This is the picture that sports fans thought they would never see. “It’s only the second time I’ve had a chance to kick a football since I had my cardiac arrest,” says Fabrice Muamba, the former Bolton midfielder who in March this year collapsed in front of 35,000 spectators and a television audience of millions during an FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur. “I’m just excited to play. I’ve been to matches and watched others, but I’ve never played properly myself until now.”
It’s the latest stage of a remarkable comeback: seven months ago he was dead on the pitch. An agonising 78 minutes and 15 defibrillator shocks later, his heart finally began pumping again. On 16 April he was discharged from the London Chest Hospital and now, despite being told he will never play professional football again, he is in Kent preparing for a run-out with a local disabled and special needs team in order to support BBC Children in Need.
“I’ve been given a second opportunity in life,” says the 24-year-old. “To have this second life is a chance to do things right, starting with helping these kids. Football has given me so many opportunities, so much in life, and I’ve discovered that a lot of kids love me for some reason! So this is a wonderful way to say thank you.
“Until I came round I had no idea how much of an impact my accident had had. It was overwhelming. The prayers coming from everyone, people we didn’t know, it all helped the family to cope with the situation. Prayer brought the family together.”
He says his Christian faith helps him to deal with life after football. “I’m no different to any other guy, I love football. But my time came. There must be a reason why He kept me here. Otherwise I would have been gone. It’s a reason we’ll know in the near future.”
Born in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1988, Muamba came to England as a refugee when he was 11 years old. Despite not being able to speak English when he first arrived, he went on to earn ten GCSEs and three A-levels while also making his professional debut for Arsenal at just 17 years old. He moved on to Birmingham City, then to Bolton Wanderers.
As he stands by the sideline of a local league match, he admits that being forced to retire was tough to handle. “I always had hope I could make a comeback. All this brings back good memories. With football you’re just free-spirited, you know? I get pretty angry at the moment when I watch and can’t do anything.”
Which is why when Muamba finally does get the chance to play in front of the cameras, he is a marvel. At first the 6ft 2in midfielder trundles gingerly round the pitch, taking care not to catch one of the kids with a flying limb.
But then the competitive spirit kicks in, and he is soon berating the referee, egging on his team and charging after errant passes, only once pausing to catch his breath and feel his chest. He still has an implant connected to his heart – he calls it his “seat belt” – which is designed to give his heart an electric shock if it ever malfunctions and he collapses again.
He was told that he should play no longer than ten minutes at a time. So when he comes off after more than half an hour, breathless but smiling, everyone looks nervous. But not Muamba.
“I don’t carry fears with me any more,” he says defiantly. “Because the biggest fear in my life was lying on the floor with me. I was gone. And I couldn’t take my car with me, I couldn’t take my wallet, I couldn’t take anything. So now I don’t carry any fears.”
So what’s next for football’s miracle man? “I don’t think I’d be able to handle the players well enough to be a coach. I’ve got a short fuse! As a coach, you need to have a big heart. I’ve already had a problem with my heart, so I don’t think that’s going to work!
“I was approached to do Dancing on Ice, but I had to say no. That’s more dangerous than football!” he laughs. “My insurance definitely doesn’t cover that. But I’d do Strictly Come Dancing. I love my salsa, so I’d be well up for that.”
More importantly, this second life is also a chance to make the most of spending time with his fiancée Shauna and their young son Josh – and that means wedding bells.
“The big day’s not long now. I’m looking forward to my stag do! I’m not getting any younger, so I want to do this now rather than later because of what happened to me. It helped put things into perspective.”
To donate to Children in Need: If you would like to make a £5 donation to BBC Children in Need, text “FOOTBALL” to 70705. Text messages will cost £5 plus your standard netweork charge, and every penny of your £5 will go to BBC Children in Need.