Written by Tom Victor
When West Ham manager Harry Redknapp dipped into the transfer market in January 1999, one of his two signings captured more of the headlines.
Paolo di Canio had his place in the tabloids after the former Sheffield Wednesday striker had picked up a near-unprecedented 11-match ban for a shove on referee Paul Alcock, and was seen as the man to help the London club respond to the sale of John Hartson and maintain their place in the top half of the Premier League table.
However the second man to arrive that week did so with far less fanfare, despite being at the time a club record signing. Cameroon international midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé arrived for £4.2m from French side Lens, and would prove just as important as his Italian team-mate in helping the Irons secure fifth place in the Premier League, a feat which remains the side’s highest finish in the Premier League era.
After making his debut for hometown side Canon Yaoundé in the early 1990s, Foé’s international career began in relatively inauspicious circumstances. As a teenager he was thrown onto the World Cup stage in a team which was big enough to fail, a rarity for African sides in 1994. And fail they did, exiting in the group stage with a 6-1 defeat to Russia which secured Oleg Salenko’s golden shoe despite Pavel Sadyrin’s side also falling at the first hurdle.
However it was off the back of the midfielder’s individual performances that the move to Europe – and specifically to Lens – was forthcoming.
He would ultimately help the club to its first and until now only Ligue 1 title in 1998 before moving to West Ham the following January as the London club chased European football. A big-money move to Olympique Lyonnais brought him a second Championnat, before he returned to England – joining Manchester City for a year’s loan spell – following another World Cup group stage exit in 2002, in the tournament held in Japan and South Korea.
Despite that disappointment in the Far East, Cameroon had earlier that year experienced success in the African Cup of Nations thanks to a victory in the final on penalties over a strong Senegalese side. By virtue of that victory, Winnie Schäfer’s squad entered a relatively competitive 2003 Confederations Cup in France, progressing from a group including Brazil, Turkey and the United States with a game to spare.
They drew Colombia in the semi-finals, with Foé stepping out onto the turf at Stade Gerland for the first time in a competitive game since moving to Manchester, and with the anticipation that he would return to Lyon for the forthcoming Ligue 1 and Champions League campaign.
The opponents that day were a Colombia side fresh from a surprise Copa America victory the prior year (much-fancied Argentina had withdrawn from the tournament after receiving death threats) and group-winners Cameroon entered the match as favourites. With France set to face unfancied Turkey the following day, there was every chance that Foé would line up against Lyon team-mates Grégory Coupet and Sidney Govou in the final.
However in the 72nd minute of the match, with no player near him, Foé collapsed in the centre circle. While this occurred one year before the death of Benfica striker Miki Fehér from the same heart condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), and nearly a decade before the collapse of English midfielder Fabrice Muamba in a cup tie between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, concern for Foé was immediately apparent. Medics were rushed onto the field, attempting to resuscitate him there and then, however following efforts on and off the pitch, he was pronounced dead shortly after entering the Olympique Lyonnais medical centre.
Nevertheless, despite the urgency of the medical staff inside the stadium, the players and coaching staff involved were less aware of the severity of the situation. Unlike in the instance of Muamba’s collapse, the game was completed, with Cameroon holding on for a 1-0 victory through Pius Ndiefi’s first-half goal.
Speaking to BBC World Service about the incident, Schäfer claimed the players had been celebrating reaching the final, Foé’s collapse far from the forefront of their minds, before hearing the news. That is, apart from team captain Rigobert Song, who had played for West Ham within a year of Foé’ and eschewed the celebrations in order to check on his teammate and friend. It was Song who broke the news about the man known affectionately as ‘Marco’.
“Everyone was shocked and was asking why. All the players were crying. I went out of the dressing room and heard two ladies crying very, very loudly,” Schäfer said.
Remarkably the tournament continued as scheduled following Foé’s death, despite the obvious emotional impact not just on his international teammates but also on the French squad, many of whom had played either with or against him in Ligue Un over the prior decade.
Those who witnessed the semi-final between the hosts and Turkey will have found it difficult to forget the image of Les Bleus in tears during the national anthem, none more so than Coupet, Foé’s Lyon teammate of two years, who had to be comforted by those around him.
Tragedy had struck Coupet previously when fellow Lyon goalkeeper Luc Borrelli died in a car accident in 1999, and the France number one had made the association between Borelli and Foé when making the case for going ahead with the final.
At the press conference after France’s semi-final victory, Coupet said: “I had a difficult time with the death of Luc Borelli and we won for him.”
“Even during the game [against Turkey] I thought a lot about Foé and his family” Coupet said. “For a moment [before the game] none of us knew exactly where we were [but] we must continue, because life goes on.”
“[In the dressing room] it was just nice to be able to be open to everyone,” Cooupet added. He was like a big brother, it’s really sad to know that a man like that could leave.”
Two other members of the squad, Sidney Govou and Steve Marlet, had played with Foé at Lyon, while many more had played against him in the English Premier League the season prior. One of those, Arsenal’s Thierry Henry, scored France’s opener against Turkey and later admitted “when I scored, my thoughts were with Marc-Vivien’s family.”
Emotions were naturally running high ahead of the final, and while some were unequivocal in their desire for the game to go ahead, others did not share such a viewpoint.
“We know that there are constraints and money involved, but if a French player had died we would not play,” Ludovic Giuly explained, however he respected the desires of the Cameroon squad, and Rigobert Song in particular, to play the final in honour of their late teammate.
“If God gives us this victory this would be marvellous for Marco. If we win that Cup we will dedicate it to him,” Song said.
France ultimately won a subdued final through Henry’s extra-time goal, incidentally one of the last instances of a Golden Goal deciding a major tournament, though the actual outcome of the game was largely academic.
Before kickoff the Cameroon players warmed up in shirts bearing Foé’s name and number, and his photo was held aloft by Song and goalkeeper Carlos Kameni during a minute’s silence before the game. In a moving gesture after the game, FIFA president Sepp Blatter placed a runner-up medal on the photo as Song was invited to join France captain Marcel Desailly in the trophy presentation.
In the days following Foé’s death, a number of theories were espoused. Questions were asked about potential connections to the severe bout of malaria which had truncated his two year spell in Lyon, while it would also emerge that he had been suffering from dysentery in the month of his death. There were also allegations of doping, quickly dismissed by Cameroon’s team doctor Olivier Assamba, before an autopsy on 7th July confirmed a near-untraceable cardiomyopathy hypertrophia as the cause of death.
French international Emmanuel Petit was one of the more outspoken individuals in the following weeks. Petit’s brother Olivier, an amateur footballer, had died on the pitch in 1988 while playing for his club Arques and the former Arsenal midfielder said at the time “There are times when you should sit back and think about the men before thinking about the game.”
In the summer of 2003, Cameroon shirts with Foé’s name and number could be seen across Europe, with his death hitting the football community hard. Manchester City retired the number 23 shirt in his honour, whilst Lyon did the same with the number 17, which was also the number on the back of his shirt for Cameroon’s Confederations Cup campaign.
It would be in emotional circumstances that the shirt was ‘un-retired’, with Jean Makoun – a similarly influential Cameroonian central midfielder, requesting the number upon signing from Lille in 2008. “In memory of Marc, for me and for the whole Cameroon, this will be for something,” Makoun said.
Similarly, the number 17 takes particular significance in the current Cameroon squad. It is the number which Alexandre Song, cousin of Rigobert, has worn during the majority of his club career at Arsenal and Barcelona.
Elsewhere within French domestic football, Foé’s name will live long in the memory through the introduction of the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé for the best performing African footballer in Ligue 1. Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh was the first recipient of the award in 2009, while Cameroon international defender Nicolas N’Koulou has been runner-up twice.
The following year, Foé’s widow Marie-Louise established the Marc-Vivien Foé Fund, dedicated to research and prevention of cardiac arrest. Thierry Henry and Cameroon and Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o are co-founders of the association, which forms part of La Fondation Coeur et Artères (The Heart and Arteries Foundation).
At the time the fund was established, more than 1,000 athletes were reported to be dying of cardiac arrest in France every year, and Marie-Louise Foé – the ‘godmother’ of the fund – said upon at its formation “This fund can help save lives and prevent families from living through what our family lived through.”
The death of Marc-Vivien Foé has undoubtedly stayed with the football community, as evidenced by the minute’s applause during the 23rdminute of last spring’s Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United, as this year marks the 10th anniversary of that tragic evening in Lyon. He may no longer be with us, but no figure can be put on the lives saved as a consequence of the actions taken after his death.