James Lawton: Fabrice Muamba shows why football matters
Whenever it happens, freakishly, unthinkably, and a young professional athlete at a peak of fitness collapses and sometimes dies some reactions are always the same.
There is shock, disbelief and horror and if the catastrophe is as public as the one that befell Fabrice Muamba during his team Bolton Wanderers' FA Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspur there is also the assertion – on the terraces and the airwaves and in the headlines – that suddenly something as trivial as football no longer matters.
But of course it does and if we need evidence of this we do not have to consider how swiftly the silent tears of White Hart Lane will be supplanted once more by the old raucous enmity.
We have simply to review briefly the threatened life of the 23-year-old Muamba and note that before he left his birthplace in Africa 12 years ago he had as much chance of being recruited as a child soldier as a potential football star.
Then we see how much the game mattered to Fabrice Muamba. And, also, how jarring it is that his calamity should be so casually linked with any view on the mores and moralities and, still less, the value of the game he played with a passion and commitment that suggested always that it was as important to him as life itself.
The requirement, surely, is to worry and perhaps pray for Fabrice Muamba rather than paint him as a random catalyst and martyr for some re-assessment of how we look at football in this country and so often wince at its rabid zealotry.
Of course what happened in Tottenham offended the natural order. It should not have occurred, every instinct cries out, because there was no reason why it should, except that life comes without guarantees and certainly the incident was not without precedent.
We like to say that sport is a mirror of life but then sometimes its reflection can be utterly unforgiving. On this occasion it said that football stars, for all their riches and their celebrity, are not immune from the fears and hazards of ordinary men and women.
However, if this encourages the belief that the life-or-death crisis of one fine, bright and well-educated young man, who recently became engaged to the MA student he met at Birmingham University who is the mother of his son Joshua, is likely to bring some sea change, some sudden surge of tolerance on the football grounds of the land, we had better wait to see when the bulletins ebb and another item claims first place on the news agenda.
"When Football Doesn't Matter," a banner headline declared, but yes of course it does – and never more positively than when it is as the feet of a young man like the one who drew supporters to the Reebok Stadium on the outskirts of Bolton yesterday for no more practical reason than to register their sadness and their fears.
There was a similar vigil at Old Trafford during the last hours of George Best and yesterday it was impossible not to make a comparison with the level of emotion that rose so inexorably. Of course there was one huge difference: the legendary Irishman's playing days had lone gone and even his most devoted admirers had to concede that in the end he had played a part in his own destiny. However, there was still a powerful link between the mourning and regrets for George Best and the desperate hopes for Fabrice Muamba.
What the latter had come to share with his famous and surreally talented predecessor was go out on to the field and make his own world, one where the hazards of ordinary life were put on hold for at least 90 minutes. In both cases, in their different ways, the man and woman in the street were drawn for a little time each week into the world the footballers inhabit.
The effect of Best was mesmerising. Muamba's was the accumulation of respect for the values he represented and the hard work which earned him Young Player of the Year awards at first Birmingham City and Bolton after the high promise of his early days at Arsenal, when some spoke of the new Patrick Vieira.
Instead of that kind of fame, Muamba was yesterday the unwilling, unconscious object of national attention. He was also at the centre of a storm on Twitter, the network which each day provokes and nurses controversies which the plight of Muamba had so instantly dwarfed.
That didn't relegate the importance of the game he played, or what it meant to him and all those who saw him from afar but admired all that he seemed to represent, and it certainly didn't usher in a new age of warmth and mutual understanding in the trenches of football.
Maybe, though, just maybe, a now blighted career which had been filled with such fine application and promise, may also be remembered not only for what it achieved but also what it said about the tendency to so often appreciate footballers as much for the colours of their shirt as their ability to play the game and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
The heart of the Muamba story is personal and tragic. It is about the vagaries and frequent injustices of human life and here, of course, it does fly beyond the boundaries of any football pitch.
No one is to blame and there is only one victim, if you don't count his family and all those who filed out of White Hart Lane with a loss of some of those certainties they had always assumed came with the price of their tickets.
They are unlikely to do that ever again. Whether this will make football a more compassionate place is, of course, an entirely different story. We can be sure of one thing, however, as we pray for the survival of Fabrice Muamba. It is that he would be among the last to say that football no longer matters.