‘One step ahead’ – how Damsgaard became one of the stars of Euro 2020

“There is no question he is a prodigy, but let’s not put too much pressure on him.”

The lovable Claudio Ranieri may have managed to contradict himself in one single sentence but the then Sampdoria manager was right about one thing: Mikkel Damsgaard is special.

The young Dane arrived at Samp in August 2020 for £5.8m and although the club knew they had a talented player on their hands, they did not know how quickly he would adapt to life in Serie A. In the end hethe midfielder made 35 league appearances in his first season, scoring two goals and making four assists.

The 20-year-old arrived at the Euros as a backup to Christian Eriksen, the player he had followed for years and tried to copy in training and matches. He did not expect to play much at the tournament but the terrible events of 12 June, when Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest during his side’s opening game against Finland, meant that Damsgaard was thrust into the action sooner than anyone had expected.

“I have been inspired by him, 100%,” Damsgaard told the Danish news agency Ritzau this week as he and the rest of the Denmark team prepared for Saturday’s quarter-final against the Czech Republic. “He is one of the players I have watched the most. I really looked up to him when I was younger and played more like a No 10, just like him.

“I have found a lot of inspiration and looked at many of the details in his game and the space that he finds. I tried to include that in my game from a really young age. And then it has been incredible to be part of the national team and see from close range how he trains.”

Damsgaard has always stood out. He started at local club Jyllinge, where he was coached by his father, Henrik Børresen. “He was tough on me,” Damsgaard has said.

“I had to train a bit more than the others. I think he had a dream of playing professionally himself [but] I am so happy that he has taught me so much.”

When he was 11 he was approached by Nordsjælland, whose scout had been sent to watch someone else but returned saying that Damsgaard had the potential to go all the way. He duly joined the Danish Superliga club and progressed through the youth ranks before making his first-team debut at the age of 17 in 2017.

The coach who gave him his first start? Kasper Hjulmand, now in charge of the national team. “Mikkel is one step ahead, just one or two seconds quicker in his head [than other players],” says Hjulmand. “He makes it looks as if he has just a little more time than others, and he has always been that way.

“He has always had an incredibly quick awareness of time, space and movement around him. He binds these things together and he creates chances with his small passes. He has also become a bit quicker than he was a year ago and when he grows a bit more and gets more intensity into his body we will see a real top player.”

Having spent the whole Finland game on the bench, Damsgaard started and impressed against Belgium before really an eye-catching performance in the decisive 4-1 win against Russia, in which he scored the first goal with a stunning strike. He made an assist during another eye-catching performance against Wales and is now seen as a guaranteed starter.

Damsgaard has always had that irresistible combination of being flamboyantly gifted but also a hard worker. That was instilled in him from an early age. “I believe in hard work,” his father told a Nordsjælland documentary in 2020. “And that is where he learned that too, that it does not come for free. And he did work really, really hard.”

Alexander Riget, the academy coach at Nordsjælland, knew he had a big prospect at the club. “The smaller players normally have some difficulties when we play abroad but for Mikkel his game intelligence really paid off,” he says. “He was just on a different level. I remember playing a tournament in Switzerland. We played Benfica and Inter, and against Benfica Mikkel was so good that the parents of the Benfica boys applauded him off the pitch.”

Ten years have passed since then but Damsgaard still catches the eye. His exploits at the Euros may make it hard for Sampdoria to hold on to him but the future can wait. At the moment he is just enjoying the Danish momentum at the Euros – and his approach is as endearing as his style of play. “You should just enjoy playing football,” he told a local paper early in his career.

“Football is such a great sport and can also act as a bit of freedom when there are other things in life that are not going that well. It is a good idea to train on your own in addition to team training and to work with the mindset of always improving yourself. Then, hopefully, you will be really, really good at some point.” For Damsgaard that moment came early on. Now the challenge is to keep improving.