Street Spirit

After Swansea beat Manchester City, a picture that was widely shared last week was the one of the fan in tears, which may have been slightly premature with a quarter of the Season still left. It was an emotion though that was still preferable to the glib reaction that football doesn’t matter from those without allegiance, the ambivalent shrug of the shoulders from fair-weather fans to whom their plastic flags are a fashionable accessory or the cowardice cynicism of those who resent the Great Game.

There are plenty in the chattering classes who like to disparage football at every opportunity, citing the money earned by the very highest paid players with a venom not displayed for any other professions in a free-market economy, with the barely concealed resentment coming either from their feelings of exclusion due to being soulless and having no love of sport, or worse, the fact that the football is largely a meritocracy, allowing both escape and excitement on and off the pitch, regardless of class.

The values of loyalty and passion that came through from that picture are decent ones, and the general decency of the collective football fan was also evident in extremely serious circumstances at White Hart Lane on Saturday evening, when it quickly became clear that Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba had stopped breathing on the pitch after collapsing. A sizeable number of Tottenham fans sung the ex-Arsenal player’s name, with an immediate recognition of the importance of life that is not seen in the sub-cultures many are exposed to, from computer games based on killing to big-budget action films.

Some fans walking away from the ground might have also had other thoughts, be it their team’s form, a potential rearranged fixture list and the very real financial costs of another day at a match, but that’s because brains are multi-faceted – the overriding thoughts of everyone at White Hart Lane on Saturday were of Muamba himself.

Just two months ago, at the start of January, a Tottenham fan died in the West Stand Upper, minutes into the home game against West Bromwich Albion, and many of the fans in both the upper West and North stands witnessed attempts at CPR while the game continued. This time, in the centre of the pitch, Muamba’s collapse was visible to all, with fellow players on both sides surely having the passing thought that it could have been them.

The immediate and extra attention Muamba received, first on the pitch and later in the dressing room, in an ambulance, and then by a specialist chest centre in a National Health Service itself currently fighting for its own life, has prolonged Muamba’s life, and given hope. Those sentiments of hope, while sometimes clumsily expressed on platforms such as Twitter with hashtags that could easily have read #TouchWood, are genuine, and the ‘Forza Muamba’ displayed on the big screen at Stadio Friuli last night ahead of Udinese’s clash with Napoli summed up the decency and goodwill that is still pervasive in a game.

There will be wider points that can be raised later, such as whether many of the players who should be on the highest-rate of tax and publicly expressed their sympathy with Muamba, will now feel obliged to pay what they should for the upkeep of the hospital, roads, and other facilities and public services that have given Muamba a chance to survive. Tax avoidance loopholes are of course far from being exclusive to football, and they require firm government led legislation rather than a laissez-faire acceptance that avoidance happens, but if there is a top-flight footballer who recognises the wider issues they have the platform to influence the debate, just as Muamba’s sad accident has raised the profile of Electrocardiogram screening for 14-35 year olds, more than any campaign left to the third-sector fighting for funds in a big and unfair society could ever hope to.

The grim realization that a 23-year old at peak physical fitness could collapse with a cardiac arrest in front of thousands of people in N17, and further millions watching through satellite coverage, naturally led the national news bulletins on Saturday evening.

Football is still the People’s Game. And its core values are sound.

This website first mentioned Albert Camus in a review of the film Dreams of a Life, another sad real-life story in North London, just minutes away from White Hart Lane. And it is Camus’ quote, “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”, that best sums up the weekend in football.


The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.