There is a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol travelling around football right now.
There is talk of racism. There is talk of scandal. There is talk of violence. There is even, as news reports in the Netherlands have shown, talk of death.
It’s not a sport, and it will never be a sport, that reflects well on itself. For every moment of brilliance, for every 92nd minute title-winning goal, there is a monkey gesture in the stands. There is a Gareth Bale, theatrically tumbling without the slightest of contact.
No wonder, then, that others look upon football with the greatest of disdain. They see the headlines and think: where is the morality? Where, even, is the sanity?
It’s a good question but if you find football repulsive, find its values repugnant, then you have probably missed some of its most treasured moments. Some are delightful, simply awe-inspiring. Others are harrowing and yet still, miraculous.
The story of Fabrice Muamba falls into the latter. It was told on ITV 4’s Sports Life Stories on Tuesday 4th December and it was a story that touched the heart as much as any other documentary. If not more.
A young boy, who travelled to England from the troubled Democratic of Congo, Fabrice had to work hard. He only spoke a smattering of English words but learnt the language within a year. He was athletically gifted but not so technically. Arsenal turned him down after his first trial.
Fabrice went back, though, keen to impress and, from then on, he wrote his own history.
But, on 17th March 2012, he collapsed while playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup Quarter Final. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and the ground could only watch on in absolute horror.
Still quite unaware of the extent of Fabrice’s state, though, the fans began to chant. He couldn’t hear them, of course. First the Bolton fans sang, and then the Spurs fans joined in. The whole stadium supported him.
And then, a Tottenham fan ran onto the pitch. He had explained to three stewards that he was a consultant cardiologist but only one was prepared to let him on. He helped the medical team prepare Fabrice whose heart, by now, had not beat independently for a good 10 minutes.
It wouldn’t go on to do so for another 68. He was rushed to the London Chest Hospital where it was deemed that, if he did survive, he would likely be brain damaged. He wasn’t.
Fabrice didn’t wake up for two days while, in the meantime, supporters of myriad teams flocked to the Reebok Stadium, eager to show their collective support to a rival player. They left scarves, replica shirts, anything that could prove they were behind him, that they wanted him to get better.
People left messages, leaving both love for Fabrice and his family.
Players for various other teams wore t-shirts that read “pray 4 Muamba”. Rest assured, many, many did.
Seven months later, Fabrice returned to White Hart Lane for the first time, the home of Tottenham Hotspur and the place where it all happened. The whole ground stood in appreciation and applauded similarly. Fabrice, understandably, cried. And so did many others.
For this is a story that was felt by so many – way beyond the spectrum of football.
But, within it, Fabrice Muamba’s ordeal has shown that football isn’t completely rammed with resentment, with rivalry and with rancour.
Patrick Vieira, former Arsenal team-mate of Fabrice’s, summed up the sentiment beautifully:
“The way the fans sent in the messages, I think, it just showed that football is unbelievable. We’re talking so much about the negativity, about our game that we love so much.
“And, we should not forget the time when that happened, how football reacted. It was fantastic.”
Because yes, football gets a bad press and deservedly so. But in times like these, perhaps it’s the best place to be.