Fabrice Muamba: Football gave me confidence as a refugee to be myself

The first day at a new school is always intimidating; new surroundings to adjust to, new faces to recognise and new challenges everywhere you look. 

Spare a thought then for Fabrice Muamba. Aged 11, he started life in a London comprehensive having just moved to England from the Democratic Republic from Congo, formerly known as Zaire. Looking back, Muamba describes the feeling as being “thrown in at the deep end – the only words I knew were, ‘Hello, how are you?’

“Everything else I just had no idea and didn’t understand. So for me it was ground-breaking in terms of putting myself out there, and starting to learn a new language, making new friends, learning a new culture and different environment.”

Muamba’s story is inspirational without even mentioning his recovery from a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup quarter-final in 2012. Having been born in Zaire in 1988, his father was forced to seek asylum in England after a change in regime that threatened his livelihood. Muamba was just six.

“For my father, the best thing to do was get out as quick as you can before they came to find him,” he says.

“He did the best thing to do and got out and was fortunate enough to seek asylum in England and help me and my brothers to come over.”

Until that turmoil, life had been comfortable for Muamba.

“I had a decent upbringing, I wasn’t suffering or anything like that,” he says. “I was fortunate enough that my dad had a decent job so it wasn’t as bad as some people. It’s only when you come to England and had to start all over again. But I had a good upbringing,

“I went to a decent school, I had a meal on the table, I had food and I could enjoy life. Just the transition when I went to England, that’s when things became a bit different.”

That would happen five years after his dad left Zaire, leading to the aforementioned strangeness of Muamba’s first day in an English school. He had grown up speaking French – Zaire had been formerly colonised by Belgium – and was forced to adapt to a whole new way of life.

“it took me until year nine to fully adjust,” Muamba says, “when I had become more fluent in English and was able to make more friends and be understood more. This helped me understand the culture better.”

Football helped. By this stage, Muamba’s sporting prowess was beginning to make itself known and opened doors for him among his peers.

“I made lots of friends because I was decent at football. So if anybody wanted to play football they’d see the tall African lad and that’s how I got to know everybody and manoeuvre myself better.

“For me, sport was my get-out clause. It gave me more confidence to be myself. Football gave me a pastime, it made me appreciate life more, but also I made a lot of friends on the back of it.”

Joining Arsenal

By this time, Arsenal had come calling. Muamba signed schoolboy terms aged 14 and moved into their academy two years later in 2004. This provided another culture shock.

“In the Congo we just used to play outside but the academy was so structured in comparison. We were told, ‘This is how you should be doing this and that,’ so for me it was a whole other learning curve to learn how to play with different guys.

“Like when you play with your mates you just dribble, dribble, dribble, whereas in the academy it was pass and move and all that. Arsenal literally took me back to basics and I almost had to start all over again to play at that level.”

As he became closer to the first team, eventually making his debut in a League Cup game at Sunderland in 2005, Wenger became more aware of his young midfielder’s upbringing.

“It was only when I was close to the first team that he knew what had happened to me by the time I got to England. Arsene just said he’s there if I had a problem or anything to help me out. He was a manager with a personal touch.”

Muamba was speaking courtesy of KLABU, an organisation that provides refugee camps in Africa and beyond with access to sport and sporting equipment. They have recently revealed streetwear-styled football kits that will appear in this year’s FIFA 21 game, produced alongside Avery Dennison.

KLABU allows people to connect and provides equipment like kits,” Muamba says. “I love being able to help people back home, being able to provide an opportunity for them – there’s a lot of daily stuff that people take for granted. Football is a passage for everybody and is able to break down barriers.

“The association with FIFA will help. Football is a universal sport and FIFA in the computer world is a universal game so KLABU had the great idea of collaborating with FIFA. With our foundation, we are able to help people back home.

“There is a market and an opportunity there to reach a massive audience through EA Sports and KLABU hope to make the most of this.”

To further raise awareness for the cause, Muamba recently attended a match arranged by Avery Dennison between teams made up of UK-based refugees, who wore the two kits that will be available on FIFA 21.

“It was great to see other guys that could have been me or my uncle in different circumstances. To see them just come out and play football, putting a smile on their face and everybody was so kind and appreciative of everything. The atmosphere was very loving.

“It was just a great place to be and to watch, with my two eyes, how much impact football can have on people’s lives and to see how these guys were enjoying themselves out there. It was great fun to watch.”

He reserved his highest words for the match referee Jacob Viera (pictured alongside Muamba in the main image). Viera, a refugee himself who fled Kenya for England, was praised for “controlling the game and letting everybody play the game. Fortunately, there were no injuries, which was great to see!”

These initiatives gain even greater importance during the tumultuous times we are currently living through. Considering how fractured society has become over the past few years, the significance of collective action and looking out for others less fortunate cannot be understated.

Muamba agrees with this assessment: “Yeah, I think we’re living in very uncertain times right now, so it’s important to be able to help other people who are in need right now. I think this was a great suggestion and long may it continue.

“It’s important people come together, work together and help each other out right now.”

By Michael Lee

Official Premier League partner Avery Dennison is the new front of shirt sponsor for KLABU and has been involved with the foundation for a number of years, producing the crests, the chest and sleeve logos, as well as the back graphics and neck tape. Avery Dennison is also the official names and numbers supplier for FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

All KLABU heat transfers are sustainably produced at Avery Dennison’s specialised low-carbon facility in Norway. This factory uses precision laser cuts meant to reduce waste before the products are packed by specialised automated systems and shipped to KLABU.

Buy your kit now from Klabu.org to help unlock sports for young refugees in Africa and beyond. 

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