Christopher Chang on soccer
Soccer analysis and comment from Christopher Chang

Christopher Chang: Decency must drown disrespect


If you weren't aware of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba before this week, you certainly should be by now.

The player collapsed on the field during Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final against Tottenham after suffering a cardiac arrest. The latest is that he's miraculously making a slow recovery. Bolton doctor Jonathan Tobin said Muamba's heart stopped for 78 minutes and "in effect, he was dead in that time."

Muamba's hospitalisation has unified football fans, not just in the Premier League, but around the world. Teams and players have paid their own tributes with "Pray for Muamba" t-shirts and ready-made celebration singlets.

The outpouring of support and sympathy for the Bolton midfielder and his family has managed to transcend the usual tribalism and rivalries between club supporters. A terrible incident compelled fans to put aside their club devotion and focus on the 23-year-old man crumpled on the White Hart Lane turf.

But why has it taken the very near-death of a healthy, young Premier League footballer to bring these fans together and hush the often vitriolic feuding between supporters?

Sections of the Derby County crowd mocked the death of Nottingham Forest's chairman Nigel Doughty last week during the east Midlands derby. "Where's your chairman gone?" and "You're going down with your chairman" were among the sick taunts leveled at the visiting fans.

Not even the tragedies of Hillsborough and the Munich air crash are considered taboo by some fans (I use the term 'fans' loosely, of course). It's an utterly repugnant notion that football followers would use tragic human suffering as ammunition for 'banter'. Wives, children, and the dead - no one is off limits. Almost no club can plead their innocence when it comes to dishing out verbal abuse that goes too far over the line.

Arsenal followers sang, "It should have been you" to Emmanuel Adebayor last October, in reference to the terrorist bus shootings at the Togo team during the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. Most recently, there have been reports about chants mocking the death of Welsh legend Gary Speed. It's a twisted minority that continues to indulge in hate speech.

Football fans delight in their vocal presence at stadiums. When done properly and decently, it's a powerful and exhilarating experience. We have it here in our own country; the Yellow Fever and White Noise supporters put rugby crowds to shame when it comes to atmosphere and crowd participation. The chants are good-natured and an example to clubs entrenched in fanatical tribalism.

The story of Fabrice Muamba is remarkable, and has captivated the sports world. He was a refugee from Kinshasa - what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo - who arrived in England aged 11, after witnessing the first and second Congo Wars that resulted in 14,000 deaths. He spoke no English, but went on to gain 10 GCSEs, representing England at age-group levels before joining Bolton from Birmingham for over £5m.

Will he play again? Perhaps. Will football fans use the incident to take stock, look themselves in the mirror and question their own approach to 'supporting' a team? That's debatable. If anything good is to come from Muamba's hell it's that humanity still exists in the Premiership terraces. The songs and chanting of the decent people need to drown out the rest.

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