From fleeing a war zone to winning battles in midfield

Fabrice Muamba arrived in London nine years ago with four words of English after leaving central Africa. Now the Bolton man has mastered the language and is waiting for Capello's call
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The Independent Football

The next time Juande Ramos reflects that a newlife in England cannot possibly get harder, he might try half an hour or so in the company of a Bolton midfielder his Spurs side will encounter at White Hart Lane this afternoon.

Fabrice Muamba's adjustment to his adoptive nation is one of the most remarkable in football and perhaps best summed up by the fact that nine years ago he was wandering around east London, equipped with four words of English – "hello, how are you?" – and today he is an erudite England Under-21 international with genuine aspirations to play a part in Fabio Capello's plans.

Muamba's progress between those two staging posts has not been easy, either in football or in life. Arsène Wenger, who saw his potential as a fast, strong-tackling midfielder and took him into Arsenal's academy, once described him as "the new Patrick Vieira", although the player's arrival at the Reebok, via Birmingham City, suggests he has not quite reached that pedigree yet. But he is still only 20, and a procession through the nether reaches of the Premier League is more acceptable when you have voyaged through life in the way that he has.

There was always a sense that life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) – whose borders he had never crossed before he and his mother, Gertrude, found themselves deposited at Heathrow Airport with no notion of what the future held nine years ago – was not normal. The boyhood games of football were terminated by the dangers of gunfire, not dusk, and it was in 1996 that Muamba's father, Marcel, was forced to flee the country's bloody civil war and win indefinite leave to remain here. A politician who was affiliated to President Mobotu Sese Soko's government, he had found himself targeted by the anti-Mobotu rebels who had combined to form the Alliance of Democratic Forces.

Three long years elapsed before his family followed him, and though there were none of the experiences of exile many face in this country – confinement to bail hostels, joblessness while asylum applications are weighed up – Muamba has many dark memories of those uncertain years. The shelter the family took back home with his father's brother, who was later killed; the bitterDecember day he and his bewildered mother alighted at Heathrow.

And, perhaps inevitably, there were the suspicions which so many who seek refuge here encounter. "I actually didn't really feel it until two or three years ago, when I sensed some people trying to make me feel apart, like someone who had no right to be here," Muamba says. "I was at school when a girl said to me, 'Go back to your country'. I tried to ignore it, but you can't. It does make you feel a bit – how can I say – 'iffy'."

It is an experience which has strengthened Muamba's resolve to contribute to the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign – for which he is an ambassador – during its week-long campaign of events which concludes tomorrow.

In life, as in football, he says, those who find themselves on the outside need others who are prepared to listen before they judge, and the individual who did so like none other was Wenger. "He is a different type of person to anyone I've met before or since," Muamba says. "He is unusual because you ask him a question and you wait 10 seconds and he's still not answered and you're thinking, 'Is this guy talking to me?' He doesn't rush. If he answers your question he thinks first, and a lot of people don't do that."

Listening meant understanding. When Wenger first sat down to speak to Muamba he had a detailed grasp of his background and knew the realities. Muamba says: "You need to use an Oyster card but you don't know how. You don't know how to change trains to get from Walthamstow to Wood Green. You're way behind life- wise. Wenger told me, 'You'll catch up with them because it always takes time in life'."

Muamba actually surpassed many of those he learned with at Arsenal, a club who had cottoned on to his performances for his school in Waltham Forest. Aged 17, he made his first-team debut in a Carling Cup tie against Sunderland in October 2005. Steve Bruce took him to Birmingham on loan and offered £4 million to make the deal permanent two summers ago. The desire to "play in as high a league as possible and keep learning", Muambasays, saw him move to Lancashire.

Muamba has been an ever-present for Gary Megson this season, and his personal journey will see him start an Open University course in maths and accountancy in February which he hopes will enable him to contribute back in his country of birth one day.

But for this afternoon, three points from Spurs would be achievement enough. Muamba, who encountered David Bentley around the Arsenal set-up and knows Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon from England, speaks as plainly as you could ask of anyone in his new language. "At this present moment I'm right in saying Spurs are not doing their best and we will definitely try to take advantage of that."


Chelsea v Liverpool (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)

Recent recoveries to beat Manchester City and Wigan 3-2 after trailing have emphasised Liverpool's spirit and resilience, but they can hardly rely on doing the same here. Usually at the Bridge they keep things tight, try to snatch a goal – and fail.

Manchester City v Stoke (3.0pm)

After the encouragement of decent performances in defeat, Stoke's win over Spurs will have promoted further self-belief. Given the comic potential of City's defence, Rory Delap's howitzer throw-ins could produce more mayhem than ever.

Portsmouth v Fulham (5.0pm)

The odd kick-off time is due to the Great South Run; Harry Redknapp is concerned about his small squad hitting the wall in a mini-marathon of three matches in seven days. An opportunity for Fulham after five games without a win.

Tottenham v Bolton (3.0pm)

Successive games against Hull and Stoke were supposed to revive Spurs' fortunes but instead they have looked as fragile as a piece of Wedgwood. Cracks are becoming all the more obvious, and muscular Bolton won't handle them daintily.

West Ham v Arsenal (4.0pm, Sky Sports 1)

Two teams with an attacking philosophy. West Ham have not kept a clean sheet in 22 games dating back to February. Arsenal have looked woeful in defence with Alex Song and Mikaël Silvestre. Plenty of goals expected.

Wigan v Aston Villa (3.0pm)

An Egyptian hero propels Wigan into the top half of the Premier League; what a wonderfully wacky world. Amr Zaki has taken the League, and the Latics, by storm. Villa must contain him better than Liverpool did last week.

Steve Tongue