Forest Pitch delivers football with Olympic spirit

When a waterlogged pitch meant Forest Pitch was first postponed until after the Olympics, instead of its original date of July 21, it seemed like it might miss its chance to capture the nations’ enthusiasm for the Games.

But now after so much has been made of the supposed antithesis of the infectious Olympic spirit which swept Britain, and the angry hornets’ nest of an atmosphere that pervades professional football, Forest Pitch almost felt like a litmus test of the ability of the game to unify instead of ostracise and offend.

Coming on the same weekend that Stoke fans continued their shameful booing of Aaron Ramsey, his punishment for being brazen enough to break his leg playing against the Potters, Forest Pitch served up a feast of goals, joyful football and enthusiastic support for all teams and players.

After the full time whistle Craig Coulthard, the artist behind the project, was understandably delighted with the success of the day, if a little worn-out: “People seem to have had fun, the pitch held up, there was goals scored, there was cheering and a lot of support for the teams. I’m glad it didn’t really poor down with rain.”

Such success was by no means guaranteed and there was a lot riding on Forest Pitch. As Scotland’s biggest event of the Cultural Olympiad, both physically and financially, the slightest hint of failure would have left people looking to criticise spending on the Games with an open goal.

But despite the dreich weather the crowds came out and the stewards were as enthusiastic as the volunteers had been in London. Walking through the forest with the sound of the Edinburgh Brass Band getting ever closer, and the chatter of the crowd underneath, before emerging into an amphitheatre full of noise, colour and excitement is an atmosphere everyone present will cherish.

The PA pre-empted kick-off with the announcement: “Despite the artistic context this is no exhibition match.” The players in both games took the message to heart, emphasised by the site of a tearful Alexandro Scotchfield face down on the pitch at the final whistle having been on the losing side in the men’s game.

Afterwards, though, none of the lingering resentment or grudges familiar to professional football fans remained, a fact recognised by Michelle Magee, captain of defeated women’s team Corinth: “It was a shame we lost, but the other team were better than us and I think everyone worked really hard and that’s the main thing. Well, actually the main thing is that everyone had a really good time.”

The players in the four teams who played, two men’s and two women’s, were mostly people given Leave to Remain in the UK since 2000. They came from as far as Africa, North and South America, the Middle East, Russia, Japan and Australia.

Emphasising the unmitigated success of the day was every player picking out different highlights. Alison O’Neil, captain of winning women’s team Delphi, will take away fond memories of the players’ entrance to the pitch and the surprise of the sizeable crowd: “We didn’t know because as we approached it they were kind of hidden so when you came out on to the pitch it was kind of shocking.”

Mohamad Nejib Nehab, captain of victorious men’s team Nemea, is still waiting for the verdict on his asylum case after fleeing his native Afghanistan to escape Taliban persecution. For him the emotions of the day were overwhelming: “It’s a big achievement. Especially in the second half we were under a lot of pressure. I can’t explain in words, it was really exciting.”

Heather Smart, who excelled in a deep-lying midfield role for Delphi, scoring two goals and dictating play, revelled in the occasion more than others. She wasn’t going to play on July 21, but was drafted in when other players couldn’t make the new date:

“I was jealous when Michelle Magee [Corinth captain] was talking about the original one which was going to be in July, but now I’m so pleased I got to be a part of it.”

Delphi’s 5-1 win over Corinth was comprehensive. Alongside Smart O’Neil was busy and creative in midfield, and strikers Becky Hunt and June McArthur caused constant problems. Corinth looked most dangerous hitting on the break through Cheryl Watt, but when she was injured midway through the second half their threat disappeared.

In comparison Nemea’s 4-3 victory over Olympia was nervy at best. Nemea managed to build a 4-2 lead at half time, despite missing two penalties, then spent the second half soaking up pressure with Nehab a commanding presence at centre back.

But in the last five minutes everything almost unravelled for Nemea. First Tanvir Kahn put an Abdul Bostani cross away to make it 4-3, then both Harinder Singh Badwal and Alloysious Massaquoi missed very presentable chances to pull level. When Scotfield, who had given his all throughout, hit the deck at the final whistle his disappointment was understandable.

Once the trophy presentations were finished, and despite his impending holiday, Coulthard was already thinking about the next job: “We’ve still got the tree planting to do, and then the site grows and develops into something else, and there’s the book and the film as well.” Concrete plans for exactly how to leave a legacy is a lesson that perhaps Locog could learn from Forest Pitch.

The size and enthusiasm the crowd showed for Forest Pitch suggest that Britain is not quite ready to let it’s summer of sport go yet, which bodes well for the upcoming Paralympics. But when that’s done, and the mainstream media gets back to its usual overindulgence in football, the people who went to Forest Pitch will remember it’s the people involved in professional football tarnishing its reputation, not the game itself.

by David Lyons. Photos by James Taggart

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