It is a well-worn truism that adversity often brings out the best in people. When the going gets tough, as it were, spite and scorn usually take a back seat in favour of united sympathy and singular support. Thankfully, despite the burning cynicism of this digital age, the tragic plight of Frabrice Muamba has demonstrated that the very same rules apply to the world sport.
In the frantic six minutes that former England Under-21 midfielder lay prone on the White Hart Lane surface on Saturday evening, all rivalry – friendly or otherwise – evaporated in the heat of heartfelt emotion. The two-hour battle to resuscitate Muamba in an ambulance en route to the London Chest Hospital was a struggle that dwarfed Bolton Wanderer’s tussle with Tottenham in stature and significance.
As many observers have since pointed out, only a miraculous effort from medical staff at the scene has given the 23 year-old a fighting chance of survival. The stark truth, as the Press Association has reported, is that it took two hours to get the player breathing again. Muamba was truly teetering on the abyss.
He remains critically ill today, his fiancée Shauna Magunda compelling well-wishers to keep faith. In the outpour of sentiment since his cardiac arrest, though, humanity has prevailed. Perspective, so easily misplaced in sport – thanks to its modern standing as a cut-throat, multi-billion pound industry – has been located. Starting with referee Howard Webb’s inevitable decision to abandon the FA Cup quarter-final match after 41 minutes, some beautifully well-judged responses have arisen in the wake of an ugly, desperate situation.
Firstly, the Barclay’s Premier League have indefinitely postponed Bolton’s trip to Aston Villa. Alex Mcleish, the manager of the West Midlands outfit, who oversaw Muamba’s progress at Birmingham City between 2007 and 2008, said it was something he agreed to “without hesitation” before paying tribute to a man full of “integrity and enthusiasm.”
Prior to all of Sunday’s fixtures – those two qualities shone through the football community, as fans lead a minute of applause towards of one of their distressed brethren. Travelling Leicester City fans went one further, chanting Muamba’s name during the Foxes’ 5-2 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In the same game, ex-Trotter Gary Cahill lifted his shirt after opening the scoring to bear the moniker ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ on a t-shirt. He wasn’t booked. In fact, Cahill later admitted that the weekend had, understandably, been something of a “blur.”
Twitter, not surprisingly, has overflowed with sound bites. While the odd internet troll has reared up, hash-tags decorated with sincere tributes have been overwhelming. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have aired their respect to considerable followings, but it was Kyle Walker – the scorer of Spurs’ equaliser exactly half an hour before disaster struck – who was the most concise.
“Doesn’t matter who you support,” tweeted the right-back. “Doesn’t matter if you aren’t a football fan. Doesn’t matter if you aren’t religious. Pray for Fabrice Muamba.” Spot on.
As far afield as Spain, five of Real Madrid’s players took to the pitch for their La Liga clash against Malaga with a get well soon message to the Bolton boy. The other six, incidentally, bore the emblazoned note ‘Animo Abidal,’ as a nod to Eric Abidal of Barcelona, who, as Barcelona revealed on Thursday, will have to undergo a liver transplant to ward off the final affects of his battle with cancer last year. If good will can negotiate burning El Clasico enmity, there is hope for us all.
Indeed, that is the paradox at the crux of sport. It can generate hatred and fellowship in equally intense measure. Only magnets, it seems, have the propensity to attract and repel in the same manner as high-level competitors. Forgive the tacky metaphor, but there are many instances down the years to justify it.
One such illustration came in the early hours of February 26, 1995. After ten of the most brutal rounds boxing has ever witnessed, Nigel Benn retained his WBC super middleweight title when Gerald McClennan of Freeport, Illinois could not continue. It was unquestionably the Dark Destroyer’s finest feat, showcasing every ounce of his selfless tenacity. However, it came at a horrible price.
A blood clot had formed on McClennan’s brain that would eventually render him blind and severely disabled. He was rushed to Royal London Hospital. Benn, having defied the critics to remain champion, arrived in a state of utter exhaustion an hour later for a check up. After being helped into beds just metres apart from one another, legend has it that the pair reached out and touched fists – the same fists that had developed the dire circumstances.
The story of the late great of Wales rugby Mervyn Davies, who died just on Thursday at the age of 65, is just as harrowingly heartening. In 1976, playing for Swansea against Pontypool in the semi-final of the Welsh Cup at Cardiff Arms Park, the loping number eight hit the floor. He had suffered a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage. Only thanks to doctors in attendance and at the nearby County Hospital did ‘Merve the Swerve’ escape with his life.
Despite his playing career ending instantly, and with that a chance to build on the immense legacy he was building apace with superb, iconic performances for Wales and the British Lions, Davies was never bitter. Years later, he would always count his lucky stars that he had suffered such a catastrophic injury in front of a 65,000 capacity crowd.
“If that had happened to me on some golf course in the middle of nowhere, I would be dead,” he cheerfully told a BBC documentary in 2006. “I’m glad all those people were there. They saved me.”
Davies’ words ring ever truer today in Mumaba’s case. Because of heightened media access, so often condemned as an intrusive harbinger of claustrophobia, he should, God willing, one day be able to cast an eye over the love that has been shown towards him. Muamba’s story before the weekend was one of unlikely triumph – he arrived on these shores in 1999 from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and was granted asylum. Now, he has a bigger fight ahead of him. This time though, many more are in his corner.
Meanwhile, spare a thought for 22 year-old Liam Kelly of Kilmarnock. After his side beat Celtic 1-0 in the final of the Scottish League Cup yesterday, the midfielder’s father, Jack, suffered a heart attack and died a short time later. There will be many less column inches dedicated to the Kelly family over the coming days. Rest assured, however, they will have sport’s sturdy support network to lean on in their hour of need.