By seven o'clock last night, as Tottenham's FA Cup quarter-final against Bolton Wanderers should have been building to a climax, White Hart Lane was eerily silent and fearing the worst. There was serious concern for the life of Fabrice Muamba, the 23-year-old Bolton midfielder who collapsed three minutes before half-time.
Although play was on that same side of the pitch – the far side from the tunnel – Muamba was not involved as Gareth Bale broke down the left wing and crossed the ball.
Players of both sides immediately called for assistance and indicated that medical staff and stretcher bearers needed a greater sense of urgency. Six paramedics attended but it was clear from the reaction of players and crowd that this was no ordinary injury.
As a defibrilator was brought on and resuscitation was attempted, a number of team-mates and opponents could not bring themselves to look. Television coverage by ESPN showed sufficient sensitivity not to home in.
The crowd on that side of the pitch could see that something was seriously wrong. Whereas there would normally have been complaints and jeers, the home crowd regularly broke into applause as Bolton supporters chanted Muamba's name.
Six paramedics attended him and players led by the Spurs captain Scott Parker and senior professional William Gallas appeared to be telling referee Howard Webb that the game could not continue and after speaking to managers Harry Redknapp and Owen Coyle he led the teams from the pitch some five minutes after the incident occurred. Shortly afterwards there was an official announcement of an abandonment and the 35,000 crowd were asked to leave, with the main stand patrons being held back.
Players stood around in the dressing room area in a state of shock while Bolton's manager Owen Coyle and Kevin Davies, who was a non-playing substitute, accompanied him to the London Chest Hospital.
This is the latest in a series of similar incidents in the last few years, some of which have seen players lose their lives. In December 2007 Phil O'Donnell, a 35-year-old Motherwell player, collapsed during a game against Dundee United with what was later confirmed as heart failure. He died on the way to hospital. The same year Antonio Puerta of Sevilla died after collapsing in a game against Getafe.
Earlier tragedies concerned Marc-Vivien Foé the Cameroon midfielder at the 2003 Confederations Cup semi-final against Colombia and David Longhurst of York City who suffered a heart attack while playing against Lincoln City at the age of 25.
Last night's game was halted with the scores level at 1-1, but that was hardly of any significance as night drew in here. The crowd filed away quietly with Bolton's followers being sympathetically applauded by Spurs fans, leaving only stewards and media representatives who were told the ground would be closed by nine o'clock.
By that stage news was filtering back to the stadium and reaching the Bolton supporters on their long journey home that Muamba was first in a stable, and then critical, condition and that the worst seemed to have been averted.
The Professional Footballers' Association's chief executive Gordon Taylor, a former Bolton player, said last night: "At the moment we are all watching, waiting, hoping and praying. For all the football family it's a terrible thing to see. We just hope it's not going to be a situation like that of Marc-Vivian Foé.
"This can happen on a pitch and is one of the reasons why we insist all youngsters coming into the game have the ability to have heart screenings.
"Fabrice is a very popular character. He's a great lad with great family. Everybody is just feeling terrible at the moment. I hope he can pull through."
As is the way these days, players and friends took to Twitter to express their sympathy as well as in some cases prayers for a fellow Christian. The Middlesbrough defender Justin Hoyte, who came through the Arsenal youth team with Muamba, posted: "I seriously hope my best friend in football is OK. Stay strong bro please please stay strong. God is with you remember that."
Arsenal's Robin van Persie and Everton's Tim Cahill were among others who also turned to Twitter while Muamba's Bolton team-mate, Stuart Holden, wrote: "Praying for you Fab. Hope he's OK. Thoughts with him and his family."
The Tottenham midfielderTom Huddlestone, who had missed the match through injury, wrote: "Thoughts with Fab and his family. Feel sick watching this, puts football and everything else into perspective."
The football world, Christian or not, could say Amen to that last night.
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