Sometimes, sport gets it right.
With every passing day, our world seems to get a little more cynical. The need to deconstruct things, to peer behind the curtain, to find the irony, generally to meme-ify our lives is very strong. One moment you’re a Ugandan warlord leading an army of soul-destroyed children and the next, George Clooney is coming after you. One day you make a celebrated film uncovering said warlord, and 72 hours later you’re a hashtag punchline.
It’s hard to find a lot of joy in our world anymore. Raw emotion is tempered by the public eye, or at least guarded, while we wait for the other shoe to drop.
This is as true in sport as it is in life. Often, our love of a game is overshadowed by the behaviour of the players, the administrators and the fans. When it comes to cynicism in sport, the pinnacle is surely the sport of football. And the cynical elite of football remains the English Premier League.
The 2011-2012 season has been a dark one for English Football. The Premier League has been beset by incidents of racism, one of which lead to the resignation of the national manager. Puerile behaviour has been seen from two of its most prominent, popular clubs – Manchester United and Liverpool – that threaten to push future clashes into the violent days of yesteryear. Highly paid superstars underperform (or refuse to play at all), coaches are thrown to the wolves and the usual drunken incidents and occasional arrests still pepper the English tabloids. All of this – and without once mentioning Joey Barton’s Twitter account, or Wayne Rooney’s hair.
Last Saturday, however, an incident occurred during an FA Cup quarter-final tie which – for the briefest of moments – cut through the rubbish and narcissism and reminded us that the players, the fans and administrators are all very human.
With 5 minutes remaining in the first half, the score tied at 1-1, Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed untouched to the ground, his heart no longer beating. In an instant, referee Howard Webb and players – many of them Tottenham opposition – were frantically waving medical staff on to the ground.
Fabrice Muamba is 23 years old. He is hardly much older than his 3 year old son Josh, and younger than his 27 year old fiancee, Shauna.
As he lay on the turf of Tottenham’s White Hart Lane, the actions of medical staff making it obvious to the crowd that CPR was being administered, managers and players looked on in horror. The audience fell silent, followed by sporadic, confused bursts of applause. The Bolton fans began to chant Muamba’s name and their Tottenham opposites followed, hoping their calls would be heard by a young man on the brink of death. Muamba was rushed to a waiting ambulance, medics shocking his chest with a defibrillator along the way. The referee ordered disconsolate players into the dressing sheds and the game was swiftly abandoned.
In the days that followed this sad incident, the reaction of the sporting community brought momentary joy to a cynical world.
Mention the names Christiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez or Jermaine Defoe to any football lover and you will be met with varying degrees of gushing praise or spitting vitriol. These are controversial, talented men who at times have demonstrated gross vanity and poor behaviour.
Playing against Muamba that evening, Defoe was photographed in tears, standing over the frantic medics, being embraced by his teammate Gareth Bale. Behind them, Rafael Van der Vaart clasped his hands together in prayer and looked towards the heavens. The following morning, Defoe was in the carpark of the London Chest Hospital, arm-in-arm with his mother, to visit his Bolton opposition.
Luis Suarez did very little, but like so many other players, did what little he could. He dedicated his FA Cup goal to Muamba and went to his Twitter account – so recently employed to apologise, or mount a misguided defence of his acts, to say simply “Keep fighting buddy. Don’t give up”.
A world away from Bolton, at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, Christiano Ronaldo and many of his teammates took the field wearing shirts that read “Get Well Soon Muamba.”
There was something for everyone in this sporting story that was bigger than any game.
The scientists among us will point to the professionalism of the Tottenham and Bolton medical staff, and the presence of ambulances and paramedics at all fixtures. The response in those first few moments are undoubtedly why Muamba is alive today. Imagine if this had been a local kick-around, if that man was your husband or partner or friend…
The religious will give thanks for the spontaneous eruption of prayer, urged on by the spreading tweets of footballing superstars and the undershirt of Gary Cahill – a former Bolton teammate of Muamba’s, who now plays for Chelsea. We have gotten so used to players lifting their shirts to reveal personal messages like “Why Always Me?”, it was nice to see an absence of “me” in the simple message “Pray 4 Muamba”. This gesture escaped a booking, though back in October, Mario Balotelli was not so lucky. Imagine Gary Cahill taking the field as a defender and friend, wearing that sentiment on your chest, trusting yourself to score…
The humanists will scoff at the talk of deities and take inspiration from the Tottenham season ticket holder – Dr. Andrew Deaner, a cardiologist – who made his way onto the turf and ended up riding in the ambulance with Muamba and Bolton manager Owen Coyle. The religious will say God put him there, but perhaps we can all agree it is a good story. Imagine being the ground steward – normally the subject of drunken abuse and violence – suddenly asked to allow a doctor on to the pitch as confusion reigned…
The romantics will relate the stories of the White Hart Lane crowd, who fell silent at the collapse of an enemy combatant. Suddenly creed and colour held little meaning, as horrified supporters watched doctors trying to restart a young man’s heart. Imagine being part of that crowd, cheering the man’s name, willing him to his feet, applauding the cancellation of the game and then filing out of the stands silently into the North London chill…
More than anything, the incident served to remind us of the ridiculous, idle nature of the sporting contest. Barring the odd UFC fan, we are not Caesars. Nobody is meant to die. I would like to think that if captain Scott Parker had turned to the Tottenham crowd, he would have seen 36,000 thumbs all turned upwards, held high in the air. We love our rolling circus of sport, but when the whistle blows, everybody is meant to walk away.
Thankfully – perhaps improbably – Muamba is alive. He has spoken to his family, is moving his limbs and doctors are hopeful of a recovery. It is still a sad story – a young man and his family have been shaken, his health and career in jeopardy, but sometimes the world of sport throws colour on our gray world. Sometimes, sport gets it right.