World Cup berth completes 'almost perfect' year for Denmark

Joakim Maehle (R) scored the goal that booked Denmark's place at the 2022 World Cup

Kasper Hjulmand celebrates Denmark's qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar Creator: Liselotte Sabroe

With their qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Denmark not only showed their remarkable resilience in the wake of Christian Eriksen's near-fatal cardiac arrest but served warning of their ambitions in Qatar.

A 1-0 win over Austria at a sold-out Parken Stadium on Tuesday clinched Denmark's place at next year's finals, a day after Germany became the first country to qualify.

"The almost perfect year for the national team has had an almost perfect end," wrote Danish daily Politiken, as Denmark made it eight wins from eight in Group F.

Few could have predicted Denmark's sharp rise four months ago when Eriksen, the team's playmaker, collapsed on the same Copenhagen pitch, with medics rushing to administer life-saving treatment.

The traumatic incident strengthened Denmark's resolve, a nation united behind its football team that rode a wave of emotion to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, narrowly losing out to England at Wembley.

"It's as if Denmark and the national team have fallen in love again," Andreas Kraul, commentator for public broadcaster DR, told AFP.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen offered her congratulations on Instagram, posting a photo of herself and the sports minister dressed in red and white from inside the stadium.

Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand, who would not have been in charge at Euro 2020 if not for the delay caused by the pandemic, will have a year to prepare his team for the World Cup.

"You can only dream about things like this," said midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. "It's crazy. This is huge for me, it's huge for the team, for Danish football and for Denmark.

"With the age and quality we have, we will only keep growing. It's about staying humble and keeping our minds in the right place."

Denmark overcame stubborn resistance from Austria to maintain the only 100 percent record in European qualifying. 

Joakim Maehle's second-half goal made it 27 without reply for the Danes in their group, giving them an unassailable seven-point lead over Scotland with two games to play. 

"It means a lot," Maehle told Danish television. "It's one of the best nights in Parken in a very long time. It's amazing."

Players again dedicated their victory to Eriksen, whose close friend Simon Kjaer received widespread praise for his handling of the harrowing events on June 12.

For Kraul, "the incident was clearly constitutive for the group, which has become more than just a team."

"It made them grow up," he added.

A disputed penalty ended Denmark's Euro dreams, but rather than linger on what could have been, the team has its sights set on a deep run in Qatar.

"The last time, we were in the semi-finals (at the Euro). I want more, we want more. Now we're going to play at the World Cup and we want more," said Denmark captain Kjaer, among the 30 nominees for the Ballon d'Or.

Denmark's 42 goals this year have shattered the previous national best of 32 scored in 1962. That number is likely to increase with games at home to the Faroe Islands and away to Scotland next month.

That the team could thrive in the absence of Eriksen, overcoming the horror of watching a team-mate nearly die on the pitch, seemed improbable -- much like their odds of reaching the knockout rounds at the Euro after starting the tournament with back-to-back defeats.

"They play football which pleases in Denmark and abroad, and which is more pleasant to watch," said Kraul.

Germany daily Bild even named them "team of the year", but Hjulmand is not one to get carried away.

"It's worth pinching yourself... There are so many people who have had a part in this success," said Hjulmand.

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