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It was around midnight in Nizhny Novgorod when the epic penalty shootout finally ended and Croatia squeezed into the quarter-finals of this World Cup. The watching world was exhausted by it all, even if it wasn’t anywhere near midnight where the game was being viewed.

So that’s it then for Denmark. Out of this World Cup, narrowly defeated by Croatia in a kind of agony-inducing ending. Unless you are Croatian, you know Denmark didn’t deserve to lose. And why? The game was no classic, but Denmark, with much less talent than Croatia, got better with each game at the tournament. It even got better in this game as it went on and on.

It all started for Denmark with a nervy 1-0 win over Peru, then a tense 1-1 draw with Australia. an even more tense 0-0 draw with France. Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s single world-class player, apart from goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, registered four shots on target in the group-stage matches and is the only Dane to have had more than one shot on target during the group stage. But the stats show Eriksen ran farther than any other player in the group stage, covering 36 kilometres in total. In goal, before Sunday’s monster shootout, Schmeichel saved 12 of the 13 shots on target he faced in the group stage, and the only goal he conceded came on a penalty.

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Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel makes a save during a penalty shootout against Croatia at the World Cup on Sunday.Dmitri Lovetsky/The Canadian Press

What Denmark had was effort and an increasing confidence in the quality of its effort. Why do some teams just crash out, easily and abjectly, from a World Cup? Lack of effort, really. Complacency, too, and smugness and not caring enough.

This has been a shockingly good World Cup, in part because of the shocks – Germany out in the first round, then Argentina, Portugal and Spain gone in the round of 16. There is nothing truly profound about these events or their meaning; nothing to induce emptiness, alienation or loss. It is a human foible to be complacent and as a result fail to put in the necessary effort.

Let me tell you a wee story. In 2002, I arrived in Seoul two days before the opening World Cup game between France and Senegal. Although jet-lagged and bewildered, I joined dozens of journalists on a visit to the France team base. On that day, France was reigning World Cup champion and champion of Europe, having won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 tournaments. It was a very relaxed French group that met us on the far outskirts of Seoul. The player Marcel Desailly, a man poised and eloquent in several languages, told us that although Zinedine Zidane was injured, the team was confident and, well, the French word he used was “détendu.

After the questions and answers, we got to see the French players on the training pitch. Thierry Henry was practising penalties with Fabien Barthez in goal. Henry was being very, ah, drôle. Expert and exquisite talent that he was, he was having sport by deliberately aiming the ball at the crossbar and upright, and succeeding in hitting both. Barthez was getting annoyed at this drollery. He shouted at Henry and pointed at the journalists. Henry shrugged. It was very relaxed. Too relaxed. Two days later, Senegal soundly defeated France in the opening game.

Me, I was off to Japan to see some games after that, and returned to South Korea just in time to see France play Denmark in Incheon. Denmark won 2-0 and France was out of the World Cup in the first round without having scored a single goal.

Which brings us back to Denmark now. Soccer at a World Cup is a game that can be played at a fairly banal level of skill, but with high intensity, and that’s where success comes. It’s the effort that goes into the intensity that matters. Between the opening minutes that brought a goal from either side, when Denmark played Croatia, and that Schmeichel save on a penalty by Luka Modric in extra time, Denmark showed middling skill, but enormous courage and endeavour.

The intensity of the atmosphere inside and surrounding a World Cup tends to cause us to have crystallized images of teams and managers, especially those who fail spectacularly. Often these instantly coined images are correct. Germany was like a hoax tram arriving at this tournament, led by the manager, the haircut-denier Joachim Low. Laziness and arrogance were epitomized in his demeanour. Argentina, with years to prepare after losing the final of the past World Cup, couldn’t be bothered to find a plan and a role for Lionel Messi, the most gifted player on the planet, and stick with it. It’s as if the date and time of this World Cup was unknown to the powers-that-be in both German and Argentine soccer.

The signature themes and preoccupations of this more-bonkers-than-usual tournament are already established – effort matters more than reputation or perceived high skill level. Effort takes you very far. Ask Russia. Don’t ask Denmark. It hurts when the effort falls just short, but it is exhausting high drama for the rest of us.

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