Bolton Wanderers star Fabrice Muamba has blazed a trail for others to tread
As he fights for his life this morning, what is worth remembering about Fabrice Muamba is that he has already achieved a surprising amount in his young life – much more, in fact, than you might expect of a 23-year-old playing in the Premier League in 2012 with all the privilege and wealth that entails.
When he spoke about his life during the Under-21 European Championship last summer in Denmark, and discussed his family's flight from the Democratic Republic of Congo to London 12 years ago, he contemplated his past thus: "It's Africa, isn't it? That's the type of continent it is. There is always dramas, wars and stuff."
He was right about that, but having left DR Congo in order to survive, Muamba has made so much more of his life. He has become a pioneer for the United Kingdom's latest generation of immigrants, having accepted his new country to the extent that he felt comfortable representing England in the sport at which he excelled.
In one of those awkward questions that sometimes crop up in press conferences, last summer Muamba was asked how he felt when he heard the UK national anthem being played as he lined up for England Under-21s. "I just think about how far I have come," he said. "English people have helped me and I feel part of it."
Whenever I watched Muamba play, and long before the events of the weekend, I would think back to an interview he gave to my colleague Ian Herbert published in The Independent in October 2008. He gave it under the auspices of the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign and in it he described the story of his life in stark yet cheerful terms.
He recounted how he had emigrated to Britain from the DR Congo at the age of 11 with his mother Gertrude and arrived in east London equipped with just four words of English: "Hello, how are you?" This journey into the unknown had been a better option than staying in Africa, where his father's political allegiance to President Mobutu had put his family in danger.
He admitted in that interview in 2008 that he still felt "a bit iffy" (the command of English had come on in leaps and bounds) about his new country. He had struggled with an incident at school when a girl had told him: "Go back to your own country." But he said he had persevered and found, especially at Arsenal, where he was an academy player, and in Arsène Wenger personally, a great deal of support.
He recalled how he confessed to Wenger that he was worried about catching the right train to the training ground and about how to use an Oyster card. He recalled how he was worried he was "way behind, life-wise". Wenger told him that he would catch up easily and he was right.
If there is such a thing as the English Dream, to parallel the famous American original, then Muamba has lived it. He came from the developing world, from a country that is one of the most dangerous in Africa, and he thrived. He thrived as a footballer and he thrived academically, telling The Independent in that interview how he planned to enrol in a maths and accountancy course at the Open University.
Muamba made the decision to play for England at Under-21 level, despite having been born in Kinshasa. He won 33 caps, the second-highest of all-time. He said that playing for DR Congo would have been difficult and suspected that an offer to do so by the country's football association was a trap by political forces in the country to lure him and his family back. In many ways his mind was made up for him. But that does not alter his significance.
One's sense of nationhood is acutely personal and it has much more to do with an individual's feeling of identity and belonging than what happens to be written on a birth certificate. The wonderful thing about Muamba is that he is the first of a generation of footballers to decide that he had accepted England and was satisfied that England had accepted him.
"This is my adopted country," he said, last summer. "People have helped me, welcomed me with open arms and given me this opportunity. I'm earning a more-than-decent living and leading a comfortable life. I'm very appreciative of that."
That is not to say that he succumbed to a set of demands from his new country and nor is it a call to naturalise talented African footballers. Simply that, to a great extent through football, Muamba has connected with his new home. It was the same a generation ago with Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira in France, born in Senegal and Ghana respectively, who became part of the diverse team that won the 1998 World Cup.
Hopefully Muamba will be the first of many. Already others have followed. Saido Berahino, 18, is another England youth international, who was born in Africa – Burundi in his case – and moved here with his family who were given political asylum.
This is the beauty of English football. It is so often far ahead of the rest of English society in reflecting the changing face of the country. One only has to flick through the names of the players in the junior England teams on the Football Association's website to realise it is the case, although it goes without saying that every family's story is different.
"I don't really speak about my life that much," said Muamba in the summer. "If you ask me, I'll tell you. If you don't ask me, I'll just carry on. That's how it is. Whenever I talk about it, people seem to ask me what is the truth? People just see the cars and stuff. I'm sure other African players have been through similar."
For Muamba, the boy who came to London on a cold December night, his is the great immigrant success story. Waiting while he fights for his life will be unbearable for his family, his friends and his team-mates. Yet they should know that in his own way, he has already blazed a trail that so many will be grateful to follow.
Muamba fact file
Born 6 April, 1988, Kinshasa, Zaire
1999 Moves to England, fleeing civil war in his homeland.
2002 Joins Arsenal's youth academy.
2005 Signs professional terms, making first of his two Arsenal appearances at Sunderland.
2006 Joins Birmingham on loan, helping team reach Premier League.
2007 Completes £4m switch to St Andrew's. Makes England Under-21 debut, having previously appeared at U16, U17, U18 and U19 levels.
2008 Moves to Bolton for £5m.
2011 Represents England at European Under-21 Championship.