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‘I’m glad Eriksen is back but his comeback will be so hard’


Christian Eriksen. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

Christian Eriksen. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

Christian Eriksen. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

Daniel Engelbrecht describes the small device in his chest as his “guardian angel”, although the relationship between the man and his machine is not straightforward. Engelbrecht’s implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, is the reason he is alive today, but it is also the source of the worst pain he has experienced.

Engelbrecht, a former professional footballer in Germany, knows better than anyone what it is like to come back from serious heart issues and play the game with an ICD in his chest.

He will therefore be watching closely, with mixed emotions, as Christian Eriksen returns to elite football with Brentford, the club where the Denmark playmaker has signed a six-month deal.

“On the one hand, I will be happy to see him play again,” Engelbrecht says.

“On the other, I know it is very difficult to play football again. I don’t know what I think about it.”

Engelbrecht, a former striker, was only 22 when he suffered a cardiac arrest on a pitch in 2013. He was playing for Stuttgarter Kickers in Germany’s third tier, and his situation was remarkably similar to the one experienced by Eriksen in Denmark last summer: both were receiving an innocuous throw-in at the moment their hearts failed.

“When I saw it, I thought it was a copy,” says Engelbrecht, the first man in Germany to play professional football with a defibrillator.

“The only difference was that he laid down and did not come back. I got up after 15 or 20 seconds and thought, ‘Oh, what happened?’”

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For Engelbrecht, his heart attack marked the start of a journey almost too gruelling for a young athlete to comprehend. The four heart surgeries, the medical advice to never play football again, the panic attacks and the sleepless nights all took their toll over 16 painful months.

“It was a long way to go,” he says. “But the love of football was bigger than the fear of dying. There was no option ‘B’ for me. No matter what the doctors said, I was ready to risk my life to play again.”

It is clear that Eriksen shares a similar determination.

“My goal is to play in the World Cup in Qatar,” he said a few weeks ago. “I want to play. That has been my mindset all along. It is my dream to come back.”

Due to medical confidentiality, the finer details of Eriksen’s case are not known. What is certain, though, is that he has been fitted with an ICD.

This is why he cannot play in Italy, where his contract with Inter Milan was terminated in December.

The device itself does not prevent heart conditions from causing cardiac arrests, but does jump to the rescue when they occur.

By kicking in when required, it stops an individual from experiencing the type of medical emergency that caused such horror in Copenhagen last summer.

“It is a parachute,” Dr Malcolm Finlay, a consultant cardiologist and electrophysiologist at London Bridge Hospital, says. “The ICD listens to the heartbeat and if the heart runs to a crazily fast rhythm, then the computer knows it is life-threatening and delivers an electric shock to the heart.

“You can imagine someone falling over, the device gives a shock, and then they are back on their feet again.

“I have had patients who have felt slightly dizzy and never collapsed. The ICD just jolts in, and then you are back to normal, more or less.”

For Engelbrecht, the agony of that “jolt” has been a source of deep distress.

“The worst pain I have ever felt,” he says. “It is very difficult to manage it in the head. The most difficult part of my story was when I got shocked in January 2014. After that, I was afraid of it every day.

“When there was just one heartbeat that was not in rhythm, I would think, ‘Oh my God, the defibrillator is going to shock me’.

“It is very hard to push your body when, inside, you know that if the defibrillator is not there, you are not alive.”

Engelbrecht sought help from psychologists, but says the best therapy was playing football – making “small steps every day” and, bit by bit, learning to trust his body again.

His situation brought other challenges. Upon his eventual return, he noticed his team-mates were going easy on him. Whenever he fell to the turf, after a kick to the foot for example, he could sense their misplaced fear.

“I had to tell them: ‘Hey! Play with me like a normal team-mate!’ “

He also wore a chest strap, to provide extra padding and protection for the device under his skin. Chesting the ball, sliding into tackles and challenging for headers all posed a risk, even though the modern ICD is a sturdy piece of equipment.

It is not without precedent for an athlete to play at the top level of their sport with an ICD, but it is rare in football. As well as Engelbrecht, there was also Belgian defender Anthony van Loo, who was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2008 but played on for years. There is footage on YouTube of Van Loo collapsing during a match, receiving a jolt from his ICD, and then sitting up again.

For Engelbrecht, there have been three occasions when the ICD has come to his rescue. Once in hospital, once in a match and once in training. He has had six surgeries. In January 2018, he told himself enough was enough.

“I wanted to play at 100pc and I only had 60 or 70pc,” he says. “The second point was that, every day I went to training, I was afraid to die. That makes you crazy. The third point was my family told me their biggest fear was calling me after training or a game and never getting an answer.”

He has no regrets. His comeback story is one of the most remarkable in football, and he now uses his experience in a new career as a speaker and motivational coach.

For Engelbrecht, there was also a glorious moment that defined his journey: a late winner for Kickers a few weeks after his returning. “The first time Christian comes back on the pitch and scores, that feeling will be unbelievable,” he says. “Not just for the goal, but because you know you made it. All those people, telling you that you can’t do it, and you show all of them that it is possible.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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