This has been a strange weekend for me. I have been a strong football (soccer) follower all my life. I was born into a family that followed the team from just up the road from where I grew up, namely Tottenham Hotspur. I lived closer, as the crow flies, to another famous local team, namely Arsenal.
There was always fierce rivalry and indeed at times, animosity, between the two groups of followers of the two famous local teams. In the school playground (yard) there were always matches between the two teams as if no other team existed at all in the whole of Britain. I should imagine that this local rivalry was exactly the same in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham or any of the places where fierce rivalries grew up and a game of football became more than just a game but a quasi spiritual not to say religious following that divided us all into narrow camps and brought out the worst aspects of us versus them divisions that one sees in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Belgium and in so many other places throughout our world.
There were times when defeat by the Arsenal would leave me angry and would ruin my day and the day of my wife or anyone who happened to have to put up with me! Victory would occasion a high of celebration and a feeling of absolute joy. My wife would say to me after both of these events “it’s only a game.. nobody died!”
This weekend my beloved Tottenham were playing in the quarter-final of the F.A. Cup at home (White Hart Lane) to Bolton Wanders. They conceded a goal quite early and this left me quite upset (as usual) but hopeful that they could turn it all around. Within a few minutes they scored and I was elated. I was not watching the match on T.V. because it was on a station ESPN which I did have a subscription to. I therefore had to follow the match on the radio.
We were going out to a meal with friends and therefore I had to continue to follow the match on my car radio. I could not get hold of the station that I had originally been listening to and had to listen to BBC Radio 5 that was covering a Rugby match between England and Ireland. I kept turning the radio off and on in order to see if there were any updates on the Tottenham V. Bolton match.
The third time that I turned the radio on I heard that one of the Bolton players, Fabrice Muamba
, had suddenly collapsed on the pitch. He was not in contact with anybody, he just dropped down suddenly. It was obvious to everyone that something very very serious had happened to the player. The crowd, which had seconds before been singing their team’s songs and making the usual noise that I remember only too well from having stood on the terraces as a child, went to an eerie silence. It appeared that everyone knew that something major had taken place and the rivalries, the passions of group membership evaporated within seconds.
After a while the Bolton supporters started to chant the name “Fabrice Muamba” as he lay stricken with what we now know was a cardiac arrest, on the ground. The Tottenham supporters were quick to follow and all around the ground there was the chanting of Fabrice Muamba. The players had all stopped and some were crying, some were praying and all were in shock. The referee, Howard Webb, decided that the match could not continue and it was abandoned. The crowd did not argue with this development but filed out of the ground in silence. Later, at the restaurant in Potters Bar, North London, where my wife and I had gone to meet our fiends, we encountered a group of six young men and their wives, one of whom had been at the match earlier that evening. He told us that the end of the match felt “surreal”.
Fabrice Muamba was attended whilst lying on the ground and not breathing by medical staff from both Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. A Tottenham supporter who happened to be a Consultant Cardiologist at the London Chest Hospital ran on the pitch and advised that he be sent there and not to the local Middlesex Hospital. This piece of advice could well have made the difference between life and death.
In the aftermath of the abandoned game there was a huge amount of messages of support (many on Twitter). These came from football players, coaching staff and supporters from all over the country and indeed the world. There was discussion in the media about the “football family” getting together. At the Bolton Wanders ground there have been scarves and shirts left as a tribute by supporters from teams all over the country… poignantly one of these was a Tottenham scarf.
Fabrice Muamba is a very interesting young man. He came to Britain aged 11 as a refugee from Zaire (Congo) where his family had fled a dreadful civil war. They settled in Walthamstow in East London. Fabrice knew only four words of English when he arrived. He found the transition to living in Britain really difficult and would hardly talk at first when he went to school. It turned out, after he did acclimatise to life in the country and had mastered the language that he was a highly intelligent young man and a gifted footballer. He was noticed by the scouts of Arsenal and eventually joined their Academy.
He only played for the Arsenal 1st team on one occasion before he was sent on a loan spell to Birmingham City who decided that they wanted him in their team and purchased him. Later he would transfer to Bolton Wanderers.
It must have been a big moment for Fabrice to appear in the quarter final of the F.A.Cup at the ground of Arsenal’s greatest rivals. In ordinary circumstances any player with an Arsenal past would be barracked or booed when they appeared at White Hart Lane (and of course the reverse would be the case for Tottenham connections at Arsenal’s Emirates ground). I don’t know if this happened or not at the match on Saturday. All I can remember is listening to 35,000 people chanting the name of a refugee from Zaire who happened to have been an Arsenal youth player.
My wife’s words that “its only a game.. nobody died” resonated with me as I drove home on Saturday evening. I followed the events of Sunday along with so many others, hoping that there would be some good news about Fabrice. As I write these words, he is stable but in a critical condition in the London Chest Hospital. I have just looked up the BBC News online that has stated that he shows some signs of improvement.
It is strange how we need a dose of reality.. of potential tragedy like this event or a Tsunami, to realise that we are really just a very large family and our differences , in the end, do not mean anything.