Collective spirit can conquer adversity
I remember going to the cemetery in which my mum and dad are buried in a joint plot with one headstone. Upon my visit, I saw that someone had sprayed the word “UNITED” across the headstone in stark red spray paint. Although referring to the vandal’s football allegiance, I couldn’t help but think the word was fitting for my parents’ great love of each other.
It was united that all football fans stood with the terrible incident that happened at the Tottenham v Bolton game at White Hart Lane. Fabrice Muamba, a seemingly fit and healthy young man, collapses on the pitch and immediately starts a fight for his life. The fact that this was watched by so many fans and team-mates will no doubt have an effect on some of them.
I think that we have an expectation that some sports such as boxing or Formula 1 carry an innate risk. We are not shocked when we hear of incidents and accidents in certain sports and activities but it is truly shocking that someone in the middle of a game of football is seconds away from life or death.
Team-mates and opponents who stood metres away were perhaps even more shocked than the fans. They knew Muamba. They trained with him and had an understanding of the fitness levels needed to perform at the highest level. They also had been playing football for a number of years and had an expectation of what happens in a game through experience. I would suggest that not once, for any of them, had a game been stopped because of something of this magnitude.
When things happen that are 1) completely unexpected, and 2) out of our control, there is a tendency to try to seek and cling to the things that we are familiar with. I can imagine that being part of a team is an essential part of dealing with the trauma experienced by the players that day. The team may become closer, not just through “losing one their own” but by the fact that we feel safer in the collective.
Also, very much like the military, there is much routine in football. Training and pre- and post-match routines happen at a particular time and in a particular way. This is good for dealing with stress. We like the idea of something remaining constant when we are under pressure. Consistency and knowing what happens next is not taxing; reliable is what we are after.
I also think that when incidents like this happen, we become more aware of the fragility of our own mortality. We start to realise that we are not invincible and any of us could find our health status to be different tomorrow, without warning. As a fit, healthy, young footballer, you can imagine that this thought may not have been front of mind for many of them until Muamba fell to the ground.
It would be understandable for those players on the field and those who have been subsequently affected by Muamba’s collapse to now be thinking “What about me?” Will this stop players from putting in that 50-yard sprint in stoppage time to make that crucial tackle or that extra bit of acceleration to beat the left back?
“No” is the answer. You see, when you play sport at that level, you get caught up in what you are trying to achieve, not what you are trying to do. Sport is about who you are, not what you do. It is not a series of tasks or roles, it is about expressing yourself through your talent. The conscious thought about getting injured or hurt is not really there for the best players; these players have the ability to lose themselves to something which is bigger than them.
It may be suggested that the greatest psychological impact from the Muamba incident will be on the fans. If a seemingly healthy man falls foul of a serious health scare, what of the “weekend warriors”? Those of us who enjoy a pie and a pint and then want to throw ourselves around a squash court at a weekend to win a tenner from our best mate or score the winner on a Sunday morning because the girls are watching … maybe Fabrice Muamba saved more than his own life last weekend.