DOHA, Qatar – When Denmark meets Tunisia at the World Cup on Tuesday, one of the Qatar-hosted tournament’s most outspoken critics will be pitted against one of the four participating Arab nations.
The game at Education City Stadium also marks Christian Eriksen’s return to a major tournament following his cardiac arrest at last year’s European Championships.
Denmark have high goals after a semi-final appearance at Euro 2020 followed by a near-perfect qualifying campaign, while Tunisia are looking to get out of the group stage for the first time in their sixth World Cup appearance.
Since arriving in Qatar, Denmark have been training in all-black jerseys to mourn migrant workers who died building infrastructure for the tournament.
Denmark also planned to wear the “One Love” anti-discrimination armband along with other European sides before the campaign was scrapped when FIFA threatened to issue yellow cards.
“Imagine walking onto the pitch with a clear yellow card from the start. It’s not possible and we have to make sure that this decision is not made by the players,” said Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand.
Tunisia coach Jalal Kadri also addressed the issue of the armband.
“We are in an Arab country with an Islamic tradition. We have to respect other people’s culture,” Kadri said through an interpreter in Arabic. “We are in Qatar here and I think the policy in Qatar is to respect everyone’s culture and religious beliefs.”
Football Association of Denmark sporting director Peter Møller criticized how FIFA President Gianni Infantino chastised the media on the eve of the tournament over attacks on Qatar’s human rights record and defended the host country’s last-minute decision to ban beer from stadiums.
“I don’t agree with some of the things he said. He talks condescendingly to journalists and to us associations,” said Møller.
“On the one hand it surprises me, but on the other hand it is saying something that he has used an entire speech to discuss what we and other associations are fighting against so that he knows full well that this is a hot topic and that he has to deal with that the next time a host is chosen,” Møller added.
Also last week, Qatari organizers apologized to a Danish TV station whose live broadcast from a street in Doha was cut short by security personnel who threatened to destroy camera equipment; while the left-wing Danish newspaper Information announced that it would not cover the World Cup at all in protest at Qatar’s policy.
But Eriksen’s return remains one of the tournament’s most touching stories, less than 18 months after medics inserted a defibrillator to get his heart going again while a horrified nation – and much of the footballing world – watched him lifeless on the field Parken was the stadium in Copenhagen.
It’s the latest step in a remarkable comeback that has already seen Eriksen return to elite Premier League football, first with London club Brentford and then Manchester United – showing he’s still among the best playmakers in the world. He made his international comeback in March, scoring a goal two minutes after coming on as a substitute in a 4-2 defeat by the Netherlands. He also scored from a 25-yard shot against Croatia in the Nations League in September.
“It’s something special,” said Eriksen. “Since the first interview I did, when I said publicly that I wanted to play again,[to compete in the World Cup]was my first goal.”
Inspired by Eriksen’s ordeal and the way Kjær and others helped save him, Denmark’s side subsequently formed an even tighter group – and the team’s results have raised expectations.
“We dream of something big,” said Eriksen. “The belief in this squad and by (the media), by the fans, was greater when I came back (compared to before).”
Tunisia have only won two World Cups – first in 1978 against Mexico and then four years ago in Russia against Panama.
But with fans from the country flocking to the inaugural World Cup in the Middle East, coach Jalel Kadri has announced he will resign if Tunisia fail to reach the knockout stages. That’s a big task in Group D, which also includes defending champions France and Australia.
Tunisia is also expecting loud support from Egyptians and Algerians.
“All the Arab communities will support us,” said Tunisian striker Issam Jebali, who plays for Danish club Odense. “We hope to live up to the expectations of each and every Arab country.”
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Andrew Dampf can be reached at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf