Football fans get a bad rap. It’s often deserved.
I first understood the full scary nature of a football mob mentality when at my first La Liga match. At the Barcelona derby in December 2003, I was amused to find Parakeet ultras lighting fires, fighting police in running battles and frisbee-ing seats dangerously close to players on the pitch – until they came into my section of Montjuïc Stadium. As they closed on our section, amusement gave way quickly to apprehension. It speaks volumes to Marc Overmars’ elusive ability not that he created several goals on the night, but that he also avoided the barrage of broken polymer.
There are also myriad more incidents of both pre-meditated and unconscious bigotry that make observers uncomfortable in their own skin – regardless of colour, gender or sexual preference.
But there are times which make you rejoice at the spirit of your brothers – or even in that of your opponents. I’m not talking about last minute goals, Champions League victories or even campaigns like Save Darlo, but of the horrible events of Saturday’s FA Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers.
Watching the match from the sofa was horrifying; to imagine being at the match itself doesn’t bear thinking about. After seeing the young midfielder convulse once, Fox Soccer Channel wisely opted not to telecast further the resuscitation efforts, but the tears of those at the ground were evidence enough that Muamba was in grave trouble.
To then hear Spurs fans chant “Fabrice Muamba” again and again while the player was treated was one of the most touching things I’ve seen in football. Many argue that football has lost part of its humanity as a result of its occupation by the twin armies of tribalism and capitalism. No matter how unflinching the game has become, decency won out on this occasion in a resounding chorus.
We can only hope and pray Fabrice Muamba wins his battle also.
The chants, though strictly unnecessary, were an honest human response to a man in serious danger. It was an entirely honourable action, performed by nearly all those at White Hart Lane who could still speak. I don’t think I’ll remember another moment from this footballing year with more clarity, both for the sickening situation and for the cumulative response of Tottenham fans.
Since the advent of cutthroat professionalism and the arrival of the football-as-a-business era, the term “honourable” hasn’t been used that often. It is these moments, though, and not just glamour goals, saves or results that we fans remember. Players’ actions leave a mark on us, often moreso than the result of their endeavours. To take a high-profile example, I can’t remember who won the race – at the peak of their rivalry – in which John Landy helped up Ron Clarke after he had fallen; the image is seminal to what it means to be Australian. I’m sure everyone can recollect similar instances without pausing for thought.
On the whole, responses since Muamba's collapse have been overwhelmingly positive from players, administrators and fans alike. But, for their initial, vocal, offer of support, Spurs’ fans chants stood out as entirely honourable, a gleaming – albeit small – positive from an awful event.