British football isn’t known for its compassion, and it’s already been an explosive season of racist slurs and handshakes denied. But the recent collapse of Fabrice Muamba, a midfielder for Bolton Wanderers, has shown a different side to both the professional football world, and its supporters, hoping for the recovery of a young player that everyone agrees is ‘a genuine, warm boy’. His collapse on Saturday at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium at White Hart Lane shocked the millions watching. As Daniel Taylor describes in The Guardian: “… there is something deeply chilling when a young, apparently fit, professional footballer can suddenly be face down on the turf, and it is very apparent, just from the speed at which people are moving around him, the urgency of their body language and the way the other players are reacting, crying, praying, barely able to watch, that this is absolutely terrible’.”
Tottenham Hotspur player Rafael van der Vaart, who was playing when Muamba collapsed, described it as ‘the absolute low point of my football career’, and other prominent players — Rooney, Barton and Defoe — have been showing their support on Twitter, using the hashtag #Pray4Muamba. Meanwhile, in Spain, Real Madrid players wore football shirts with ‘Get Well Soon Muamba’ stitched onto their chests.
Muamba’s entry into Britain, and football, came after a tormented childhood in Kinshasa, and this outpouring of love shown in recent days offers warming proof of the power of sport to transcend prejudices and the racism that plagues the game, that otherwise challenge the political buzzword of ‘multicultural Britain’. Racism has always been present in football, from the Suarez/Evra row, Terry/Ferdinand, or Atkinson/Desailly in 2004, and the 2007 investigation into anti-semitic chants by West Ham supporters toward Spurs players, football’s double-edged sword are the fantastic foreign players it attracts, and the prejudice and racism they provoke in ‘multicultural’ Britain.
Yet, Muamba’s cardiac arrest on the pitch on Saturday has offered some salve to the recent wounds that Suarez’s and Terry’s remarks have inflicted on football. Regardless of Muamba’s immigrant or refugee status, he has been embraced as an excellent football player, with 33 caps for England at the Under-21 level. He’s being celebrated as an ambitious young player, warm, generous, honest, humble; a rarity amongst the ever-richer, evermore egotistical footballing class of extraordinarily rich men.
Muamba was born in Kinshasa just before the first 1990s civil war there, and was forced to flee the country in 1999, when he moved to Walthamstow, East London, unable to speak a word of English and half-frozen by the alien English winter. His father, Marcel, had worked for Mobutu’s government, and was threatened by the anti-Mobutu rebels who had formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire (AFDL). For Muamba, as for many children in dangerous parts of the world, football was a means of distraction, of fun.
In an interview with Simon Bird, Muamba says:
It was very difficult. It’s been a long journey. Some people look at footballers and think it is about the cars and lifestyle, but don’t understand how it was for some of us who changed life from Africa.
His words are a testament to how football’s diverse players can be welcomed and nurtured. Muamba says, “This is my adopted country … People have helped me, welcomed me with open arms and given me this opportunity. I’m earning a more than decent living and leading a comfortable life. I’m very appreciative of that.” (You can read the full interview here.) There’s an element of pride in the recent shows of support, that Muamba is a well-liked, good player, saved from the situation in Congo by his new home, football, and England. It’s something to be celebrated. It’s just a shame that a player had to suffer from a heart attack to provoke such feelings.