The sight of the prone figure of Fabrice Muamba on the White Hart Lane pitch early on Saturday evening was one that shocked football to the extent that Real Madrid players sported wording on their match shirts wishing him a full recovery the following evening. This for a peripheral player of a relegation threatened Premier League club. Cardiac arrests in otherwise fit sportsmen are almost impossible to anticipate, so it is a phenomenon that is likely to occur again. My own memory went back to the death on the pitch of Cameroon’s Marc Vivien-Foe at a Confederations Cup semi-final played in Lyon in 2003. At that time, although there was obviously something seriously wrong with the player, his fellow professionals were not aware of the gravity of what was occurring as he was stretchered off. The game – 72 minutes old – continued and when Cameroon met France in the final four days later, the match was played as a tribute to their fallen colleague. For FIFA, it was a case of the show must go on. But this is Sepp Blatter we are talking about.
Howard Webb performed highly creditably under the circumstances at Tottenham, perhaps helped through experience of traumatic situations gained during his years in the police force. He became the first Englishman to take charge of a World Cup Final since Jack Taylor in 1974 at South Africa two years ago. And a bit of me wonders what might have happened if what occurred to Muamba had happened to, for example, a player in the Spain v Germany semi-final of the 2010 tournament. One suspects that, although doubtless the game would have been delayed, Blatter – at the very least – would have insisted it were played again the following day, if not actually continued on the evening itself. Fortunately, the English game is not quite so commercially driven, and the campaign lengthy enough to allow for postponements and replays. Hence Bolton’s league fixture with Aston Villa, due to take place this evening can also wait until another day.
However, Bolton will play again soon enough, probably at the weekend in a derby against Blackburn. And it will be interesting to see what happens when an opposition player next ‘plays dead’ when facing Owen Coyle’s team. Footballers attempt to con referees in order to gain an advantage, but I have always found it extremely distasteful when they take it to the lengths some do, looking genuinely poleaxed in an attempt to either get an opponent into trouble or the ball kicked out of play. Such behavior is an insult to the genuinely fallen, such as Foe and Muamba, and the authorities should begin – using video evidence – to come down hard on such miscreants. If this stops it would avoid confusion and the perception of potential gamesmanship that could – for example – delay vital treatment to a player suffering as Muamba did.
The referee is under instruction to stop play if he believes a head injury has occurred. And players – if they genuinely believe a fellow professional has been seriously injured – will not hesitate to put the concept of ‘fair play’ above the potential advantage on the field. Paolo Di Canio once spurned an easy goalscoring opportunity for West Ham when the opposition keeper had twisted his knee making a clearance and lay prone on the pitch. However, such generosity of spirit has been manipulated by the unscrupulous in the past more than once.
One particularly high profile example was during the World Cup quarter final between France and Italy in 1998, at the Stade de France. Extra time was nearly up, with the game scoreless, as Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit was in possession near the corner flag at the Italian end with the opportunity to cross. However, one of the opposing players was writhing in agony on the floor. It was gamesmanship, but Petit couldn’t be sure. The player’s brother had died on a football pitch, as a consequence of a blood clot in his brain. So instead of taking advantage and putting in a cross, Petit put the ball out for a throw-in so the Italian player could receive treatment. As it turned out, he was an excellent thespian. However, justice was ultimately done when France won the penalty shoot-out to determine the winners. I have a memory that he received a special award for his ‘fair play’ gesture.
Thankfully, when Muamba fell, it was obvious that something was badly wrong due to the nature of the moment – there was no-one near him and he was near to the halfway line in full view of the benches and the fourth official. The quick reactions and the fortunate presence of a heart specialist doctor meant that his chances of recovery are as good as they possibly can be under the circumstances. But players need to be cognizant of the fact that sometimes, there is uncertainty over whether a player is genuinely in danger, precisely because of the amount of amateur dramatics that go on. And such doubt can lead to delay in the treatment of the genuinely stricken.
Youngsters watch and imitate big stars in all respects, and the notion of feigning injury is certainly one that some kids have learned well. My ten-year-old son has been playing Sunday League 7-a-side football for four years now. One of his friends has a penchant for simulation that would do the Anna Scher Theatre proud. Referees in kids’ games will hold up the play to tie up a player’s bootlaces, so there is no hesitation in blowing the whistle for a perceived injury of any kind. And this lad rolls around like Cristiano Ronaldo on a bad day if he so much as gets tackled. However, if the authorities would come down hard on the obvious fakers (Luis Suarez comes to mind) who overdo the dramatics, then they would gradually cut it out and the kids who will be playing in the top flight in 20 years’ time will stop imitating it.
Hopefully in the future when an unlucky victim of heart problems keels over, no-one will be in any doubt that the game needs to be stopped. If nothing else, the incident involving Fabrice Muamba can be a catalyst for positive change that improves the game’s image and the reputation of its highly paid professionals. In the meantime, woe betide any opponent facing Bolton who elects to ‘play dead’.