The footballing world has been stunned this season after witnessing two players suffering cardiac arrests during matches in the space of just a month. Fabrice Muamba is the high-profile Premier League footballer whose collapse stunned the usually vibrant White Hart Lane crowd into an eerie silence as they watch medics battle to save his life on the pitch.
Just four weeks later in Italy, the same thing happened to Serie B player Piermario Morosini whilst playing for Livorno. The close proximity of the two events was shocking, especially with circumstances so similar – the only difference was Fabrice Muamba only died for 78 minutes before medics were able to revive him…Piermario Morosini wasn’t so lucky.
The contrast between both players fortunes is extreme, but the two events will be forever linked because they were so similar and in such close proximity. A post mortem carried out on the body of Morosini was inconclusive to the cause of his cardiac arrest, whilst the cause of Muamba’s collapse is still unknown. There has been an outcry throughout the football world, and from those around it, for increased cardiac screenings for professional football players. In reality, this is something that should have happened a long time ago, as this is not the first time such incidents have occurred.
My uncle was a good friend of a referee who had progressed from officiating conference football and being a football league assistant referee to refereeing in the football league. His name was Mike North and he was widely tipped to be on his way up to the Premier League as a highly competent and well-respected official.
Mike invited my uncle and cousin to be his guests at a Division Three (now League Two) match he was officiating between Southend and Mansfield at Roots Hall. It was set to be a nice way to end the Easter bank holiday weekend for all of them. Three minutes before half-time Mike suddenly collapsed in the centre circle and died from a heart attack. ‘Northo’ was fit as a fiddle, only weeks before he had flown through his FA medicals at Lilleshall with flying colours. Mike was 42-years-old and left behind a wife and two kids.
What happened to Mike North should have been a wake up call for football, but perhaps a Division Three game wasn’t high profile enough for people to sit up and take note or maybe it was the fact it happened to a referee rather than a player. Mike North died on the 16th of April 2001, paramedics spent 5 minutes on the pitch trying to revive him, before further attempts in the dressing room and also at hospital, but he was pronounced dead at 4.20pm after collapsing at around 3.42pm.
Two years later in 2003, a similar event happened to Ex-West Ham, Manchester City and Cameroon international, Marc Vivien-Foe, who collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest during a FIFA Confederations Cup match. 45 minutes were spent trying to revive Foe; he was the first high-profile football player to suffer this fate in modern times.
Maybe if the death of Mike North was taken more seriously, Foe’s death could have been avoided with the introduction of more rigorous screening programs. It wasn’t until after Foe’s death that the football world realised the risk Cardiac Arrest during a football match could be. Regardless of whether you are a match official or a player, the physical demands that football can exert on your heart are huge; it is the only muscle that really matters.
Following Foe’s death, it doesn’t seem like enough was done to make football change it’s practices and make sure players were checked as thoroughly as possible for heart conditions. Seville’s Antonio Puerta and Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell are just two other professional players to sadly die during a game and there are a good few more.
Currently players are checked by a electrocardiogram (ECG) and, if they are lucky, an echocardiogram that monitors the heart for deficiencies. Many are only tested by an ECG, which can miss some symptoms. Tests on the heart are usually made whilst a player is at resting condition and the heart muscle is not under stress, which does not simulate real match conditions. A relative and acceptable world-wide standard of testing must be set.
There is no doubt that provisions at matches have improved with emergency medics at grounds ready to respond to incidents quickly as we saw with Muamba, but even so, he was lucky their was a cardiac specialist, Dr Andrew Deaner, in the crowd that day. Such provision have existed elsewhere for years; former Germany international Gerald Asamoah is one modern-day player to be diagnosed with a serious heart condition and carry on his career. The German FA ruled there must be a defibrillator on hand every time he played.
What about at training grounds? Maybe the same intensity isn’t reached during mid-season training, but it will be during youth and reserve games as well as in pre-season. Standards need to be raised.
For me the answer is simple, like a lot of things it is more about prevention. Players are paid to perform at high intensity levels, although we don’t think about it, and I doubt they do, they are putting their bodies on the line with the amount of stress their bodies are subjected to during a match. A minimum standard of check needs to be introduced worldwide and it cannot be just an ECG, it needs to be more and this is just a start. Football needs to learn from the past so further deaths can be avoided in future before it is too late. Footballers may seem it, but they are not invincible, just blood, flesh and bone like you or I.