to tell him what he had to do. Of course we had fixed training schedules and weight room sessions. But Christian also had his own individual goals. He would do extra shifts, spend more time in training to work on his shots, practiced his free kicks. He always sought to improve, and knew exactly what he wanted to achieve for himself.”
In his final season for Ajax, Eriksen was directly involved in 24 goals in 33 league games (10 goals, 14 assists). He was also directly involved in five goals across six Champions League matches (one goal, four assists) and led Ajax to a European victory against Manchester City. If anyone needed any more proof that Eriksen was ready for bigger challenges, this was it.
Over in Dortmund, they were still reeling from the events of the previous night. For former manager Jurgen Klopp, everything started to fall apart. His world was turned upside-down.
It had only been a few hours since Dortmund players Marco Reus and Felipe Santana scored injury-time goals against Malaga in the Champions League quarter-finals when Klopp got the call. It was the news that would change everything. Mario Gotze, his most talented player and prized asset, put in a request to move to Bayern.
“I hadn’t expected it at all. Michael Zorc told me at the training ground: ‘We have to talk. Mario is going to Bayern Munich.’ I turned around, walked out of the office, drove home and got into bed,” recalls Klopp in a conversation with DAZN.
“We had plans to attend the premiere of Wotan Wilke Mohring that evening. My wife was all dressed up and ready to go, but I just said: 'I can’t do anything tonight.’“We had plans to attend the premiere of Wotan Wilke Mohring that evening. My wife was all dressed up and ready to go, but I just said: 'I can’t do anything tonight.’ It’s only football, but the timing hurt. I wasn’t prepared to get hit like that after the high-flier against Malaga and qualifying for the semi-finals. I had to let that settle for a bit.”
On that same day, the discussions at Dortmund’s training ground in Brackel began over how they should replace their star player, the one-in-a-million Gotze. Over the next few weeks, Dortmund were involved in intense discussions with three players in particular.
They were interested in Henrikh Mkhitaryan. They asked about Kevin De Bruyne. And they inquired about Christian Eriksen.
Klopp, Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and director Zorc were able to observe Eriksen closely on two occasions. BVB played against Ajax twice in the Champions League group stage of the 2012-13 season. The German side won both games, and yet, the club’s senior staff were able to identify a certain young midfielder with unbelievable talent who seemed to completely control the course of the game. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Gotze.
Eriksen, like Gotze, was born in 1992 and was blessed with similar technical brilliance and a skilled eye. They were both accurate passers of the ball and their slim stature allowed them to move nimbly and freely.
“The parallels are there. The position he plays, the way he plays, the spaces he looks to exploit, his creativity. He’s an extremely important player for Tottenham,” says Gotze about Eriksen.
“Of course, because of his playing style and his success at Ajax, I can see our similarities.”
As it turned out, Eriksen was on the market when Dortmund were looking to replace the German.
Although Klopp personally approached De Boer to inquire about Eriksen, at Dortmund, they weren’t convinced that the Dane was the right player for Klopp’s heavy metal football. There were doubts about Eriksen’s qualities without the ball, and how he would cope with Gegenpressing.
“As a player, Christian is so intelligent that, like Xavi and Iniesta at the time, he intuitively makes runs into spaces and exploits others. Defensively, he can anticipate his opponent’s moves better than others,” says Riddersholm.
Ultimately, there were two other candidates that Dortmund were interested in. Out of the trio, Mkhitaryan was chosen.
Meanwhile, though, Eriksen toyed with the idea of making the switch over to the black and yellow army. During Ajax’s Eredivisie celebrations in May 2013, he said that he was open for a new challenge, should an offer for one come.
Joining Borussia Dortmund “wouldn’t be bad,” said Eriksen at the time. “We played against them twice and lost twice, but that would be a great club to join.”
A few days later, he said in an interview with NUSport: “Dortmund is a club that I would like to play in. I think I would fit in very well. They play attacking, beautiful football, just the way I like it. And they challenge for titles.”
Additionally, Eriksen also revealed that Ajax and Dortmund had spoken with his agent to discuss the interest. There were signs that pointed towards a move to BVB, but in the end, it didn’t end up happening. Dortmund didn’t try hard enough in their pursuit of the player – at least, that’s according to talk around the club.
All of a sudden, the whole of Denmark had their eyes on their number 10. At Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, Shane Duffy’s shot flew past goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and 50,000 Ireland fans erupted in ecstasy. It was 1-0 after just six minutes for the hosts.
After the first leg ended 0-0, this would be the qualifying game that determined whether or not Denmark would be playing in the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
All the focus was on Christian Eriksen. For Denmark, it would take a tremendous amount of effort to win against the Irish – on home turf – in order to fulfil their dream of playing in a World Cup. It was a huge amount of pressure on one set of shoulders in particular.
29th minute: Eriksen is freed on the left wing and links up with Pione Sisto. Andreas Christensen somehow fires the ball in. Goal.
32nd minute: Eriksen right-foots the ball into the left corner. 2-1. Game-changer. Eriksen knee-slides into the corner flag. The away fans chant his name feverishly.
63rd minute: Eriksen slots the ball in from 17 metres. A brace. “Eriksen! Eriksen! Eriksen!” yells the Danish television commentator wildly.
74th minute. After a mistake by Stephen Ward, Eriksen flies in at full speed and dribbles the ball into the box Another goal! He sends the Denmark supporters into a frenzy. Hat-trick.
The Irish security guards are struggling to keep a handful of Danish fans from storming onto the field to lift Eriksen high up on their shoulders. So he stands a few metres in front of them, his arms outstretched.
“King Christian sends Denmark to the World Cup,” Danish daily paper Ekstrabladet wrote afterwards, describing what Eriksen has been since November 2017: the football king of an entire nation. One who can also fill the big boots of the very Danish greats who had shaped him so greatly.
Morten Olsen had no other choice but to call Eriksen up to the national team at just 18 years of age. Anyone could immediately see how exceptional a talent he was, says Olsen, who coached the Danish team from 2000 to 2010. In November 2009, Olsen watched Eriksen live for the first time.
In March 2010 he awarded him his debut against Australia, and in the summer, he took the midfielder to the World Cup. They could see just how modest Eriksen was during the South Africa tournament. “At the same time, though, he had a healthy arrogance about him,” says Olsen.
“He was confident on the pitch, and confident when things got tough as well. It was a very exciting mix. Though he was obviously very skilled, he was always willing to challenge himself to become a better player – and was patient about it.”
Comparisons were made between Eriksen and the Laudrup brothers, whom he adored as a child. Eriksen started to be on the receiving end of endless praise. In 2012, he was involved in another major international tournament at the European Championship in Poland/Ukraine. And yet, the coach noticed a skill that was missing from Eriksen’s game during those years.
“When you have a player of this quality, you have to tease the rest of the potential out. Sometimes, criticising a player in private does the trick, but sometimes you have to do it publicly to coax out what’s hiding,” he recalls.
In a press conference, Olsen told the public that Eriksen was unable to control games and that he no longer played by Ajax’s standards. They were harsh words, but they worked. Eriksen scored 15 goals in his next 20 games for Denmark. The beast was unleashed. It was only a few months later that he was named captain for his country for the first time, against the U.S. men’s national team.
Denmark failed to qualify for the 2016 Euros after losing to Sweden in the qualifiers, the two-legged tie ending 4-3 to Sweden on aggregate. But Eriksen stepped up to the plate during the road to the 2018 World Cup. He scored eight times in 10 games, and provided four assists. With his form regained, he played the game of his life against Ireland – and became the king of Denmark.
Danish people watched the 2018 World Cup enthusiastically, though their campaign ended with a loss to Croatia in the round of 16. Eriksen, along with Lasse Schone and Nicolai Jorgensen, failed to score their penalties in the shootout against goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. But nobody blamed them for the defeat. “The fans were thrilled regardless of the outcome,” Olsen told Jylland-Posten. “You can be proud of yourselves.”
With Eriksen, it’s similar to Ronaldo and Messi in that he also has to carry his national team. For him as an individual, the expectations are always high. But he plays the game on his own terms.
“Everyone compared him to Michael Laudrup. There’s no patience for young players in modern football. Everyone just immediately expects top performances from young footballers,” Olsen says on the phone before pausing, and then following up with a short phrase that describes the Dane quite well: “For Christian, though, this wasn’t a problem at all.”
It’s a mild November evening in London’s borough of Brent. It’s another game in the unpopular temporary abode of Wembley Stadium, which isn’t the true home of the Lilywhites. They belong at White Hart Lane. Only 57,132 fans have shown up to watch the game that has the potential to shape the rest of their season: Inter in the Champions League.
The game is tight, and goalscoring chances are rare. Harry Winks hits the bar with a long-range effort after 38 minutes. Jan Vertonghen heads an Eriksen free kick away from goal in minute 70. Spurs are second-best to Inter. But then comes the 80th minute. A dynamic burst forward by Moussa Sissoko leads to a quick spin and short pass from Dele Alli, which ends with a clinical finish from Eriksen. Goal. They celebrate with their trademark knee slides, and there is jubilation among the ‘home’ fans. Tottenham win 1-0. They go on to progress to the knockout stages to meet Dortmund in the last 16.
It was in London that Eriksen embarked on one of the most decisive and important journeys of his career. After his arrival at Tottenham in August 2013, he needed a period of four months to settle in England and get accustomed to the Premier League. Around the turn of the year, the Dane finally emerged from the woodwork and scored against West Brom and Manchester United.
At the end of this first season in North London – his progress halted momentarily by injuries – he scored seven goals and registered eight assists in 25 games. A sixth-place league finish, however, was disappointing for Tottenham. At the end of the season, Tim Sherwood was replaced by Mauricio Pochettino.
Under his guidance, Spurs have embarked on a successful, but still trophy-less, era in which Eriksen has become his side’s key player. Tottenham have established themselves as a top team in recent years, finishing fifth in 2015, third in 2016, second in 2017 and third in 2018. The team’s focal point? Christian Eriksen.
“At Tottenham, Christian is the heart of the team. He wins every ball,” says Jol, who coached Spurs from 2004 to 2007. “When the opponent retreats and leaves little to no space, he manages to find the gaps. He finds the solutions. But that’s also the strength of the Spurs team. They initiate the play, and that’s all because of Christian. He’s always been like that. He doesn’t play wide. He plays forward, and he’s always looking for risks and challenges. He makes almost no mistakes now.”
Since his move to Tottenham, Eriksen has made more assists than any other player, and has assisted the most shots on goal. “When he was first with Ajax, he didn’t always have 70 or 80 touches of the ball. His skill has grown over time, though, and he’s omnipresent,” says Jol.
“He’s as good as Iniesta. I watch almost every Tottenham game and Christian is, in my opinion, the best number 10 in the world – alongside Manchester City’s David Silva. Silva is also a phenomenal player, and he and Christian play at roughly the same level – though Christian is better with his weak foot.”
Eriksen’s skills as a playmaker have been well-documented, but nobody uses the term “world class” to describe the Dane. Even in England.
But Christian has managed to evolve even further. “I let him play on the left side for Ajax a couple of times. He didn’t like that. Now, at Spurs, he’s learned from it. He’s almost a complete player now,” says Jol.
Eriksen’s physique is also impressive. Jol adds: “Christian is incredibly strong, physically. He’s doing crazy numbers in the Premier League, running around 12 and a half or 13 kilometres per game. You don’t realise how much he runs, because he’s so quick and light on his feet.”
The move to White Hart Lane was “exactly” the right move, Emanuelson says. “But now he’s ready to play for an even bigger club. Christian could play a key role in any team in the world.”
It’s not only Emanuelson who thinks so. In fact, it’s quite a popular, ubiquitous opinion to have of the Dane. Almost everyone who is asked about Eriksen agrees that the modest, introverted young boy from Middelfart is now ready to take the next step. Ready to finally win big titles.
The only blemish of Eriksen’s career so far is a lack of silverware. In his five and a half years with Spurs, he has yet to lift a single trophy.
“Of course he’s good enough to play at Real Madrid or Barca, so if he goes, he’ll do so for at least €100 million,” Jol says.
Riddersholm believes it, too: “He can do it at any club in the world, simply because he can adapt to any system. He’s such an intelligent player that he can play the game at the highest level – even at Barcelona or Real.”
As it turns out, the two Spanish giants are indeed interested in the player. They have kept tabs on him quietly. Eriksen is still only 26 years old, but endless doors remain open for him. Just like they were when he was growing up.