This week in: English Football – Fabrice Muamba

Fabrice Muamba and his son, Joshua

The Spurs vs Bolton FA Cup quarter-final fixture last weekend had become a crucial game in Tottenham’s season, after three straight defeats had seen their cushion in third place reduced to just a single point over their North-London rivals, Arsenal.  With Arsene Wenger’s side having re-discovered their good form, coupled with Chelsea’s renaissance since the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs were in danger of not only losing third place, but also a top four finish and with it, a spot in next year’s Champions League competition.  The FA Cup – which Tottenham have won 8 times, but not since 1991 – is likely to be the last chance for Harry Redknapp to win silverware during his tenure at White Hart Lane, prior to his inevitable departure to become England’s next manager.

I was concerned about Redknapp’s team selection again forcing one Tottenham’s best players to play out of position – this time it was Rafael Van der Vaart, who had been stuck out on the right-wing.  Spurs fans anxiety levels increased after Bolton scored early in the match, when Gareth Bale inadvertently diverted a corner into his own net past Carlo Cudicini – but the Welshman atoned for that mistake when he setup the equaliser with a cross from the left flank, that Kyle Walker headed in at the far post.  Leading up to half-time, Bolton had regained the initiative and had put Tottenham on the back foot – I feared we might concede again before the interval.

Suddenly, none of that mattered.  Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton central midfielder, fell to the ground and was clearly in great distress on the pitch, suffering from a heart attack.  The medics rushed to help; players and fans looked on stunned and in tears; a cardiologist in the crowd made his way forward to offer his assistance; everyone was stunned.  Referee Howard Webb, a former police office, clasped his hands together and looked, on while contemplating the appropriate action he should take, as the official in charge of the match itself.  After what seemed like hours, but was in fact 10 minutes, of CPR being administered and a defibrillator used on Muamba whilst he still lay on the ground, he was carried off on a stretcher while the medical team continued to work on him and transported him to the London Chest Hospital.  Thankfully, his heart is now working by itself and he has been able to recognise his family, as well as say a few words in both English and French – hopefully this recovery continues.

Such an incident does shock all those who are watching, playing, or who learn of the incident afterwards.  For a 23 year-old professional athlete to appear healthy and fine one minute, then be on the ground with his heart not working the next, makes no sense – it is so unexpected and sad that it is almost impossible to compute.  It is in these moments, however, that people’s true characters come out and the petty rivalries of football are forgotten about.  In this incident, everyone involved deserves praise.  The players, both Fabrice Muamba’s teammates and the people who had been his opponents in Spurs shirts (for once he was having a heart-attack, all of them were on Muamba’s side), recognised the seriousness of the situation and signaled for the medics to attend to him as quickly as possible.  It was only after the medical team had gone to work and they could no longer assist, that the players allowed themselves to consider the magnitude of what they were witnessing – Van der Vaart stood with his head in his hands, Jermain Defoe was in tears, Nigel Reo-Coker could not watch.

Howard Webb, in his role as referee, acted fantastically, understanding the gravity of the situation, calling Bolton manager, Owen Coyle, over to be with his player, realising it was best to withdraw the players from the pitch while Muamba’s condition remained unknown, and eventually abandoning the game which nobody wanted to continue under the circumstances.  The supporters at the stadium united, in tears, in support – chanting Fabrice Muamba’s name – and, ultimately, in rising as one to acknowledge the player and the medics as Muamba was stretchered from the field.  The biggest praise should go to the medical team who worked on Muamba – they saved his life by acting quickly and efficiently and administering CPR that was able to keep the player alive until his heart started to work again.  Jose Mourinho also deserves credit – in 2006, after an incident in which his goalkeeper, Peter, Cech, suffered a fractured skull – which nearly cost him his life – the then Chelsea manager stressed the importance of having an ambulance available at Premier League grounds in case of an emergency to any of the players or officials.  This policy was introduced shortly afterwards and because of this, Muamba was able to be transported to London Chest Hospital without delay.

Fabrice Muamba was born in Kinshasha, in what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and left in 1999 to join his father in the United Kingdom.  His dad, Marcel, had fled three years earlier as a political refugee in fear of his life, having worked as an adviser to the Prime Minister, Mobutu Sese Seku, before his regime was overthrown by the rebellion group Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) – headed by Laurent Désiré-Kabila, who became the leader of the country.  Marcel’s brother, Ilunga, had allowed him to hide in his home prior to him fleeing to England, and this provision of shelter led to Ilunga being murdered by the forces of the new rulers of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When he arrived in London, Fabrice Muamba spoke no English, but he went on to be successful in school and, having gone through the youth system with the club, signed his first professional contract with Arsenal in 2005.  Muamba only made a couple of Carling Cup appearances for the Gunners, prior to moving to Birmingham and then joining Bolton for a transfer fee of £5m in 2008 – he has also represented England at all youth levels.  As a holding midfielder, Muamba is the type of player you may not even notice during a game – a water carrier who links up the play but does nothing too flashy – but he has quick feet and plays his position well.

Having grown up in a country that was in the midst of a bloody Civil War, and with an Uncle who was murdered for providing shelter to his father, Fabrice Muamba has already overcome incredible trials and tribulations to survive, let alone earn his living as a professional footballer in the Premiership.  Hopefully, this horrible incident will be another obstacle Fabrice will overcome and, regardless of whether or not he is able to ever return to play the game, he will have a long and happy life with his fiancée and their young son.

Everything else that happened in English football this weekend seems trite in comparison, yet the game does go on, even if the importance of matches and competitions has been put well and truly into perspective.  In the other FA Cup ties, Fernando Torres broke his long-scoring drought with two goals in Chelsea’s 5-2 win over Leicester; Liverpool beat Stoke 2-1 at Anfield; and Everton and Sunderland played out a riveting 1-1 tie at Goodison Park, and will have to do it all over again in the replay next week at the Stadium of Light.  There were also four Premiership games: Wigan were held at home by West Brom, keeping them bottom of the table for 24 hours – but Wolves replaced them the next day when they were thrashed by Manchester United 5-0, consigning Terry Connor’s side to the basement on goal difference.  Newcastle kept their hopes of earning a European place for next season alive with a 1-0 win at home to Norwich, while Swansea’s remarkable year continued with a 3-0 away win at Fulham, lifting the Swans up to 8th place in their first Premier League season.

This week, Bolton’s midweek game at Aston Villas has been understandably postponed, and it remains to be seen if they will play on Saturday in the relegation battle against Blackburn Rovers.  Steve Kean’s side to play on Tuesday, against Sunderland at Ewood Park, and the following day sees Roberto Di Matteo faces his toughest challenge yet as interim Chelsea boss, as he takes his side to Manchester to play a City side that has won all 14 of its home league games thus far.  Tottenham’s players will try to ready themselves for their fixture with Stoke on Wednesday, as their rivals, Arsenal, will try to usurp them in the table in their away game against Everton.  QPR, who in their final 10 league matches face 8 of the teams who currently sit in the top 9 of the Premiership table, face Liverpool in midweek, before traveling to Sunderland on Saturday.  This weekend’s matchups are highlighted by Chelsea hosting Tottenham, both teams battling for a top four spot; Manchester City facing a potentially tricky trip to Stoke; and the potential relegation clash at the Reebok Stadium between Bolton and Blackburn.

Predictions

Last week, 3-3; Season 116-139

Tuesday

Blackburn vs Sunderland – Draw

Wednesday

Manchester City vs Chelsea – Draw

Tottenham vs Stoke – Home win

Everton vs Arsenal – Draw

Saturday

Chelsea vs Tottenham – Home win

Arsenal vs Aston Villa – Home win

Bolton vs Blackburn – Away win

Liverpool vs Wigan – Home win

Norwich vs Wolves – Draw

Sunderland vs QPR – Home win

Swansea vs Everton – Draw

Stoke vs Manchester City – Away win

Sunday

West Brom vs Newcastle – Draw

Monday

Manchester United vs Fulham – Home win

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