x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Fabrice Muamba a reminder of when the game takes a backseat

My wife, Shirley, ran into kitchen. She was distressed and shouted: "Andrew, put the TV on. Fabi's collapsed."

Andrew Cole says Fabrice Muamba was overwhelmed by the amount of support he received from the football world after he collapsed playing for Bolton against the Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane.
Andrew Cole says Fabrice Muamba was overwhelmed by the amount of support he received from the football world after he collapsed playing for Bolton against the Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane.

My wife, Shirley, ran into kitchen. She was distressed and shouted: "Andrew, put the TV on. Fabi's collapsed."

She had just received a call from a friend, who knew that we were close to Fabrice Muamba and his girlfriend, Shauna. I put the television on and watched in stunned disbelief.

I thought of who I knew at White Hart Lane that day in March and grabbed my phone.

Sean Davis's mobile rang out, but Zat Knight, the defender, answered his. He was upset.

"He wasn't breathing, Coley, he wasn't breathing," he said.

Fabrice wasn't breathing because he technically was dead for 78 minutes after suffering a heart attack.

It wasn't like it was real. You see people collapse in films, but this was happening in real life to a close friend. Fabrice and I became mates at Birmingham City, where we were both played in 2007.

Younger players aren't always respectful of older pros, but Fabrice was friendly, intelligent and always asking for advice.

He dreamed of playing for Manchester United. His work ethic was exceptional and his progress as a footballer staggering given that he'd never kicked a ball before the age of 11, when he moved from war-torn Congo to England with his family. By 18 he was a regular for Birmingham City.

Birmingham were relegated in 2008, but Fabrice knew he was good enough to play in the Premier League. Bolton Wanderers came in for him and he called me to discuss it.

"It's a good club. Go there and use it as a stepping stone," I said.

He went to Bolton and moved to a house around the corner from us in Cheshire near Manchester. My wife - whom he calls "Auntie Shirley" - decorated it for him and Shauna.

They are really bright people; Shauna has a master's degree and Fabrice got superb exam results and had studied accountancy. We socialised together, the four of us.

He is a great kid and they have a great kid, a six-year-old boy called Josh.

And then Fabrice collapsed.

I tried to see him in hospital several times. Each time the doctors said he was too weak to have visitors. I was out of the country when he was released from hospital.

My wife went to their house and Fabrice showed her where they had put the tubes in to save his life. He had a machine called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, which he had to plug himself into each night.

A heart specialist in London could see a reading to check he was OK.

Fabrice called at our house a few days later. I gave him a big hug. The drugs and inactivity meant he had put on weight and I joked that he no longer looked like a sportsman.

He'd gone from training every day to not training at all. He told me that he was still hopeful of playing football again, but that he was also incredibly lucky to be alive.

It was fantastic to see him get better.

He was astonished by the support he'd received from the football world and kept popping up - he was in our dressing rooms in the Santiago Bernabeu in June as a guest of Real Madrid in a veterans' game against Manchester United.

He joked that he might return there as a player, but in August he announced his retirement from football.

"Ultimately, I'm just lucky to be here," he told me a few weeks later.

He'll do well at whatever he does, but I think he wants to do some media work, for now. He's fine financially, too. He was only 23 when he collapsed, but he'd already played six seasons, five of them in the Premier League.

We were invited to their wedding a few weeks ago. It was supposed to be next year, but was brought forward in light of what happened.

There were other footballers there and I found myself standing next to Robin van Persie in the photos. He's a nice guy and a great player, but I didn't ask him for his shirt.

There were players from Bolton and Arsenal, but I was really moved by the presence of some of the other guests: the doctors and surgeons who had saved Fabrice's life. They're incredible human beings. And the school teacher who first met Fabrice when he was 11, the person who taught him English from scratch and told him he could achieve anything if he worked hard enough in life.

I was captivated by the teacher, a real role model and a hero, someone who'd arrived in England with nothing and made an incredible success of his life. And of course it was beautiful to see Fabrice and Shauna smiling, a happy occasion after such a dramatic eight months for both of them.

 

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

 

sports@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE