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The culture of association football is sometimes best regarded as a blank canvas onto which we can project just about any value system. Over the years, it has come to take on its own ecosystem as a world of its own. It has clearly defined seasons, its own judiciary – which mirrors but seldom matches that of the outside world – and it demands its own autonomy, free from what  it haughtily describes as “outside interference.” There are limits to this independence, though, and this is no more true than when death’s icy hand reaches in and reminds us that we are all, as it were, only here on a short term loan.

This season, those of us that immerse ourselves in the peculiar physics of this parallel universe have seen this intrusion force itself upon us several times over this season. The death of the Wales manager Gary Speed last year, for example, was a horrible reminder to all of us that notions of “success” and “failure” within this universe are fleeting and that the hidden depths of those amongst with everything invested in this particular universe can easily be interrupted by the world outside.

The universal praise for Speed after his passing was as much about this man as a human being as it was about him as a professional footballer or as the manager of a football team, and the debate held after his death on the touchy and difficult issue of depression and football was – even if it might not even have been relevant in the specific case of Speed himself – in some ways a refreshingly human one. Some of us allowed our masks to slip, to allow the world a brief glimpse behind the avatar that we employ in this particular universe.

Depression, the dark manifestation of a problem with the hard wiring of the brain, was discussed with an honesty which, whilst faltering, felt light years from any previous discussion of it in this particular universe. This, perhaps, was one of the unintended consequences of Speed’s untimely death, and if one other person’s life was saved as a result of it, or if one other person who had been feeling the storm clouds of this frequently debilitating condition was encouraged to at least seek the assistance of those in the other world with the skill to untie the psychological knots into which we can tie ourselves, then his life will have served a purpose far beyond the transient pleasures that most in the game can ever offer us.

Death can never be indefinitely cheated, of course, but it can at least be postponed with the help of medical science and we were reminded of this last night as the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba made his public return to The Reebok Stadium for his team’s match against Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane in March was a moment to make the blood of all watching run cold, its aftermath a peculiar mixture of genuine concern, occasional bouts of mawkishness and, ultimately, recovery. Those weeks saw the very best and very worst of human nature with all stops inbetween, but they paled into insignificance alongside the only matter related to this story – this player’s survival.

That the life or death of one young man would provide one of the good news stories of the season says something about the extent to which the other, “real” world, with all of its seemingly random, mundane horrors, intrudes into football’s bubble, but wider contextual debate of this were dwarfed by the simple, human drama of a young man – a father, a partner and a son – fighting for his very life. Those amongst us that believe in higher forces might have prayed for him. Others, supporters of Bolton Wanderers, may have offered a quasi-Faustian pact offering the club’s Premier League soul in return for Muamba’s life. The metaphysical question of the difference this might have made is one the answer to which could fill a book. For now, perhaps, it should be enough to be eternally grateful for the prompt and superb actions of the medical staff that saved his life.

It is, perhaps notable that such flashes of humanity should have been visible during a season that has otherwise been directed by the ultra-partisans and the tribalists. So much of the culture of modern football – far from merely the clubs and players themselves – is concerned with winning at all costs and the double-standards which inevitably accompany such an outlook that any glimpses of fraternity that cuts across club loyalties becomes something that is a minor cause for glee. That said, however, the greater cause for glee was on display at The Reebok Stadium last night. Regardless of what happens to the remainder of Bolton Wanderers’ season – and Tottenham Hotpur’s 4-1 win there last night took a little of the gloss from any celebrations that Bolton’s supporters may have been hoping for last night – this season will be remembered as the season that Fabrice Muamba lived. It’s a greater prize than the game of football could ever offer of itself.

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