The Muamba Message

The football world comes together over Fabrice Muamba.
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Real Madrid players wear their message of hope and health to Muamba and Abidal  on their shirts. Image via Flickr.

At time of writing, the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba is fighting for his life after suffering a cardiac arrest during his side's FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur. His condition is described as critical; it appears that the rapid response of the medics at White Hart Lane has given him a fighting chance at least. One instinctively recalls the likes of Antonio Puerta and Marc-Vivien Foé, who suffered similar calamities and didn't recover. One remembers more hopefully Rubén de la Red and Stâle Solbakken, who did recover. (Remarkably, Solbakken has gone on to a successful career in coaching, a job not otherwise associated with cardiac well-being.) One thinks above all of Muamba's fiancée and young son.

The soccer world in England and beyond has been duly shocked, and has united behind Muamba. On Saturday evening, Andrea Pirlo dedicated Juventus' win over Fiorentina to him. Yesterday, after scoring for Chelsea against Leicester City, Muamba's former Bolton colleague Gary Cahill displayed an undershirt carrying the message "Pray 4 Muamba." At Wolverhampton, Wolves and Manchester United players led the crowd in a round of supportive applause. And before their game against Málaga, Real Madrid's players wore "get well soon" t-shirts, as well as showing their solidarity with Barcelona's Eric Abidal, who is facing a liver transplant, a year after undergoing surgery to remove a malignant tumor.

It's almost part of the ritual to contend that sport doesn't matter at times like this. Sure enough, some of those reporting on the episode last night, as they and we waited for news, expressed this sentiment. It's more than understandable. However, it sent me back to a fine piece by Richard Whittall of The Score's Footy Blog, written shortly after the death of Gary Speed in November:

Yes, football is at its core a game, the very definition of a trivial pursuit. It’s not going to free an oppressed people or cure a terminal illness. But like art, music, literature, it’s a pursuit to which many dedicate their private and/or professional lives. Its loyalties cross uncomfortably into politics and can reflect our worst, brutal selves. At its best however, football offers something as close to transcendent joy as you can. It’s neither false nor irreverent to add that football is one of many things that gives life meaning, that makes it worth living.

The great Bill Shankly's most famous quote—"Someone said to me, 'To you football is a matter of life or death,' and I said 'Listen, it's more important than that'"—is these days only ever raised to be refuted. But something like this doesn't put sport into perspective; for most of us, it already is. There may be an overbearing lunatic fringe for whom that isn't true; philately probably has an overbearing lunatic fringe, too. But for the rest, sport is never life itself nor an utter frivolity. It's more complex than that.

Amongst many other things, sport is an escape. But it can never be a complete escape, because we can't engage in it without giving over something of ourselves to it, and we can never escape ourselves. There is necessarily a distance between the player and the spectator: not just because the player is likely to be a millionaire mercenary, but because the player makes things happen, while we wait for them to do so. But I would venture that watching sport (at any level beyond having the game on in the background while you do something else) is never entirely passive. Players don't just act as providers of stimuli, triggering variously giddy and despairing responses in us. In the space between us and them is an overlap, a mingling of our respective emotions and yearnings.

You don't even need to know much about the contestants; for example, Muamba's life story is particularly extraordinary. You could stumble upon a game involving people or teams completely unfamiliar to you, and it would still come down to this: you find watching the game engaging, and the players find playing it engaging, and via whatever convoluted routes, the two impulses come together on game day. This isn't merely a performance: it is to some degree an act of communion. There may be a barrier between us and them, but it's semi-porous. And it drops completely, if temporarily, at certain points: when your team has scored, or because of one of those moments of indefinable beauty that seem to be guided by some unconscious force, and thus belong not just to their creators, but to all of us. Even between these times, this awareness of us-and-them exists at the level of a background hum. We may be able to tune it out, but when it turns into a roar, it can (albeit thankfully rarely) be a terrible one.

Muamba's collapse was shocking because, well, of course it was: he is a professional athlete, one of our emblems of youthful vigour; it happened in public, in front of tens of thousands in the ground and a worldwide TV audience. But it was also shocking, not to mention dreadfully poignant, because it happened while he was taking part in this act of communion. It may be trite to talk about the "football family", but—and we can extend it to a "sporting family" here—it's nonetheless appropriate. Supporters of both sides chanted Muamba's name. No doubt this was partly out of helplessness: they could offer no practical help, so here was an instinctive spiritual offering. It was also out of empathy for a fellow: not just (just!) a fellow human being, but also a fellow participant.

As Richard says, sport is not life, but it's one of the things that dignify life. And there really is a dignity to it at heart. There's no need to be ashamed of it, or to distance ourselves from it. There is a need, however, to be thankful for it, and for those who commune with us in it. Sport may stop short at moments such as this, but it's what brings us together in the first instance, and it has played its part in dignifying Fabrice Muamba's life. Let us hope that that life has a long way left to run.

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