Football – Fortunes & Forest

The paraphernalia associated with a World Cup has now been packed back into its Pandora’s box for another four years. What got released into the air this time round was a lot of human rights’ issues and a reminder that football has the capacity to catch the imagination of even the most cynical amongst us. Qatar 2022 was, like so many before it, a global feast of football wrapped-up as festival. Competition as carnival, it rolled into town and it rolled out of town and left us with memories to last and some that have already evaporated.

As group games settled into often predictable score-lines, some fixtures threw up surprising results, like Saudi Arabia opening their campaign with a win against the might of Argentina. But should we have expected anything less? Isn’t that part of the pull of the beautiful game?

As we moved into the knockout stages, there were more eyebrow-raising events on the pitch. On the international circuit, I was raised on the romance of The Netherlands under the command of Johann Cruyff and ‘total football’ in the seventies and here they were, doing battle – almost literally! – with Argentina in a game of 18 yellow cards. 2-0 down and desperate, they switched to ‘route-one’ tactics, cut out possession-play, saved time, and netted two excellent goals within minutes. As the saying goes, ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’. (Ok, they lost but you get the point.)

Come the semi-finals, there was the tiny nation (population 4 million) of Croatia … again! We should have known. Their appearance in the 2018 World Cup final signalled them as a force to be reckoned with. Morocco finding their way into the semis, though, was something else. Given South American and European dominance in the competition, the first African nation to make it so far now lends more credibility to the competition’s title of World Cup. It showed how much can be achieved with a highly organised team. The performance against France also show-cased some fine individual players, like Hakimi, yet few saw it as a feasible fixture a month ago.

Football is full of surprises. That, clearly, is to state the obvious but what happened in Qatar reminded us that it is a sport capable of generating so many stories, from the predictable to tense thrillers with twists galore. This year’s final might have been between two of the most successful nations in the game but there was plenty to enthral the neutral fan who tracked their progress from the start. By the time we reached the last match, individual players had already written their own sub-plots. ‘Messiah’ Messi’s mesmerising skills left opposing teams disoriented and magical Mbappe’s scintillating turns of speed spliced open whole defences. Two supreme footballers staking claim to legendary status on the pitch helped create one of the best finals ever seen, full of dramatic episodes from the start to the concluding penalty shoot-out.

And that, by way of a sharp handbrake turn, brings me to Forest. As supporters, we track – meticulously and obsessively – the Reds. Over the last 18 months, they’ve created a tumultuous story of their own, on and off the pitch, and most of it has made it to the thriller shelf. To recap, it was a particularly inauspicious start to the adventure. Chapter One found them, in mid-September 2021, bottom of the Championship, winless and desperate. A new character arrived, in the form of manager Steve Cooper, and the rot was stemmed. Relief all round the City Ground.

Chapter Two is the stuff of dreams and set the city alight. Forest wins came, one after another, as they climbed the league, claimed that Wembley play-off final win and promotion to the Premiership. Chapter Three took us through the summer break and the story-setting shifted to matters off the pitch. By the start of the new season, the Reds had signed-up a record-breaking number of new players. An intriguing brew and another cliff-hanger.

Chapter Four began ominously. A few points gathered looked a pretty poor return when set against an alarming run of defeats and a couple of particularly heavy losses. The narrative seemed to be heading one way: that the Reds would be sunk without trace well before the end of the story with the last kick of the season against Crystal Place in May. Not so!

We usually follow stories without knowing the final outcome; it’s part of what keeps us engaged. We predict and guess but stories have the qualities of a snake as plots slither and slide, recoil and strike. And so it is with Forest’s five-chapter story. Against the predictions of many punters, some encouraging results and performances, prior to the World Cup break, lifted them off the bottom of the league and put them back in touch with fellow strugglers.

The France v Argentina climax to the World Cup might have had something predictable about it – until the wonderful match played-out – but the weeks before gave us plenty of entertainment, excitement and a reminder of the riches that football – as a game – offers supporters around the globe. It gifts us so many stories. As some in the media have said, it was a superb competition in the wrong venue. Football is a precious sport, not just a commodity. Let’s hope that FIFA pay it greater respect in future by being more transparent about their decision-making. And let’s hope, come the end of the Premiership season 2023, that Forest complete the last chapter of their two-year ‘transition’ thriller by surviving and then thriving!

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

*Main image @NFFC Forest played out a 2-1 friendly win in Valencia on Friday night.

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