A draw or a win in their Group C finale against France will see Denmark into the Round of 16, and Christian Eriksen and Pione Sisto hold the keys to how far they will advance in this World Cup. Other than football, though, you'd imagine they have little in common.
Eriksen was born in one of the most affluent areas of one of the most affluent countries in Europe. His father, Thomas, had the time and passion to coach youth football and the fortune to coach his own son in a record-breaking season when he was 12.
Sisto was born in a refugee camp in Kampala, Uganda, to a family fleeing civil war Sudan. His country, South Sudan, didn't even exist until 2011, when he was 16. His other country, Denmark, naturalised him as a citizen at 19. His dad was likely a bit shorter on time as he went from farming in Sudan to raising eight children in a cold, wet and unfamiliar land.
The differences are evident on the pitch as well.
Sisto is a ball of nervous energy, a strong and stout dribbler, capable of sudden, punishing accelerations. He plays the game as if the fast-forward button were stuck or, if you prefer, as if he were permanently in power-up mode. And he often does it for 90 minutes, thanks to a combination of work ethic and stamina.
From a young age, he was told to slow down, to pick his spots, to appreciate that at times the game gives you pauses in which to make decisions. And if you use the pauses to think, you will make better decisions.
Eriksen is blessed with both that rare ability of the mind to see things others can't and that equally rare ability of the feet to make the former quality matter. His vision, range of passing and technical skill when striking a ball are exceptional, as if he stepped out of the pages of a "how-to" textbook. His limits are physical -- he's neither fast, nor strong -- and, when he was younger, some doubted his character as well.
From a young age, he was told to speed up, to grab that extra half step, to push himself further and leave every ounce of energy he had out there on the pitch. And if you did that, you would fully exploit the tremendous technical gifts your maker gave you.
Both players were heavily stereotyped as youngsters, often in an unpleasant way. Sisto, now 23, was passed over by the likes of Ajax and West Ham, in part because there were doubts over his "coachability" -- often code for something else. And this was after being voted player of the year in the Danish league and famously scoring against Manchester United home and away in the Europa League. He ended up at Celta Vigo, who chose to focus on his strengths instead, and is now a bona fide starter in La Liga.
From the moment he chose to join Ajax's youth academy at 16 (in his own way, he was a migrant looking for a better life abroad too) Eriksen's hunger was called into question. He had trials at virtually every top club in Europe (from Manchester United to Real Madrid, from Milan to Barcelona) yet settled on the Dutch giants, saying "My first step shouldn't be too big."
That's exactly the sort of statement some might call "sensible" and others might describe as "wussy." More than one scout saw it as the easy way out. Ajax is where you go to progress technically, to become more team-oriented, to learn certain footballing values, all of which Eriksen already possessed. He stayed for five seasons, four of them in the first team and won four Eredivisie titles. The criticism was water off a duck's back for him and, again, some saw this as weakness.
But anyone who has observed his growth since joining Tottenham will note that maybe he was justified in playing the long game. He's not exactly a ninja on the pitch, but he's an important part of a physically demanding system like that employed by Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino. And he has improved every season.
The pair are hitting their stride together just now. Sisto provides the width and the penetration, Eriksen the vision and the magic. The contrast only multiplies their effectiveness. There's an unpredictability to both and it manifests itself in different ways. When Sisto receives the ball, he can beat a defender from a stand-still and twist his way into dangerous areas; when Eriksen receives it he can put it anywhere he likes, whether in the form of a pass or a strike at goal.
The trick, of course, is ensuring both see enough of the ball in areas where they can do damage. And in that sense, what each does off the ball to help the other is key.
Their styles and backgrounds set them apart; their experiences and synergy -- each can make the other better -- bring them together. How well that synergy works -- how well they complement each other -- will determine how much longer Denmark's Russian dream lives on.