It was just 11 months ago that Steve Zakuani was on the field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park playing against the Colorado Rapids when his pro career flashed before his eyes after the Sounders FC midfielder suffered a fracture of his tibia and fibula.
On Saturday, even that pivotal event seemed minute to Zakuani when Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffered a heart attack during his match.
“Football becomes irrelevant,” said Zakuani, who played in Arsenal’s youth system with Muamba. “Nothing else matters.”
Just as he had on hundreds of Saturday’s before, Zakuani turned on his television to watch Bolton Wanderers face Tottenham Hotspur in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. It was in the 35th minute with a 1-1 score. Five minutes later, his day, and the day of all others who were watching, changed dramatically.
In the 41st minute of the match at White Hart Lane in London, Muamba collapsed to the field with a heart attack. Medics then spent six minutes on the field trying to resuscitate him, using a defibrillator in an attempt to revive him before taking him to the heart attack center at The London Chest Hospital.
After talking it over with managers from both sides, the referee decided to abandon the match.
Muamba, 23, is currently listed in critically ill condition at the intensive care unit at The London Chest Hospital.
“Everyone who knows Fabrice, it has not been an easy day. It’s tragic,” Zakuani said. “You don’t want to see it happen to any pro, but when it happens to someone you’ve known since your teenage years and you’ve played with who’s from your country and from your city, then it becomes tough. My thoughts are with him and I’ve been keeping up with his progress. It’s just a hard time.”
As soon as he realized the severity of the circumstances, Zakuani started receiving messages from friends back in London, updating him on the progress of his fallen friend. He wasn’t sure if Muamba would survive
Zakuani was already in Arsenal’s youth system when Muamba started playing for the London club in 2002.
Like Zakuani, Muamba grew up in Kinshasa, Zaire – what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo – and fled with his family to London amid political turmoil.
With their shared story, Zakuani and Muamba were fast friends. Even when Zakuani left Arsenal and eventually came to America to play collegiately at Akron they stayed in touch. From the beginning, Zakuani would rib Muamba about his size and strength.
“I remember when Fabrice first came to Arsenal – he was really big and we used to make fun of him and say he wasn’t really the same age as us,” Zakuani said.
As it turns out, Zakuani is convinced that his strength is keeping him alive.
All he can do now is wait by his phone for updates on his fallen friend. And while it is easy to draw the comparison to Zakuani’s horrendous injury last year, he is quick to point out how fortunate he was in that event.
“From the beginning I said that as tough as the injury was, I still had my general health,” Zakuani said. “I can rehab, but he is fighting for his life. For his family, I hope for the best.”