Requiem for a midfielder: Remembering Marc-Vivien Foe
The Cameroonian midfielder's sudden death was the Confederation Cup's darkest moment.
It was one of the largest state funerals ever staged in Cameroon.
Thousands of people lined the streets of the capital, Yaounde, trying to get a glimpse of the casket as the funeral procession slowly made its way to Notre Dame des Victoires cathedral.
Inside the church, a steady stream of mourners, including Prime Minister Peter Mafany Musonge and members of the Cameroonian national soccer team (nicknamed the Indomitable Lions), walked by the casket and paid their final respects to their fallen countryman.
During the service, the deceased was awarded the Order of Valour, Cameroon's highest honour, but it was a large banner bearing a simple message hanging on the church wall that perfectly captured the spirit of the man:
"Un lion ne meurt jamais" — a lion never dies.
On June 26, 2003, tragedy struck the FIFA Confederations Cup when Cameroonian midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed in the 72nd minute of a semifinal game against Colombia at Lyon's Stade de Gerland in France.
Dead at 28
Foe was treated on the field before being stretchered off and taken to the stadium's medical centre, where he received more emergency attention, including mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and extra oxygen, But he died shortly after. He was 28 years old.
An autopsy revealed that Foe suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — an abnormally enlarged left ventricle of the heart — and concluded that he died of natural causes.
Foe's sudden death plunged Cameroon into a state of grief and sent profound shockwaves throughout the sports world, as he was the first soccer player to die in an international match since Samuel Okwaraji collapsed during a World Cup qualifier against Angola in 1989.
"It was a huge shock because there had been a number of cases of players collapsing on the field due to cardiac failure since then, but Foe was really the first high-profile, international-calibre player who died on the field," Jason de Vos, a former captain of Canada's national team, told CBCSports.ca.
"It was an event that captured the imagination of everybody. People were asking, 'How could a fit athlete die during the course of a game?'" Canadian soccer commentator Dick Howard said.
Tributes poured in from around the world, including from Thierry Henry, who honoured Foe by pointing to the sky after he opened the scoring in France's 3-2 semifinal victory over Turkey, just hours after his Cameroonian colleague passed away.
Awarded Bronze Ball
After France defeated Cameroon three days later in the final, two of Foe's teammates, Rigobert Song and Samuel Eto'o, held a gigantic photo of him at the post-match ceremony, and a runner-up medal was hung around it. Foe also finished third in media voting for player of the tournament and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Ball award.
That the Confederations Cup continued at all was controversial enough, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter was accused of exploiting Foe's death to ratchet up global media interest in the Cameroon-France final.
"Blatter's enthusiastic endorsement of the suggestion to rename the Confederations Cup after Foe smacks of a brazen attempt to curry favour for the competition," wrote British newspaper the Sunday Herald. "Riding the coattails of legitimate grief and respect for the deceased father-of-two is not just crass, it's simply wrong."
Death is hardly ever timely, but in Foe's case the timing was especially inopportune, as the defensive midfielder was an emerging talent in the English Premier League.
Foe was a teen prodigy who made his national team debut when he was 17 and signed with French club Racing Lens on the strength of his performances at the 1994 World Cup.
After helping Lens win the French championship in 1998, Foe earned a transfer to English side West Ham United but things didn't work out in London. The Cameroonian returned to France two years later when he joined Olympique Lyon.
Foe wasn't done with England, though, as he was loaned out to Manchester City during the 2002-03 campaign and scored an amazing nine goals.
After resuscitating his career in England, Foe's star was clearly on the rise.
A constant presence
De Vos fondly remembered playing against the Cameroonian at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan.
"I can picture him in my mind. He was a big, strong, powerful player. He would burst into the box, a la Frank Lampard. He was a constant presence on the field," de Vos said.
The former Canadian captain likened Foe to Patrick Vieira, the incomparable Frenchman who helped Les Bleus win the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
"That was the reputation he was building for himself, as the next Vieira," de Vos opined. "He was very much in that same mould -- big, strong and dominant, and yet still technically gifted. He wasn't just a destroyer; he was a very talented player overall."
Thankfully, Foe's death was not in vain.
Prior to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, all players were forced to go through mandatory heart testing before they were allowed to compete in the tournament. Last year, FIFA extended the compulsory heart testing program to players of both sexes at all world tournaments, including junior championships.
"Foe's death was such a tragedy, but it did raise the awareness of that condition and I think it's something now that clubs and national teams do a much better job of screening," de Vos said.
It also emphasized the fragility of life.
"I think a lot of players stopped and reflected on how lucky they were to be able to play at that level and compete in the sport they loved and play at the international stage. I really was blessed to be able to do that and represent my country," de Vos stated.
Even in death, Marc-Vivien Foe managed to inspire.
A lion never dies, it only sleeps.