It was supposed to be a celebration. Cameroon was in the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinal against Colombia in Lyon and had escaped with a 1-0 victory to advance to the final against hosts France. All of a sudden, the celebration was cut short by the cries “Marco! Marco!” and the Cameroon captain, Rigobert Song, coming in to inform his team that their teammate, their friend, was dead. It was one of the saddest days in soccer history.
Marc-Vivien Foé was a member of the Cameroon team for the Confederations Cup and was playing in that semifinal against Colombia on June 26, 2003. The match was played in Lyon, where Foé played for Olympique Lyonnais. He was excited to play in the city he called his adopted hometown.
Then, in the 72nd minute, the Cameroonian midfielder was jogging down the field with no other players near him. All of a sudden, approaching the midfield line, he collapsed in a heap. Medics immediately rushed out to him as a hush fell over the crowd. They attempted to revive Foé on the field and stretched him off the field. The iconic photos of the incident are too raw even today for me to show them here, but a quick Google search will further tell the tale: Foé’s arm dangling off the stretcher, his head tilted back with his eyes rolling into the back of his head. It’s a photo that will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Medics attempted for 45 minutes to bring Marc-Vivien Foé back to life, but were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead in the stadium’s medical center underneath the stands. Marco was gone, taken away from the game he loved and the family and friends that loved him at the tender age of 28.
Winifried Schafer, then Cameroon’s manager, recalled that minutes before Foé’s collapse, he wanted to sub him off. He observed that Foé appeared to be tired, but signaled to the coaching staff that he was okay. He then recalled the moments after the team found out that Foé had died:
“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. Then I saw Marco lying there, on a table, with his mother and wife by his side. I touched his leg and I went outside and cried too.”
After two autopsies, it was determined that Foé had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is known to possibly cause sudden death during physical exercise. It was something that hadn’t been discovered in any physicals or routine check-ups. Foé was a strong player who played with grace and was loved by everyone he came across. In the end, a hidden heart defect took him away from us and the shock rippled throughout the sports world. Foé wasn’t the first player to die on the field nor has he been the last, but the images of his collapse and later death will forever be burned into the retinas of anyone who has seen it.
Marc-Vivien Foé’s story is one that hits extremely close to home with me. The 2003 Confederations Cup was the first one I watched, doing so while participating in a summer study abroad program in Spain. I also was born with a heart condition, one that was thankfully corrected by surgery when I was around 18 months old, but still something that I have dealt with my whole life. I watched the first half of that Cameroon-Colombia match before heading out to a social gathering with my study abroad group. I learned about Foé’s collapse after the fact, with TVs everywhere in Madrid showing his collapse and medics stretchering him off the field, his arm dangling lifeless off the stretcher.
It crushed me. As someone who plays just about every sport under the sun, Foé’s death was an eye-opening reminder of the harsh reality that may result from playing a sport at a high level with a heart condition. Now, heart conditions are something that are closely observed in athletes, particularly soccer players. We’ve seen a couple of United States Men’s National Team players go through extended absences or full retirement from the game due to heart ailments (Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson). Marc-Vivien Foé’s death was one that made the soul of the beautiful game cry until it could cry no more. The sadness crippled the world, but through his story many have stressed the importance of better testing for heart conditions and better treatments so that we never have to experience it again. I hope we never have to deal with such sadness, such shock, such absolute hollowness. But I hope the lessons learned from Marc-Vivien Foé’s death about heart ailments and how to properly diagnose them will help save other lives.
For now, we remember Marc-Vivien Foé for the dynamic player he was and for the vibrant soul he was. Because of his bright spirit, his memory will forever live on in black history and soccer history.