The On-Field Death That Scuttled a Nation’s Soccer Dreams
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This footballer was a leader on the pitch and off for Cameroon. His death in 2003 dashed their world domination dreams.
- Midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé led Cameroon’s greatest generation of soccer stars.
- Foé’s unexpected death on the pitch in 2003 effectively ended the national team’s run.
When Cameroon became the first African nation in history to reach the quarterfinals of a FIFA World Cup in 1990, it sparked a global awareness of Africa in a footballing context. No African team has ever gotten further.
But Cameroon’s 2002-2003 team might have been even better. Central to that belief was midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé, a conductor of skill and clout not only on the pitch, but in the dressing room. The team was set for greatness until Foé exited the game after slumping on the pitch in 2003 — and the team’s chances for greatness died along with him.
At halftime he had reportedly issued a rallying cry to his teammates, demanding: “Even if we have to die on the field today, we must win this match.”
Born in 1975 about 40 miles from the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, Foé swiftly gravitated toward soccer, playing in the streets with friends. “It was more of an instinct from birth,” he said in an interview. “Over the years, I realized that I had the skills to play.”
He would evolve into an authoritative defensive midfielder, uncompromising in the tackle and capable of getting forward and scoring himself but most adept at dictating the tempo of a game. A suitable comparison would be the quarterback in American football — calling attacking movements and distributing the ball with precision into the final third.
His first taste of the big time was at age 19 in in the 1994 World Cup. The Indomitable Lions flopped, including a humiliating 6-1 loss to Russia, but Foé still showed his talents. The midfielder moved to French club Lens, where he attracted the attention of English giant Manchester United, but the deal was scuppered when Foé broke his leg. He would get a lower-profile shot at English soccer fame, joining modest West Ham in 1999, for a 16-month stay before returning to France to play for Lyon.
The 2002 World Cup was Cameroon’s time to shine, with Foé at the helm. They’d just won Africa’s Cup of Nations twice in a row, as well as Olympic gold in 2000. “They were powerful; they had skill, strength, determination, a physicality that very few opponents could handle,” says African soccer historian and documentarian Calvin Onwuka. “Also, they were in an easy group: It had Ireland and Saudi Arabia. How could back-to-back African champions not qualify [for the knockout stage] from that?”
As it turns out, they did not. An argument over bonuses meant they missed the flight from their training camp in Paris, and so had to charter a plane to Tokyo via Addis Ababa — a less than ideal set of circumstances that “compromised their performance,” according to Junior Binyam, a Cameroonian journalist and former media chief of the country’s Football Association. They were eliminated early.
Their shot at redemption came in the 2003 Confederations Cup — a tournament for continental champions hosted by France. They advanced to the semifinals to face Colombia.
At Stade Gerland, Lyon’s home turf, with the score 1-0 to Cameroon, Foé suddenly slumped in the 72nd minute. Attempts to resuscitate him, including CPR and administering oxygen, proved futile. He was pronounced dead in the stadium’s medical center.
It would later be revealed that Foé died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — when the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick — and had been unwell for days before the game. His wife, Marie-Louise, said that although he had been struggling with gastric problems, he was desperate to play on the home turf of his parent club; during the game itself, he had complained of fatigue to fellow midfielder Eric Djemba-Djemba.
In an eerie premonition, he had reportedly issued a at halftime rallying cry to his teammates, demanding: “Even if we have to die on the field today, we must win this match.” Foé was laid to rest at a well-attended funeral in the complex of the soccer academy he had been building. Despite pledges from teammates and dignitaries, the project has since been abandoned.
His sudden death brought the house of cards crashing down. In 2004’s Africa Cup of Nations, Cameroon was knocked out at the quarter-final stage. In 2006, they failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. The Indomitable Lions had lost not just their leader, but also their very aura of invincibility.
Still, Foé’s lasting legacy is seen in the fact that three of his former clubs — Manchester City, Lyon and Lens — all retired his shirt numbers, and when Cameroon ended a 15-year wait to win another Africa Cup of Nations in 2017, they dedicated the victory to the memory of the late midfield enforcer.