It’s all over for Denmark. The widely proclaimed World Cup dark horses have been knocked out of the tournament at the group stage by underdogs Australia and Tunisia, who charged to an inspiring victory over champions France on Wednesday. Kasper Hjulmand and his side will look back on the short-lived campaign with regret and all too many “what ifs” in mind. What if Andreas Cornelius had fired home that close-range effort in the dying seconds of last week’s clash with Tunisia? What if Martin Braithwaite’s late strike against France had been aimed 10 inches to the left? But inevitably, it doesn’t change the fact that the Danes will be catching the next flight home.
It comes as a shock to the football world, especially considering Denmark’s success at last year’s Euro2020. The Red and Whites earned a spot in the semi-finals of the competition, and it was deemed a monumental achievement following Christian Eriksen’s horrific cardiac arrest on the opening weekend. Hjulmand’s resilient side were eventually knocked out by England, but they earned the respect and admiration of millions across the globe.Embed from Getty Images
While many were expecting the Danes to continue riding the crest of that incredible wave heading into this World Cup, it clearly wasn’t meant to be. Denmark needed three points from their clash with Australia on Wednesday to secure a spot in the knockout stages, but despite a fairly positive display, they could not find a breakthrough.
Hjulmand’s game plan was obvious from the off – exploit the spaces left by Graham Arnold’s high-pressing Aussies. But instead, Denmark conceded at the worst possible time. The Red and Whites dropped all the way down to rock bottom of the group at the 58-minute mark when Tunisia’s 31-year-old forward Wahbi Khazri gave his side a shock 1-0 lead over France in the other Group D game. And things only went from bad to worse two minutes later when Melbourne City striker Mathew Leckie fired Australia into the lead. Denmark threw everything they could at the Socceroos in the late stages of the game, but they just couldn’t catch a break, and their fate was sealed before anyone could even mutter “G’day mate”.
After the game, Australia forward Martin Boyle – who was ruled out of the World Cup before the competition kicked off due to an ACL injury – kicked off the celebrations on the pitch despite being on crutches. He continued to dance in the middle of a circle surrounded by his teammates, so much so that he later jokingly tweeted: “Cheers surgeons crying!” with an image of him waving his crutches in the air while submerged in the party atmosphere.Embed from Getty Images
Matchwinner Leckie then revealed that those celebrations would continue late into the night. He told BBC Sport: “I’m proud, exhausted, everything. Hard to describe the emotions right now, we always believed as a group we could do it. We had our doubters but with our spirit, our belief, our work ethic and how close we are as a group, it shows on the pitch.
“That last 15-20 minutes, we battled until the end and it didn’t matter what they threw at us, we weren’t conceding. So proud but again we’ll make the most of it tonight but then it’s all about recovery because we’ve got another coming up.”
And that game will pose by far their biggest challenge of the tournament.
Australia are set to face tournament favourites Argentina next Monday in a blockbuster round-of-16 clash. The Argentines endured an awful start to the competition after losing their opening match to Saudi Arabia, leading many to believe that they would struggle to even climb out of the group. However, they quickly got going again by defeating Mexico and Poland respectively.
It’ll undoubtedly be a huge occasion for the Socceroos as Australia have made it to the round-of-16 just once before. The first – and only – time came in 2006, when they finished second in their group behind Brazil and above Japan and Croatia. Tim Cahill was the star man back then, but Leckie will undoubtedly be looking to take the helm this time around following his historic finish. Although the Aussies have made it to the knockout stages on one occasion, they failed to reach the quarterfinals. In 2006, they were knocked out in the round-of-16 by Italy, and it could not have happened in a more heart-breaking way. Australia had a one-man advantage for the majority of the second half after Marco Materazzi was sent off. They were holding the Italians to a 0-0 draw… until the 95th minute. Following a very controversial decision, Italy were awarded a penalty of which Francesco Totti scored to win the game. It led to heartbreak across Australia – a heartbreak that many would not want to experience again.Embed from Getty Images
Australia to have the ability to defeat the Argentines next week, especially if they play with the same heart and desire as they did against Denmark. While Argentina have a very strong squad – including five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi – they haven’t been at their best so far in the tournament. They have been easily exposed for their lacklustre performances on previous occasions, and Australia can capitalise on that just like they did on Wednesday.
But in the mean time each and every Australian will be revelling in this historic moment. And they will undoubtedly be tuning in to watch the next round… no matter how early it may be.