It was a usual FA cup quarter-final draw. Two Premiership teams battling it out to keep their silverware dreams for the season alive. There was passion, there was drama, there was tension, there was commitment. And with two early goals at both ends, the match was building up to be a cracker. And then it went horribly wrong.
Just before half-time Bolton’s No 6, Fabrice Muamba collapsed to ground. It was quite bizarre as there appeared to be no challenge from any player, not even an accidental contact. But within seconds the Tottenham players were gesticulating wildly, calling for the medics to rush onto the field. As a dazed crowd and TV audience watched for the next ten minutes, medical staff from both clubs tried to resuscitate the player, administering CPR and using a defibrillator.
After the agonising wait, Fabrice had to be carried off on a stretcher, with a stunned crowd chanting his name in unison. There were no rivalries now, just a single pool of fans supporting a competitive player fighting not for the ball – but his life. There was still much confusion over the player’s condition, but it was pretty clear the signs were not looking good.
Referee Howard Webb having consulted both team captains and management, reached the sensible conclusion of abandoning the match. It would be impossible to ask the shocked players to battle it out on the pitch, with their minds elsewhere. Not to mention it would have been almost disrespectful to Muamba had the proceedings went on as normal. The crowd – so often vilified for being chaotic and incendiary – respected the decision and filed out peacefully, though most were crying or dazed.
In the days that have passed since then, Muamba fights for his life. Though his condition has certainly improved (especially in the last 24hrs) and he is responding, yet the situation remains critical. His commitment to the club and the sport is clear in his first words to his father. “Did we lose?” asked Fabrice, still under intensive care. Such dedication is only expected of soldiers and sports persons, and is shockingly pleasing in today’s cynical corporate world.
The 23-year-old originates from Congo (erstwhile Zaire), and was accorded asylum in England after his parents had fled their native country due to political skirmishes. He was part of Arsenal’s youth system before moving to Birmingham and eventually to his current club in 2008. Fabrice’s talent has been recognised at the national level too, as he captained England’s U-19 team and went on to represented the U-21 in 2007.
It comes as a shock to many that such a young, supremely fit person who regularly has medicals could suffer such a catastrophe. But it’s not the first time such a tragedy has occurred on a football pitch. There have been worse instances with players suffering fatal attacks on the pitch, however this has to be the most high-profile incident in recent times. It’s never a good sight to see a sportsperson (in any sport) sprawling on the field in agony. We have seen some horrible injuries in the sport, and each time it makes one feel sick in the stomach.
On the bright side the situation seems to be getting better and thankfully it wasn’t a bad tackle or any other such misdemeanour that prompted the incident. Also pleasing to see was the response of the medical teams and how well equipped they were to handle the matter as best could be in the stadium. Worse could have happened for sure had the Premier League not enforced strict regulations for clubs to place adequate medical staff and facilities on pitch in every match.
We all have seen or heard of the tragedy in 1991 at Imola, where the most revered sportsperson of his era lost his life doing what he did best. Ayrton Senna was a darling of millions, whose almost divine talent was burning up race circuits all over the world. Yet all the talent and legion of fans could not save him from crashing to death in Italy on that fateful day (sadly less known to most people, Austrian rookie driver Ronald Ratzenberger had died on the track only a day before). That incident was probably the most high-profile death in a sporting arena and was to be the instigator to an obsession with safety in Formula 1.
In case of football, thankfully conditions are less risky and actions have already been taken by the FA. Though here as well, it was Peter Cech’s head injury in 2006 which shook the administrators into tightening the laws and the reaction at White Hart Lane on saturday proved that the right steps have been taken.
Also the referee Howard Webb needs to be commended on the swift and decisive action he took in consulting the teams and calling the match off. Of course there was no way a match could go on after the events, yet it was heartening to see the various authorities involved act in unison. Last but definitely not the least was the incredible reaction of the crowd, who chanted Muamba’s name in the hope the player is buoyed by the vocal support. But more importantly was the manner in which they respected the official’s decision to abandon the match.
There was not one shout or stupid comment (though eventually a 21-year-old did get arrested for a vitriolic tweet, but that was outside the stadium) and most of the crowd could be seen visibly moved, many with tears in the eyes and hands clasped in prayer. To the critics who often claim the sport is encouraging tribal rivalries, this proves that humanity still beats at the heart of the game and its million fans.
It wasn’t just the local supporters, but in the ensuing minutes the internet was abuzz with support for the stricken player. As millions tweeted “Pray4Muamba”, support from all aspects of media and various portals came flooding in. The footballing community showed support both within and outside the country with players and fans across various leagues offering their wishes to Muamba and his family.
However the Bolton captain brought out an irony, “It is the first time in my nearly 19 years in the game that I have seen a stadium unite,” he said. “It was touching but I was laying in bed thinking how sad it was as well. As professionals, we put a lot of hours in. We work hard and make a lot of sacrifices. But it seems that the only way you are going to get a ripple of applause away from your own ground is to get carried off on a stretcher.”
While that is true however you cannot blame the crowd for being partisan. Football is religion to many and the players themselves feed on the crowd. That’s precisely why away fixtures prove to be so tricky. In a perfect world fans would applaud a well crafted goal by the opposition; but in reality, if they have the heart to get behind an injured player, that will do.
At this moment my prayers (as million others) go out for Fabrice and his family. Hope he makes it through this ordeal and it would be a great sight to see him take to the field one day, when it happens. There are many instances of players returning from dreaded injuries or sickness, so there is always hope for him. The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankley, once famously said, “Some people say football is a matter of life and death. I’m extremely disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” In current circumstances, am sure the great man himself would have rethought his words (his club fans below seem to agree).
ps: Since my initial post, I came across the touching pic below on Tumblr, taken by kawee6281. As it says in the original post, “When people ask me why I love football, this is the reason I tell them – community.”