The COVID-19 pandemic brought about new challenges and intensified existing difficulties. The life of a professional athlete involves sacrifice and oftentimes missing events that can be taken for granted. While some may view Major League Soccer’s sojourn to Walt Disney World as a sunny vacation in an artificial dreamland, the tournament presented a mental challenge for some players. As New York Red Bulls goalkeeper David Jensen said, “It’s been f***ing hard.”
“In sports, it has been good,” the Dane said in an interview with Asbjørn Højris Schmidt of the DR. “I have done well, played the matches and built a good relationship with everyone on the team.”
Despite the Red Bulls crashing out in the group stage following two subpar performances against Columbus and Cincinnati, Jensen appears to be a suitable replacement for former stalwart Luis Robles. His acrobatic stop to preserve three points in the opening 1-0 win against Atlanta has yet to be surpassed as the tournament’s best save. Jensen’s challenges weren’t present on the field, but in his personal life.
“I’ve been away from my wife and my girls while we’ve been playing down here,” he said. “I can also start to feel that I miss friends and family in Denmark, which I have not seen for almost eight months due to the corona and club change.”
Jensen joined the Red Bulls in January. The 28-year-old began his career with FC Nordsjælland before making stops at FC Fredericia, AB, and FC Utrecht. His second daughter arrived in May, an already trying event that became even more difficult due to COVID restrictions. Luckily, he was aided by a teammate, fellow Dane Mathias Jørgensen. The 19-year-old “stepped in” and served as both a guide and childcare provider.
“He took me in the first few weeks,” Jensen told Bold in a wide-ranging three-part interview from May. “Now he has helped my family with the birth that has been going on. My wife gave birth last week and Mathias has taken care of our two-year old daughter.”
Jensen wasn’t allowed to bring his eldest daughter into the delivery room. This created the need for a babysitter, lest his wife be forced to give birth without any emotional support from family, most of which is still in Denmark. Following proper testing by the team doctor, Jørgensen took charge of the couple’s daughter, with Jensen crediting the young attacker as being “a big part of [his family’s] time in the U.S. with lots of help.”
According to an interview Jørgensen gave to TV 2 SPORT, the goalkeeper’s family “has flown home to Denmark… so of course he misses his little girls.” The striker’s girlfriend also returned to Europe, “so [he] sat alone in an apartment for four months.”
In Florida, Jensen made familiar critiques of the surrealist bubble. The hotel “felt like a prison” due to the excessive free time and food “that was served in a black box” and “laid out in front of your room.” Jørgensen provided a similar assessment, claiming that while the players were treated well at the hotel, it was “a bit of a luxury prison” due to the rules regarding leaving the resort.
While some may scoff at the comparison, it’s somewhat apt. While everything has been provided for the players, the restriction of movement and reduction of personal agency logically tracks with jailhouse hyperbole. However, the stay in Florida is over, due to a premature exit from the tournament. It’s back to the quarantined state of New Jersey, where the frustrations continue.
“From our balcony in the apartment in New Jersey, I have looked down the street and seen people in large groups without masks and gloves giving hands and hugs,” Jensen said. “There have also been a lot of kids in the pool. I simply do not understand. It is super-frustrating when you yourself do everything to be hygienic and take your precautions, and then see the Americans do not care. It’s damn frustrating.”
Whenever criticizing players, it’s important to consider their humanity and the issues they’re encountering off the field. Despite expectations to behave like unfeeling machines, untouched and unbothered by common problems due to a perceived elevated status in society, their talents and abilities do not shield them from the same problems of non-athletes. Often their gifts intensify these struggles, pushing them further from the normalcy of everyday life. Perhaps these continued glimpses behind the curtain will humanize professional athletes in the eyes of a demanding public that sees the benefits of the lifestyle but rarely the drawbacks.
However, with the sporting challenges of the tournament over for the Red Bulls, the players can temporarily refocus on the things that really matter in life. “I cannot wait to see my girls,” Jensen told DR. “We’re going to be on the other side of this together. We all need that in the world, and we will. But I cannot wait to see my family. That is clear.”