Why did it take this to make us a football family again
01:06 GMT, 19 March 2012
It began gently, almost hesitantly at first. Picking up on the emotions of the 700 or so away fans, the tens of thousands gathered inside White Hart Lane glanced sideways for approval and then added their voices to the hubbub until it became a primal roar.
'Fab-reece Moo-umba,' they implored, 'Fab-reece Moo-umba'. That the noise grew from an eerie, stunned silence made it more powerful, yet more poignant.
The scene on the pitch had transcended all petty rivalries and entrenched loyalties. A young man lay stricken, not breathing; a young man whose sudden collapse had first drawn the usual howls of scepticism until the crowd, almost as one, realised this was no mere ploy and fell instantly mute.
Shock: Fabrice Muamba collapsed after suffering a cardiac arrest at White Hart Lane on Saturday
Powerless, appalled, visibly disturbed, they did the only thing they could. They sang the man's name in the forlorn hope that this would inspire his revival, like a patient awaking from a coma on hearing the voice of his favourite pop star.
Some cried, some covered their faces. People go to football for many things but rarely to be reminded of human mortality, our extreme vulnerability, even at the supposed peak of fitness.
Sport teaches us the capricious nature of fate, almost daily. A deflection here, a flag raised in error there. Teams ride their luck, or get the rub of the green, we say. This was a different kind of fortune, however: this was genetic luck, cellular luck, luck that could be harboured inside any of us right now, biding its time, waiting its moment.
Show of support: A Tottenham fan carries flowers for Muamba outside the London Chest Hospital
We just don't expect to see it played out as public drama: a healthy man, 23, inexplicably face down in the turf. And, in that instant, everything changed. What seemed so important was rendered meaningless; the priority of the day was reduced to an inconsequential grain of trivia.
Onlookers searched desperately for a sign, a movement, a flicker that would tell them it wasn't the worst that had happened: it did not come. We wait still.
Fabrice Muamba is not a household name in modern football terms. He is not Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi but, as the hours have passed since he was removed from sight, motionless and no longer breathing, handed to the professionals with the tearful prayers of family and friends for company, there has been universal admiration for his circumstances.
He grew up in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, and as a child witnessed the effects of the first and second Congo Wars that claimed almost 14,000 lives.
Marcel, his father, was a political refugee (an ally of deposed President Mobutu Sese Seko – not a nice man, but that is another story) who fled to Britain in fear of his life to escape rebel forces.
Fabrice's uncle Ilunga was murdered and the child was raised in a war zone. Friends died. Games of football would be swiftly cut short as the noise of gunfire encroached on play.
Marcel lived in detention centres here until he was granted asylum. His last words to his son before disappearing had been: 'I'll see you when I see you.' That meeting took three years.
Fabrice says he has never asked for specific details of what happened to uncle Ilunga, who gave him shelter when his father left. There are some things it is better not to know.
/03/18/article-2116843-1239641A000005DC-249_634x438.jpg” width=”634″ height=”438″ alt=”Tributes: A fan lays a scarf alongside shirts and flowers left outside the Reebok Stadium in Bolton” class=”blkBorder” />
Tributes: A fan lays a scarf alongside shirts and flowers left outside the Reebok Stadium in Bolton
Football got him through. He was a big boy, six foot by the time he was 14, and came to the attention of Arsenal after just three years in England. He joined the academy and made his first-team debut at 17. He gained 10 GCSEs and A levels in English, French and mathematics. If he had not been a footballer, he says, he would have been an accountant.
Given his personal trials, this is a quite remarkable young man. Not that they knew this at White Hart Lane. They simply understood that a Bolton Wanderers player who had previously been an energetic midfield presence was suddenly prone in the grass with his eyes closed and when he fell there was nobody near him. His right foot had twitched momentarily but, after that, all was still.
So they sang as a kind of plea, for him to hear them and wake up, so they could go back to how it was before and get on with the game. And it is a good game, and everybody at White Hart Lane loves it, dearly.
Message: Real Madrid players wear shirts to support both Muamba and Barcelona defender Eric Abidal, who is waiting for a liver transplant
They were there to watch one of the oldest fixtures in football, an FA Cup quarter-final, first played on January 20, 1872, between Wanderers and Crystal Palace (the match ended goalless and both teams progressed to the semi-final, because the FA hadn't really got the hang of knockout football in those days).
It is the traditionalists who turn out most willingly for the Cup, so the fans, like the players and officials, knew exactly how to act when faced with human tragedy. Unite, empathise, support in the truest sense of the word.
Disaster used to unfold over the airwaves or on the screen. Now we monitor social media, where concern for Muamba quickly spread worldwide. Andrea Pirlo, of AC Milan, dedicated the goals in the 5-0 win over Fiorentina to him.
Meanwhile, Gordon Strachan, speaking on ITV's highlights programme, spoke of the crowd almost moving towards the fallen player as if to envelop him in love and hope. They had to make do instead with cheers and applause. Futile gestures, but heartfelt.
Concern: Bolton manager Owen Coyle (left) and chairman Phil Gartside outside the London Chest Hospital
So, we are not all that different, as people; as supporters. We share, we feel, we are not alone. The occasion of a young man fighting for life in a London hospital also affords time for reflection. To wind the clock back to before Muamba fell and ask: why so much hate Why does it need sadness for football to take stock
Last week, Derby County supporters mocked the passing of Nottingham Forest chairman Nigel Doughty. Theirs was not an uncommon outrage. Hillsborough, Munich, infant death, suicide, racism, slander, football crowds are breaking down the parameters of what is socially acceptable all in the name of tribalism or some misguided approximation of banter. We are as defined by who we hate as who we love.
And nobody sits together anymore. A Bolton fan arriving by mistake in the Tottenham Hotspur end would have been physically threatened and hounded out for merely supporting his team on Saturday and vice versa, were there a replay.
We have all seen it happen. A mother and daughter, followers of Leeds United, needed rescue for cheering the opposition from the main stand at Bradford City. Two Arsenal fans, father and son, applauded a fine Mathieu Flamini goal at Reading and were subject to horrendous abuse until they left the premises.
Eerie silence: But the Spurs and Bolton fans united to sing a tribute to Muamba
These interlopers were not aggressive or provocative. They were probably casual fans who had been given a pair of unused season tickets by a friend. They didn't know the new rules of engagement: if you're not one of us, there are no rules.
And then we fear a young man is dying and we are a family again. The football family, as FIFA brand it. And that is all it is, most days: a marketing man's sound-bite. We curse and berate and denounce and abuse but advertisers would run a mile from that so, for public consumption, we are the football family. And that was how it must have felt at White Hart Lane on Saturday as both sides filed quietly, respectfully away, the match abandoned and all the anger around it, too.
Football will always evoke passion; the fiercest loyalties; the rawest emotions. It always did. In past generations, though, the catalyst was the game, not the expression of spiteful thoughts.
Fabrice Muamba got the warmest reception an ex-Arsenal player has received at White Hart Lane without pulling on a Tottenham shirt but we should not be comfortable with what it took to inspire this. When local rivals Blackburn Rovers visit Bolton next Saturday, we will see what football has truly learned.
Europe is so much more fun this way
This is arguably the best Champions League quarter-final round in recent memory, and not just because the competition is surely heading towards another epic confrontation between Barcelona and Real Madrid; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
There are seven countries represented: Spain; Germany; Portugal; England; France; Italy and, delightfully, Cyprus. Not since season 1996-97, when Karl-Heinz Riedle scored twice for Borussia Dortmund in the final, has there been such an open competition.
That year, there were eight countries in play: Holland (Ajax), Spain (Atletico Madrid), France (Auxerre), Germany (Dortmund), Italy (Juventus), England (Manchester United), Portugal (Porto) and Norway (Rosenborg).
Simply the best: But the Champions League is also enriched by the presence of smaller teams than Barca
Not so many stellar names, you will notice, but the Champions League was often more surprising and compelling for it. In the seasons after, it was quite common for six countries still to be involved in the last eight.
Then, as UEFA's financial booty kicked in, the variety dwindled and the elite assumed control. Just four nations were involved in 2000-01 (three England, three Spain, Germany, Turkey); 2001-02 (three Spain, two England, two Germany, Greece); 2002-03 (three Italy, three Spain, England, Holland) and 2008-09 (four England, two Spain. Germany, Portugal).
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Good for the prestige of the powerhouse leagues, bad for a tournament whose narrative became stale and predictable despite some stunning football.
Nobody will tire of watching Messi confront Madrid and a draw with too many underdogs would be as bad as the endless repetition of recent campaigns, so this now feels right.
We have Apoel Nicosia, deeper into the tournament than any team from Cyprus has gone; Benfica, a grand old name returning; Marseille, punching well above their weight; four recent finalists in Barcelona (2011), Bayern Munich (2010), Chelsea (2008) and AC Milan (2007) and mighty Real Madrid.
The sole negative is that, once again, UEFA run the risk of a competing team being awarded a home tie in the final; Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena the venue this year.
Why call the location so early Wait until the group stage draw can be made and announce it that day, having first removed the candidacy of the 32 entrants. There are enough neutral national stadiums such as those in London, Paris and Athens, plus the grounds of big clubs that have failed to make the cut.
This year, UEFA could have chosen between eight national arenas bigger than Munich, plus at least 13 club venues with a capacity of 50,000 or more and no Champions League involvement. If it was Germany's turn to host, why not the Olympic Stadium in Berlin It was good enough for a World Cup final.
Why risk a very strong Bayern Munich team having the blessing of familiar surroundings It is so wrong and so avoidable.
Water fool, but Richards did get one thing right
Sir Dave Richards should have stood down as chairman of the Premier League in 2007 when it transpired he had advised Everton and Manchester United how to avoid third-party interference rules in the Tim Howard transfer via a gentlemen's agreement.
That was a considerably greater affront than anything he did in Qatar.
Richards made a fool of himself with his talk of FIFA stealing football and the drinking habits that Qatar must tolerate to run a successful World Cup.
He did make one salient point, though. If Prince Ali Bin Hussein of Jordan seriously thinks that whatever kick-about may or may not have taken place in China in 500BC equates to the game we know now, the creation of rule books, the formation of leagues and the export of those principles around the world, he is just another FIFA twerp toadying to an agenda that is as bigoted and false as anything conjured by Richards.
Listening to FIFA's twaddle would send anybody off the deep end eventually.
Scotland for the Scots
Freeze the season now and explain how we get Celtic into the Football League.
Do we demote an extra team from League Two: Plymouth Argyle, for instance, a Southern League club since 1903 and founder members of Division Three in 1920
Maybe we promote only one from the Blue Square Premier. Bad news for those in the play-off places, Wrexham (oldest professional club in Wales, first FA Cup appearance 1883), Mansfield Town (formed 1897, elected to the Football League 1931), Luton Town (founded 1885, first professional club in southern England, founder member of the Southern League 1894) and Southport (founded 1881, joined Third Division North 1921).
No place like home: Celtic's admission into the English football leagues would only harm English clubs
Maybe we just wait for Portsmouth (founded 1898, Southern League from 1899) to go skint. Either way, somebody gets shafted.
Celtic and Rangers have created this crisis in Scottish football. Do not allow them to create another here.
Just give it to Lancaster
Why is Nick Mallett's name still mentioned in connection with the England rugby job Probably because the Rugby Football Union employed a firm of headhunters to help them appoint Martin Johnson's successor and Odgers Berndtson now have a contract to justify.
Simply pointing to Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker who picked English rugby off the floor and came perilously close to delivering a Grand Slam is not worthy of an invoice. So, ludicrously, the process continues.
Even Mallett is incredulous that Lancaster's bosses would change a winning coach who has clearly made the players happy and turned around the image and fortunes of English rugby, all in a matter of months. He doesn't know the RFU, obviously.