Fadiga a fighter - his dear life depends on it

Tale of courage: Bolton midfielder is tired of talk about his heart problem. What he wants most is to play the game
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The Independent Football

When Khalilou Fadiga says, "I just want to play football," it is with a sincerity not often heard nowadays. There is no hidden agenda, no plea for clemency to managers warring over his signature, fans bickering over his loyalty or agents squabbling over his percentage. "I just want to play football. It's as simple as that."

When Khalilou Fadiga says, "I just want to play football," it is with a sincerity not often heard nowadays. There is no hidden agenda, no plea for clemency to managers warring over his signature, fans bickering over his loyalty or agents squabbling over his percentage. "I just want to play football. It's as simple as that."

So what's stopping him? After all, he's happy with his lot, with his club, with his contract. And as a midfielder with a left peg so sweet only 18 months ago Internazionale invested £5m in him, surely he's a shoo-in for a side hobbling around for a foothold on the slippery slope of the Premiership.

What's stopping him is fear. Not his own fear or indeed anyone else's fear concerning his ability, temperament or hunger. But fear for his life, and even in the tough-as-nails environs of Bolton Wanderers, this particular emotion does not quiver any stronger.

This is the principal reason why Sam Allardyce will almost certainly plonk the Senegal captain back on the bench at Ewood Park tomorrow night. Not that the gaffer of all gaffers should in any way be slated in his failure to give the 30-year-old the run his talent undoubtedly warrants. It is difficult to think of any other manager in the world who would have had the gumption, the downright courage, still to have Fadiga anywhere near his training pitch, let alone his squad. But Sam loves a fighter, and Fadiga is certainly one of those.

If he wasn't, he would surely have quit by now after two years in which a heart problem forced him first to have surgery, then to leave one of football's giants, to collapse on the pitch before a comeback game and then, finally, to undergo yet more surgery to implant a cardioverter defibrillator. And Kieron Dyer thinks he's had problems.

Not that Fadiga wants sympathy; anything but, in fact. Sympathy and professional football just do not mix. What he does want, however, is for everyone to shut up about that damned pacemaker, and just let him to get on with resurrecting his career. At the top of his "please leave it" list is Professor Marcello Chimienti, a heart specialist connected with Inter, who was kind enough to waive his Hippocratic Oath on patient confidentiality. "Fadiga should give up," he announced to the world. "If he gets hit by a ball, or if a player falls on to his shoulder, the defibrillator will stop functioning - and this will lead to instant death."

Fadiga claims not to know the professor. "What this man - who I only heard about when I read his comments - does not seem to appreciate is that the defibrillator is not by my shoulder but behind my ribs," he said. "Many other specialists have told me there's no danger."

Of course, every step was taken by Bolton to ensure just that, with their head of medicine, Mark Taylor, travelling to Belgium with Fadiga for the procedure at the end of October a few days after he had fainted at the Reebok Stadium in the warm-up for the Carling Cup tie with Tottenham. There he was assured that Fadiga's extra-systole (which means his heartbeats can be irregular) should not spell the end, and that the device, which is about two inches square, would act as a "safety net", just as it had for other sportspeople.

As ever, though, it is the tragedy that wasn't averted that everyone remembers. Marc Vivien-Foé's death during a match for Cameroon in June 2003 sent a shockwave through sport and was the impetus for the International Olympic Committee's inquiry on "Sudden Cardiovascular Death" last month. Fifa are set later this year to implement the recommendations that advocate screening of athletes.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Fadiga, whichever way you look at it, his irregularity came to light a few weeks after Foe's death in a check-up following his move from Auxerre. Inter were understandably cautious and instructed him to take six months off to see if the problem would remedy itself. When it didn't, Fadiga was taken for surgery in Belgium in May last year. But his time at San Siro was effectively all over.

Apart from the negotiations that are still ongoing concerning the settlement of his three-year contract, Fadiga says there is no animosity. "Christian Vieri is still a very good friend and I know that their president, [Massimo] Moratti, respects me.

"They had to make a gut decision about my heart and I told Inter that I wanted to play somewhere else. However many months it takes here to get in the team, there it would have taken longer because of the people who play for them."

Bolton were one of three Premiership teams to come in with the offer of a one-year contract, but Allardyce's renowned charisma and the proximity of a few close acquaintances swung it for Fadiga. On Thursday night, Fadiga spent the evening at the home of Djibril Cissé, the Liverpool striker with whom he played in France and who he is helping overcome the frustrations of a long-term injury (broken leg), and Bolton insiders reveal that his presence has also been a steadying influence on his inter- national team-mate and "best friend" El Hadji Diouf.

"We like it here at Bolton, Dioufy and me. There is not one day when I ever think, 'Why did you come here?' I don't like the weather or it being so grey, but the people are so friendly. At a big team like Inter or maybe Liverpool there are too many people and you don't know who's doing what. But here it's a big family."

But despite feeling settled in Lancashire with his Belgian-born wife, Jill, Fadiga is restless and will not be assuaged by Allardyce's "slowly, slowly" policy in only picking him for FA Cup games, the next at Oldham a week today. "I can't do any more to prove myself. I train when they say, I run when then say, I play when they say. When I played all the game at Ipswich in the last round of the Cup [they won 3-1, with Fadiga impressing] I hadn't started in a first team for more than a year and a half. But at the end I could have played another 20 minutes no problem. Then I played for the reserves on Monday, then again on Wednesday - three games in five days.

"Now I'm fit I don't want just to be playing in the Cup. I want to play in the Premiership, every game. They tell me just to be patient but I can't. I have waited so long. I want it now. I am ready now."

But only Allardyce can decide that. It's lucky Big Sam's shoulders are broad enough to be carrying the hopes of an individual and, yes, the fears of a whole sport.