I still remember the 26th of June 2003. It was the summer holidays after my first year of university. The sun shone brightly, which isn’t necessarily a given during English summers, the girls were out sunning themselves, showing off just enough to pique the imagination, and the mood was carefree. My friends and I spent the time idly wiling away the hours; kickabouts in the park, crossbar challenges (3 points for hitting the bar, 1 point for either post), barbeques, beers and outdoor parties long into the night. It was Summertime by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Catch the Sun by Doves. It was a wonderfully easy-going, untroubled time.
I remember well the day of the Confederations Cup semi finals. It was a relatively new tournament then, only it’s fourth instalment in the modern format, and not too many people cared about it. Nevertheless the desire, no, need to watch football still burnt within me, and I had been following the tournament eagerly.
Cameroon vs Colombia and France vs Turkey were two games I really wanted to see. France were the holders, spurred on by the likes of Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry. Cameroon were a mighty force, resilient and tough to beat. Turkey had just eliminated world champions Brazil.
Cameroon were playing Colombia in the first semi final, but just as I settled down to watch, some friends came over and somehow managed to drag me away. By the time I got back, France were playing Turkey at the Stade de France. And something wasn’t right.
Within a few minutes Henry gave France the lead. The commentator (I think it was on Eurosport) announced the goal with a tone completely devoid of enthusiasm. Hardly anyone in the crowd cheered. The French players gathered together for a hug but it seemed joyless.
Henry pointed towards the sky, which I wanted to interpret as typical Henry posturing, but it didn’t sit right. The commentator then linked the gesture with ‘the events of today’ and alarm bells rang.
At a break in play I checked Sky Sports News and watched on in a state of horror. The words scrolled across the screen in black font on the big yellow alert bar that is the channel’s custom for breaking news. ‘Marc-Viven Foe collapses and dies during Cameroon’s 1-0 win against Colombia.’ The excruciatingly slow way in which the words scrolled across the screen only accentuated the tension and sense of tragedy, each word burning into my spirit, a hammer blow to my fading desire not to believe it.
“Un lion ne meurt jamais” — a lion never dies
Marc-Vivien Foe passed away whilst gaining his 64th cap for Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions were 1-0 up against Colombia and down to ten men when, in the 72nd minute, Foe collapsed in the centre circle. Medics spent 45 minutes trying to resuscitate him but shortly after arriving at hospital, he died. An autopsy revealed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and concluded that his death was heart related.
Foe’s death left Cameroon, Africa and the entire football world in shock. A roving, powerful central midfielder, Foe won two African Cup of Nations and two French league championships, with Lens in 1998 and Lyon in 2002. He played at two World Cup finals and scored 8 goals in 64 appearances for his country.
The extent of the respect Marc-Vivien Foe commanded and his likeable nature was summed up by the reaction to his passing. In Yaounde, Foe’s place of birth, mourners poured onto the streets within minutes of learning the sad news and all major TV and radio stations halted regular coverage to turn their attentions to one of Yaounde’s most famous sons. The day before the funeral over 30,000 people flocked to Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, near his family home, to honour Foe’s remains.
He was given a state funeral, attended by Cameroon State President Paul Biya as well as other high ranking officials. Rigobert Song and FIFA president Sepp Blatter were among those to read eulogies. Manchester City retired the number 23 shirt; Foe was the last City player ever to score at the club’s now defunct Maine Road stadium. Racing Club de Lens renamed an avenue near their Felix Bollaert Stadium after him. Foe was also posthumously awarded Cameroon’s Commander of the National Order of Valour.
At the Confederations Cup final between Brazil and USA tomorrow FIFA will stage a memorial in memory of Marc-Vivien Foe before the match. It is a wonderful gesture to a great man who will never be forgotten.
Marc-Vivien Foe was not only a warrior-like midfielder but a figure loved by many in the game. His calm, reserved nature was at complete odds with his stature and on-pitch bustling style. When pressed once by the BBC about his seemingly shy persona he answered, “my strength is my calmness. I believe you are at your best when you are discrete and calm”.
Manchester City deputy chairman John Wardle offered a glowing testament to Foe’s personality:
“You could not meet a better professional. He never gave anyone an ounce of trouble. Typically he was going to spend his summer teaching youngsters the game back in France. We gave him a f
ew days off at the end of the season so he could go back for the birth of his daughter and when he returned he just couldn’t stop smiling. He will go down in history as the last City player to score at Maine Road. We are devastated.”
The legacy of Marc-Vivien Foe goes on. Blatter spoke recently about Foe’s lasting impact on health matters in football:
“One of the legacies of Marc-Vivien Foe’s unfortunate death is that Fifa is providing medical care and aid where we possibly can. Foe’s death has brought a new approach to the prevention of health, disease and cardiologic problems in football organisation. More and more, a special cardiologic check-up has to be done before tournaments – just as Fifa has done with the eight teams at this year’s U-20 World Cup in Egypt. Another result was that Fifa has now recommended that a defibrillating machine should be present in all stadiums where football is played.”
Personally I will never forget that sad summer’s day in 2003. The harrowing, heartbreaking image of Foe dying was splashed insensitively all over the tabloids, eyes rolling back into his head as medics and players screamed frantically for help. It is an image that will haunt the periphery of my mind for a long, long time. Even now, my heart instinctively skips a beat whenever that yellow breaking news banner appears on Sky.
Nevertheless, in a country and indeed continent that largely looks at death as a passing into the afterlife, a heightened form of existence as we know it (Foe himself was deeply religious), it is strangely comforting to see how Marc-Vivien Foe is so celebrated in Cameroon, rather than mourned. There he has war hero status, a man who gave his life defending his country. Patrice Etoundi Mballa wrote in the Cameroon Tribune at the time:
“We should not forget that Marc-Vivien Foe’s was a tremendous destiny. To die on the football field, having minutes earlier sung the national anthem of his nation and guided his teammates into the final of a major competition…few are granted the chance to end their earthly voyage in such beauty. Few have deserved such reverance and admiration from their homeland.”
With untimely death at just 28, the story of Marc-Vivien Foe is one that ends in tragedy. But for the people of Cameroon, his was the ultimate sacrifice, a Pheidippidean tale of bravery and courage that elevated this shy, humble man from the most modest of backgrounds to the type of lavish, extravagant send-off usually reserved for presidents and Kings. As Peter Mabu Shey puts it:
“It is an honour indeed to die in a battle which has been won by your country. The good deeds done on the stage live for ever, even after the curtain falls.”