Soccer Unites Around Stricken Star Fabrice Muamba

The young English Premier League soccer player Fabrice Muamba remained in intensive care Monday after suffering cardiac arrest during a game in London

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Bolton's English midfielder Fabrice Muamba is treated by medical staff after collapsing during the English FA Cup quarter-final football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane in north London, England on March 17, 2012

The young English Premier League soccer player Fabrice Muamba remained in intensive care Monday at the London Chest hospital after suffering cardiac arrest during a game in London on Saturday, his club Bolton Wanderers said. A statement released by the hospital and Bolton said he is showing “small signs of improvement,” and that “his heart is now beating without the help of medication.”

The 23-year-old collapsed just before half-time in the FA Cup quarter-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton, in a game which was being televised live on ESPN in the U.K. (Muamba was in his own half of the field with no other player near him when he went down in the 41stminute of a keenly contested cup tie). Following unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate him on the pitch, Muamba was taken to the London Chest hospital. The Press Association reported that it took medical staff two hours to get him breathing again.

The players were visibly shaken, with some in tears, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing. Tottenham’s Rafael van der Vaart was barely 10 meters away when he collapsed and was seen praying for Muamba while he received treatment. He said, “It’s almost incomprehensible what has happened. (It was) simply horrifying to see such a young player on the ground struggling for his life.”

And had it not been for the extremely quick work of the medical staff, in addition to the common sense shown by the referee Howard Webb, who abandoned the game, Muamba may well have died. The supporters of both sides instantly united, applauding the player as well as chanting his name (it’s even been reported that a Spurs fan in the stands, who is a doctor, rushed pitchside because he knew what was happening). Elsewhere across the country, fans at matches have shown their own support with the now customary minute’s applause. And scarves and tributes have been left outside the Reebok Stadium, where Bolton plays its home games.

The incident has shocked the footballing world, with fans, players and officials confounded by what occurred. Muamba is an elite athlete who would have been subjected to numerous health procedures (including on his heart), though there will surely now be an investigation to see whether additional checks would have provided an earlier warning. Deaths in football are incredibly rare but have taken place in recent years: Cameroon international Marc-Vivian Foe collapsed during a Confederations Cup semifinal against Colombia in 2003 and died in hospital. In Spain, similar incidents involved Sevilla’s Antonio Puerta in 2007 and Espanyol’s Daniel Jarque in 2009. In the U.K., the last player to pass away after collapsing was Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell, who suffered heart failure against Scottish rivals Dundee United in 2007 and died on the way to hospital.

As for Muamba, he’s already experienced a lifetime of drama. Born in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1988, his father, Marcel, worked as an adviser to the country’s then prime minister and had to flee for his life after the regime of Mobutu Sese Seku was overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila (the father of the DRC’s current president, Laurent Kabila). It wasn’t until 1999 that Fabrice, then 11, moved with his mother to London to be reunited, after being granted political asylum.

Impressively, Fabrice got to grips with a strange new country and language with his footballing abilities bringing him to the attention of the legendary London club Arsenal, who gave him a chance at their prestigious academy. After they loaned him out to Birmingham City, the Midlands outfit were so impressed that they signed him on a permanent basis. He started to represent his new country, albeit at England Under-21 level, and has captained the side and shown enough promise to entice his current club Bolton to pay over £5 million ($8 million) for his services. A firm fan favorite, Muamba won the team’s player of the year award in 2010 and had been talked about as a future England player at senior level.

But the tone struck here almost indicates that he’s passed on or his career is over, which wouldn’t be in keeping with ‘Pray 4 Muamba,’ which has been trending on Twitter and seen on the shirts of some former teammates on Sunday. His fiancee Shauna Magunda, the mother of their one-year son Joshua, thanked well-wishers for their support. “Where there is life there is hope,” she tweeted. The social media site has seen some of the English Premier League’s best-known players (Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole) express their love with the international footballing family also showing their concern.

It truly seems nobody has a bad word to say about such an incredible young man. His manager Owen Coyle, who visited the hospital Monday said, “You look at what Fabrice has been through in life already and you can tell that he is a fighter. He has such a fantastic smile and that’s what we all want to see again.”

Indeed, such sporting questions such as when the FA Cup game will be replayed (if it even is, as Bolton may well withdraw from this year’s competition) or whether the postponed EPL game against Aston Villa is utterly redundant. The only issue of concern is that Muamba recovers. In an interview with the Guardian last summer, he said he was hoping to return to the DRC incognito to see those few family members still there (who live under aliases) and to investigate the setting up of a foundation to give other youngsters a way out. “I’m not the most talented footballer but I know what I can do,” he said. “What I have experienced is what keeps me going and gets me out of whatever difficulty I face. I just set myself up to give it my best shot.” We’re all praying that remains the case.