The world of professional football was in shock last night after the Premier League player Fabrice Muamba collapsed during an FA Cup match at Tottenham, suffering a suspected heart attack on the pitch.
Supporters among the 36,000-strong crowd at White Hart Lane wept as the Bolton Wanderers player lay on the ground as paramedics and the club doctors from both teams tried desperately to resuscitate him before he was stretchered off to a waiting ambulance.
Muamba was taken to the world-renowned Heart Attack Centre at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, east London, where he is in intensive care. A hospital spokes-man said last night the player was "critically ill" and on life-support.
After discussions between both team managers – Spurs' Harry Redknapp and Bolton's Owen Coyle – and match referee Howard Webb, the match was abandoned.
A Spurs fan, Paul Bowman, 53, from Hertfordshire, described how crowds filed out afterwards in shocked silence. "The players were in shock. No one wanted it to go on. It was eerie coming out of the ground. There was hush, a silence. No one could quite believe it. It was terrible."
Broadcasters ESPN did not play a repeat of the incident, instead showing pictures of several spectators in tears. Television reporters said Muamba, 23, did not appear to be breathing as he was taken down the tunnel.
Coyle, the club's captain, Kevin Davies, and chairman, Phil Gartside, followed behind in Gartside's car.
Kalu Agbeze, 39, of Hackney, who was at the match, said: "I think it was about 40 minutes in. We [Spurs] were about to take a corner on the left side. What I noticed was that one of the Bolton players was calling over their physio. That's when I noticed Muamba lying on the floor. Not many people were focused on that because the corner had everybody's attention. He collapsed about 25 yards out.
"Their physios came sprinting on straight away. When someone's lying that still on the ground, you know that's quite serious. They turned him over, and the paramedics were already coming on to the pitch with the stretcher. The whole stadium was in shock. Pray for him is all we can do now."
Although not a household name, Muamba was a regular player in the England Under-21 squad under Stuart Pearce. He played for Birmingham and Arsenal as a midfielder, joining Bolton Wanderers four seasons ago. He had clocked up 225 professional appearances ahead of last night's cup tie.
Despite being approached by the Democratic Republic of Congo national team, he declined their invitation to return to the country to play for them. He arrived in the UK, aged 11, as an asylum-seeker fleeing the DR Congo's civil war in 1999. His father, Marcel, a political adviser to President Mobutu Sese Seko's government, was a prime target when rebels formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire.
Despite arriving in England unable to speak a word of English, Muamba studied at Kelmscott School in Walthamstow, and went on to take A-levels in English, French and maths. He gained an OU degree in maths.
In a newspaper interview, he looked back at his school: "My first day was just a big puzzle. There was nobody who was from the Congo. I did OK in French. But that was about it. People were talking too fast. PE was my favourite lesson. I used to like that because I used to run the show. Football was the answer to everything. That's how I got respect at school.'"
He summed up his philosophy simply: "What I have experienced keeps me going and gets me out of whatever difficulty I face. I just set myself up to give everything my best shot. If I had stayed in Congo, they would have seen us as an easy target to get information from the regime people, to use it against us. Some people look at footballers and think it is about the cars and lifestyle but don't understand how it was for some of us who changed life from Africa."
Muamba, who has a son named Joshua, added: "This is my adopted country. People have helped me, welcomed me with open arms and given me this opportunity."
He used his official Twitter account to send messages to fans and team-mates. Just before kick-off, he tweeted: "Let's have it now."
Last night, sports fans and fellow players expressed their shock and support on Twitter. Ex-England footballer and Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker tweeted: "Everyone in football is with you Fabrice Muamba."
The former Tottenham boss David Pleat said on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra: "The player just went down – no one was near him. Straightaway, the other players knew there was something seriously wrong."
Dr Andrew Archbold, a consultant interventional cardiologist at the London Heart Attack Centre, said: "Sportsmen who suffer from acute life threatening problems do not usually suffer from a heart attack brought on by heart disease." He said it was more common for them to suffer from a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle — or other structural problems of the heart.
Last night Tottenham Hotspur declined to discuss medical facilities at the ground but the London Ambulance Service said they always had one ambulance with two crew members and a manager stationed by the players' entrance for home games.
This crew took Muamba to the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green, home to the 24-hour heart-attack centre, one of the largest in the world. Since opening in 2006, the centre has more than halved the number of deaths among heart-attack patients, from 12 per cent to 5 per cent.
Kate Youde and Genevieve Roberts