Spirit Of The Game

Biggest smile on the face of a professional footballer this season? Christian Eriksen. Has to be, even before players and teams have scoped up all their medals and trophies. The occasion? Captaining Denmark and scoring a goal in their 3-0 win over Serbia at Copenhagen’s Parken stadium in March 2022, a year after he suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the same pitch in the Euros against Finland.

What a football story! When he lay prostrate, surrounded by teammates to shield him, the Denmark team doctor confirmed that Eriksen’s heart had stopped beating and thought that ‘he was gone’. Team medics began resuscitation procedures and revived the player before he was taken to hospital. ‘I died for five minutes,’ he later said. Fitted with a defibrillator that meant the player could no longer appear for Milan in Serie A, his immediate future seemed unclear. Fast-forward through rehabilitation and training and striving for match fitness and there’s that beaming smile on our screens again. Signed by Brentford, he scores his first goal for them in a 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea in April. It could be a fairy tale. It’s not, it’s football, and his successful story of recovery has exhibited some of the finer things about ‘the beautiful game’, such as the sheer joy of playing. That last word resonates: ‘playing’. We ‘play’ football, a participant is a ‘player’, an individual might be a ‘play-maker’, and we’ve just experienced the ‘play-offs’. Then there’s ‘the beautiful game’. Played at its best it’s like poetry, an art form. And it is, when all’s said and done, a ‘game’, as are all sports. We talk of a ‘great game’ and ‘did you see the game?’.

Part of the attraction of football is its simplicity. (Notwithstanding the complexities introduced by VAR technology!) As kids, a couple of jumpers or jackets chucked on the ground for goalposts, a decision about who could handle the ball as keeper and you were off, playing a game through the morning or afternoon and often finishing with the frisson of ‘next goal wins’. Simple and fun! Admittedly, today’s professional game is several universes away from that childhood memory but the objective remains the same and so, too, does much of the language.

When Cambridge university students dreamt-up some rudimentary rules for a game they played on common ground in the city called Parker’s Piece (no connection with me!) they laid the foundations for football as we know it. I bet the students’ main motivation for committing anything to paper was to share the idea of the game because it was fun to play. That was in 1848 and recognition of the importance of the Cambridge location to the history of football came in 2018 with the unveiling of a granite sculpture inscribed with their rules. Nothing would have indicated that it must be fun – you can’t write that into rules! – but the spirit of football was early-on embedded in the terms ‘game’ and ‘play’ and surely joy would flow from that.

Well, not necessarily. Professionalism and money and business models bring their own agendas. On the pitch, a scowl, snarl, or a cynical foul are all part of the modern player’s repertoire. Team tactics of the ‘don’t lose at any cost’ variety can snuff out any enjoyment in a game. So it’s refreshing to be reminded of football’s connectivity with its more entertaining side, when fans can watch a team whose instincts are to attack and where it’s clear to see the players enjoying the moment. Enter Nottingham Forest.

Yes, success puts a smile on anyone’s face and a spring in their step. Add style to success and you have something special. Forest are not Liverpool (yet) but some of their play since the arrival of Steve Cooper has been exhilarating and fans have been waiting a long time for a sniff of success or style. We’ve seen the team’s genuine appreciation this season (part of the team spirit) of what it is to play football, expressing individual and collective talents, in front of City Ground supporters.

Smiling is infectious. When Forest finally overcame Sheffield United on penalties (a version of ‘next goal wins’) to book a place at Wembley for the play-off final, everyone could take their cue from saviour-of-the-night Brice Samba. Come his third save from the spot, his face was radiant with joy and it set the stadium alight with smiles and wild celebrations (and more than a few flares). Fans – plenty of whom have never experienced a Forest achievement on this scale – will remember the night for years to come, not least because it’s the culmination of a special season on several levels.
Which brings us back to Christian Eriksen. It doesn’t have to be a life or death situation to evoke the kind of joyful response to success that we recognise and appreciate. He reminds us of the precious nature of sharing the simple enjoyment of playing. His smile on scoring those goals was also to celebrate the opportunity he had to show again what he does best and enjoys most: play the game of football. Team Forest, in their own way, have done something similar.

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC Brice Samba with a smile as wide as the mouth of the Trent.

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