Fabrice Muamba's on-field collapse struck a chord around the world, and came as a reminder of the importance of medical facilities at matches
By Jason Dasey
Fortunately, there seems to be more encouraging news from the London Chest Hospital where Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba is making a strong recovery after collapsing during last Saturday's English FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur.
The globally televised incident was a stark reminder of the mortality of all of us, including elite athletes. It also forged an unlikely bond between the fans of Bolton and Tottenham, who have been united in their concern this week for the former England Under-21 star.
Hailed as a hero was Dr. Andrew Deaner, the cardiologist and Spurs supporter who raced onto the pitch from his seat in the stands to help Muamba, whose heart stopped beating for 78 minutes before being revived in hospital.
Among those deeply moved in the crowd at White Hart Lane was former Tottenham and England defender Gary Mabbutt, who could draw parallels between Muamba's brush with death and the reality of his own playing days.
Mabbutt does not have a rare heart defect but was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at the start of his 19-year professional career.
He was initially advised to give up the sport because of the chance of a life-ending collapse on the field, but chose to continue whilst balancing four daily insulin injections and six blood tests around matches, training and travel.
The collapse of Muamba held the attention of football fans across the globe.
For Mabbutt, the importance of fulfilling his destiny outweighed the risks. But he says that each case is different when it comes to elite athletes who choose to take medical issues onto the playing field.
"I had to be very disciplined to make sure that I did not let my condition affect my career as a professional footballer," Mabbutt said. "Considering that I was still playing in the premiership when I was 37 years of age, I do not think that it hindered me."
Diabetes was first detected in Mabbutt when he was a teenager at Bristol Rovers in England's third tier. He would defy the odds to make more than 600 league appearances, including 482 games during 16 seasons at Spurs where he became club captain and won the 1984 UEFA Cup and 1991 FA Cup.
In 1982 he became the first diabetic to represent his nation in football, earning 16 England caps over a decade.
A constant risk of 'hypos' hung over Mabbutt's career.
The threat of a collapse – falling into a hypoglycaemic coma caused by low blood sugar – was always there. But while Mabbutt was affected many times on the training pitch, it never happened during matches.
"I had numerous 'hypos' in training but none that caused me to fall into a coma," Mabbutt said.
"When I started shaking and being unable to stand up, the physio would come over and administer intravenous glucose and I was fine to continue training five minutes later.
"I did blood tests just before kick off, at half-time and at the end of the game to make sure my blood sugars were not going to drop. The physios all carried intravenous glucose just in case."
Mabbutt says that medical facilities available at top-flight matches have continued to improve since his retirement in 1998 and were there to come to Muamba's rescue.
"The risks of problems occurring on the pitch are minimal, but as we saw last Saturday, we are now prepared for these things to happen," he said.
"Everything was in place to make sure that Muamba got the best possible medical attention which clearly saved his life. The awareness of medical problems is now very high on the agenda and the safety of the players in the Premier League is paramount."
Financial realities mean that the picture is not as rosy at the lower end of the English game, where the physical exertion is the same and the risks no less. The Mabbutt and Muamba stories may have turned quite out differently if they have unfolded at the lower echelons of the game.
"Football showed last Saturday that it is prepared to handle even the most severe of situations at the highest level but this must be available to all players," Mabbutt said. "Outside the premiership, a lot of work still has to be done to improve the medical facilities available."
Miraculously, a return to the playing field is already being considered for Muamba.
The fact that doctors are now being asked about the possibility of Muamba making a comeback shows just how miraculous his recovery has been. If he does pull through as the medical experts are now optimistically predicting, no doubt he will have to weigh up the risks of resuming his career.
After a nerve-wracking week waiting for updates on the Zaire-born midfielder's recovery, Mabbutt had the words of a legendary Liverpool manager ringing through his head.
"Bill Shankly once said: 'Football is not a matter of life and death, it is much more important than that'," Mabbutt said.
"What happened last Saturday proved that Bill Shankly was so, so wrong. With all the footballing family praying for him, we are keeping our fingers crossed for Fabrice Muamba to make a full recovery."
* Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of the Football Fever Podcast every week on Goal.com, the world's first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective.