DOHA, Qatar -- When Denmark meets Tunisia in the World Cup on Tuesday it will pit one of the most outspoken critics of the tournament being hosted by Qatar against one of the four Arab nations competing.
The game at Education City Stadium will also mark Christian Eriksen’s return to a major tournament after his cardiac arrest at last year’s European Championship.
Denmark has lofty goals following a semifinal appearance at Euro 2020 followed by a near-perfect qualifying campaign, while Tunisia is seeking to advance from the group stage for the first time in its sixth World Cup appearance.
Since arrival in Qatar, Denmark has been training in kits that are all black to mourn migrant workers who died building infrastructure for the tournament.
Denmark was also planning on wearing the “One Love” anti-discrimination armband along with other European teams before the campaign was dropped when FIFA threatened to hand out yellow cards.
“Imagine going on the pitch with a clear yellow card to start with. That is not possible and we have to make sure that it’s not up to the players to make that decision,” Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said.
Tunisia coach Jalal Kadri also addressed the armband issue.
“We are in an Arab country with Islam tradition. We have to respect the culture of other people,” Kadri said in Arabic through an interpreter. “We are here in Qatar and I think the policy in Qatar is to respect everyone’s culture and religious beliefs.”
Danish Football Union sporting director Peter Møller was critical of how FIFA president Gianni Infantino lectured the media on the eve of the tournament for attacking Qatar’s human rights record and defended the host country’s last-minute decision to ban beer from stadiums.
“Some of the things he said I don’t agree with. He talks down to journalists and us federations,” Møller said.
“On the one hand I’m surprised by it but on the other hand it says something that he used an entire speech to discuss what we and other federations are fighting against so he knows well that this is a hot potato and that he needs to deal with it the next time a host is chosen,” Møller added.
Also last week, Qatari organizers apologized to a Danish television station whose live broadcast from a street in Doha was interrupted by security staff who threatened to break camera equipment; while left-wing Danish newspaper Information announced it's not covering the World Cup at all in protest of Qatar’s policies.
Eriksen’s return, though, remains one of the tournament’s most moving stories, less than 18 months after medics used a defibrillator to restart his heart as a horrified nation — and much of the soccer world — watched on as he lay lifeless on the field at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.
It’s the latest step of a remarkable comeback that has already seen Eriksen return to elite soccer in the Premier League, first with London club Brentford and then Manchester United — showing he is still among the world’s best playmakers. He made his national team comeback in March, scoring two minutes after coming on a substitute in a 4-2 loss to the Netherlands. He also netted with a 25-yard shot against Croatia in the Nations League in September.
“It is special,” Eriksen said. “From the first interview I did from when I came out in public saying I wanted to come back playing, (competing at the World Cup) was my first aim.”
Inspired by Eriksen's ordeal and the way Kjær and others helped save him, Denmark's squad bonded together as an even closer-knit group in the aftermath — and the team's results have raised expectations.
“We are dreaming of something big,” Eriksen said. “The belief in this squad, and from (the media), from the fans, was bigger when I came back (compared to) before.”
Tunisia has produced only two World Cup wins — the first against Mexico in 1978 and then against Panama four years ago in Russia.
But with fans from the country traveling en masse to the first World Cup in the Middle East, coach Jalel Kadri has indicated he will step down if Tunisia fails to reach the knockout rounds. That’s a tall task in Group D, which also features defending champion France and Australia.
Tunisia is also counting on loud support from Egyptians and Algerians.
“All Arab communities will be supporting us,” said Tunisia forward 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 is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf