On Saturday, a game between Premier League squads Tottenham and Bolton was abandoned after Bolton midfielder, Fabrice Muamba, suddenly collapsed in the 42nd minute. There’s no footage available online, except that of Muamba lying facedown, prone, unable to be turned over by the Bolton medical staff. It’s insane and horrifying, the kind of thing that makes your own heart scream through your chest.
It’s been since revealed that Muamba suffered from cardiac arrest. Technically, he was dead for over an hour until the 15th pump of a defibrillator got his heart beating again. Doctors have even thrown around the m-word to describe Muamba still being alive.
On-pitch collapses have happened before. In the last decade, Marc Vivien Foe and Antonio Puerta, 28 and 22 respectively, both died during soccer games from heart complications. In 2010, Ruben De La Red, a promising midfielder for the Spanish national team and Real Madrid, retired at 25 after collapsing during a game two years earlier. And just yesterday, 27-year-old Indian player D. Venkatesh collapsed and died after being subbed into a game in the 73rd minute. (The cause of death is still unknown.) That’s not to say that soccer is the brain-scattering death march that is the NFL, but still. It seems lately that to watch soccer is to wait for something terrible to happen.
When 22 muscled, faintly robotic human beings are put on a grass rectangle and asked to run around and into each other and swing metal-bladed boots at a ball and opponents for 90 minutes, one of those men will eventually be maimed/broken/irrevocably hurt. Every professional sport that involves giant, agile humans doing weird, violent things with their bodies has this problem. A heart attack is different, though. Any of us could suffer a heart attack walking the dog or eating a burrito, but we’ll likely never get our skulls bashed in by someone’s knee, since we, uh, don’t dive headfirst toward dudes’ legs every day. Muamba’s heart attack is a reminder that the horrifically banal things that happen to all of us happen on the pitch as well. It’s one of those times when everyone steps back for a second and goes, “Oh, sports are kinda dumb, huh?”
The response to Muamba’s collapse has been positive because, well, the guy had a goddamn heart attack. A few players wrote op-eds in support of Muamba: “When I saw him lying on the pitch at White Hart Lane, I was scared.” (OK, so he’s not exactly David Foster Wallace.) After scoring on Sunday, Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Muamba’s former teammate at Bolton, took off his jersey to reveal the quaint message “Pray 4 Muamba.” (The ref was even kind enough to keep his yellow card in his pocket.) Real Madrid, the normally prickish, bullying assholes, wore shirts with a message of support. Playmaker Andrea Pirlo dedicated Juventus’ win over Fiorentina to the Bolton midfielder.
Still, if the pros were great—and they were—in the face of shit, Muamba’s heart attack also brought out the worst in people on the internet, because everything always brings out the worst of people on the internet. Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old Swansea University kid who took to Twitter to racially abuse Muamba because that, apparently, is the natural thing to do when a person’s heart stops beating. Stacey’s name is a waste of breath. He originally insisted that his account, which has since been deactivated, was hacked, which… sure. Whatever. Stacey finally pled guilty to a “racially aggravated public order offence” on Monday. You can be all free-speech-absolutist about it and say the kid shouldn’t get punished for being a racist, but also, maybe don’t say hateful things about a guy who just had a heart attack?
Muamba’s condition is improving, but he remains in intensive care. His manager at Bolton, Owen Coyle, is "astonished” by the recovery. Bolton plays again this Saturday, and the aborted match with Tottenham has been re-scheduled for next Tuesday. Whether or not Muamba ever plays professional soccer again remains to be seen, but that really doesn’t matter at all at this point.