This was a reminder that Denmark, highly favoured in many quarters, must walk steadily before they attempt to run. They deserved no more than a draw against a clever, highly motivated and rattlingly intense Tunisia who were on top for much of the first hour. Even though Andreas Cornelius subsequently missed a sitter and a last-gasp penalty shout was dismissed by VAR, it would be hard to construct an argument that Christian Eriksen’s return to the highest stage should have been celebrated with three points.
At least they could focus on playing a game of football. Denmark have been at the forefront of the controversy over the OneLove armband, also seeing Fifa ban them from wearing a training shirt proclaiming support for human rights, and while their performance should be separated from that it is clear the farrago has taken a toll. In an extraordinary post-match press conference their manager, Kasper Hjulmand, laid bare his struggle dealing with the cloud that has dogged this tournament’s every step.
Hjulmand made clear that the weight was not so heavy as to affect his work with the players. But he admitted the backdrop had been a costly diversion and, speaking calmly but with obvious emotion, outlined the daily wrestle with his conscience that has come with navigating his responsibilities in Qatar.
“I spend too much time every day right now figuring out how to handle this,” he said. “There are so many things I really want to say and many things I want to do. It’s an old saying: find the calmness to see what you want to change, the courage to do what you can, and the wisdom to tell the difference. And I’m fighting with this, I have to say. I have never been thinking of other things when I’m with the players, but I can tell you I have difficulties finding myself here.
“In Denmark we have this slogan called ‘part of something bigger’, and right now I’m not sure if I’m part of something that I like.”
Denmark had been criticised at home for, along with seven other countries, backing down on wearing the armband but Hjulmand repeated his pre-match assertion that his players must be insulated from any consequences. He lamented that a lifelong dream of working at a World Cup had been sullied and continued: “I’m talking for myself as a human being when I say I find the situation difficult right now.” Despite some murmurings before kick-off that the Denmark captain, Simon Kjær, might break ranks there were no new reasons to fixate on his sleeve.
If Fifa had been Denmark’s most awkward opponent in the tournament’s buildup it quickly became clear Hjulmand’s team were up against an extra man in the form of the crowd. More than 30,000 Tunisians had travelled, in stark contrast to the pocket of 700 or so Denmark fans, and they made a racket that gave the lie to any notion that this winter will be bereft of fanatical football environments.
Within two minutes they were roaring as Aïssa Laïdouni, a gladiatorial midfielder, hurled himself into a challenge on Eriksen and thumped his chest in response. That set the tone and, amid a deafening atmosphere, Tunisia were the better side before half-time. Theirs was a shrewd display, clearly motivated by their faithful but not wound up to distraction by it; they defended when they had to, pressed when they could and almost scored when Mohamed Dräger’s shot deflected agonisingly wide off Andreas Christensen.
Kasper Schmeichel thwarted their clearest opening with a brilliant save from Issam Jebali, who plays his club football in Denmark and looked certain to score. The second half began frantically before Hjulmand, who had earlier lost the influential midfielder Thomas Delaney to the effects of a heavy fall, freshened things up and almost profited. Cornelius, a substitute, stooped to convert Christensen’s header across goal but made only faint contact and somehow struck the far post from two yards.
Eriksen and Jesper Lindstrøm forced saves from Aymen Dahmen before the referee, spotting a foul on Taha Khenissi, ruled VAR’s call to look at Yassine Mariah’s added-time handball irrelevant.
“We played against a powerhouse of a team and performed very well,” said the Tunisia manager, Jalel Kadri. It was true, but his opposite number had spelled out the unease that lurks behind every win, defeat or draw.