Fabrice Muamba may never play again for Bolton or the England set-up, but his triumphant return to the Reebok Stadium last night was something out of a fairytale.
When he collapsed with a cardiac arrest on the field during the Tottenham v Bolton F.A. Cup tie on the 17th March, a whole nation feared the worst. White Hart Lane watched stunned as paramedics performed CPR and defebrilation on the pitch in full view of everyone present and watching on television. Luck would have it that an expert cardiologist was also present in the stadium.
That day, fans and players alike tweeted to urge everyone to pray for a miracle. It later emerged his heart had stopped working for 78 minutes, during which time he was effectively dead. Fast-acting doctors had ensured he had a fighting chance, although his heart did not work again unaided until two days after the initial attack, when his condition was changed from critical to serious.
A month later he was discharged from the London Chest Hospital and last night returned like a conquering hero to Bolton Wanderers.
"I am ok. I am getting stronger every day and happy to be back," said a subdued but clearly touched Muamba.
Muamba's return was as if the hopes and prayers of a nation's football followers had resuscitated him as much as the doctors had. "Even if you're not religious, pray for Fabrice", said a memorable tweet.
Football is sometimes compared to organised worship and at times like this the boundaries cross. At White Hart Lane, supporters clasped their hands as if praying to God for deliverance from death. Who knows if the collective willing of Muamba to live had an effect science has yet to explain.
But yesterday's reunion showed football's sense of community at its strongest. Sharing emotions en masse is perhaps the sport's greatest attraction. Whether the experience is good or bad, we want to feel it with others around us, and that makes us feel we belong.
The stadium rose as one to acclaim their favourite son as he rejoined them. To see an African-born son of an asylum-seeker acclaimed so joyously by so many native Britons was proof enough that football can bring out the best in humanity.
Welcome back Fabrice.
-Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile