Aside from everything else that Twitter has brought to the world of sport through its instantaneous insights into the inner thoughts of our nation’s sporting ‘heroes’ (Joey Barton springs to mind), nowhere is the recent outpouring of well-wishing and togetherness following the collapse of Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba more clearly demonstrated. Footballers, perennially criticized for their well-publicized misdemeanors, seem to have pulled together in reaction to a tragedy that has befallen one of their own.
However, a worrying trend can be detected in claims that the tragedy on Sunday ‘puts things into perspective’ and that ‘some things are more important than football’. Well, obviously. Bill Shankly claimed that football was more important than a ‘matter of life and death’, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t. It is 22 men running around on a field, irrespective of the high of a last minute winner enjoyed with your closest friends or thousands of fans, or the lows. Football fans of this generation can recall with ease England’s heartbreaking exit from every tournament since they were a toddler, and remember with a shudder the time they cried when Bolo Zenden’s penalty robbed their beloved Bolton Wanderers of Carling Cup glory in 2004 (oh, just me then). For everything that football offers as the nation’s game, however sewn it is into the fabric of the nation, and the happiness, or indeed, pain, it causes millions, it is ludicrous to suggest that football’s importance is such that it takes an unsavoury incident to jolt us into seeing that football isn’t actually that important after all.
Muamba’s father was granted asylum in Britain as his life would have been endangered by a return to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and his uncle was murdered. Fabrice arrived in England aged 11 unable to speak English, yet gained GCSEs, A-levels, a professional contract with Arsenal, and captained England at Under-21 level. Social mobility indeed. Fabrice Muamba’s story is both highly impressive and tragic – that someone that has achieved so much to get where he is today could be cut down. But I can’t help but think that the important point is where Muamba came from, not where he has got to. For millions, football represents an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life, and for very few, offers an opportunity to escape war-torn and failed states to ply their trade in the European leagues. Moreover, I am pretty sure that recent scandals about footballers’ private lives, never mind the Champions League, receive much more airtime and enjoy a higher priority in most people’s minds than the humanitarian crises and violence that plague the homelands of African players that make it to the Premier League.
How anyone can think that football is more important than this is beyond me, and so if this awful incident is to have any positive repercussions (aside from more stringent health regulations for footballers to reduce the chances of a repeat), it must be in the recognition that football is a past-time, a hobby, a passion, for some an occupation, and others still a business, but in the grand scheme of things something that isn’t that important.
That said, who is ever going to forget the feeling of that wonder-goal from outside the box against Harris Manchester on a desolate sports ground somewhere in Oxford hungover from the Bridge the previous night? Life doesn’t provide us with these moments, sport does. The penalty shoot-out heartbreak, the sense of camaraderie, and the blind overwhelming joy at a last-minute winner. Sport will always be important for those of us who love it, but we should never lose sight of its proper place. No matter how much we love the game, it is trivial.
For those that might interpret this as a bit of an attack on sport, that is not the case. A man who still regards defeat in the finals of the under 15 and under 16 Lancashire Cup as traumatic experiences from which recovery is still an ongoing, indefinite process is in no position to preach about the insignificance and futility of sport. Rather the point is that the idea that the Muamba tragedy somehow serves to reminds us what is important about life is absurd. Irrespective of this incident, and irrespective of how much we love football, it is just a game, and as such is removed from the vagaries of life. Perhaps this is a reason behind its popularity – no matter what is going on at school, at home or at work, the beautiful game and your team is always there to provide a sense of grounding and stability. Although it might feel to some people that football (or any other sport) is the most important thing in the world, it isn’t. Someone please remind me of this come Euro 2012 or when trying to balance getting a degree with the quest for JCR (Reserves) Premier Division glory.