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This was supposed to be a day of joy for Bolton and Tottenham as they tangled in the FA Cup quarterfinals. For a day, Bolton could forget about its struggles near the relegation zone in the Premier League and dream of playing at Wembley in the semifinals of the most venerable cup competition in the world. Ditto for Tottenham, which had slumped to three straight losses in the division.
But the only emotion emanating from White Hart Lane on Saturday was grief, following the collapse of Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba in the 41st minute near the halfway line without any players near him. It was unclear what caused the Bolton player to fall face down, but he was in obvious distress. This was no leg or arm injury.
The players knew how serious the situation was, their faces unable to hide emotion as they gathered -- at first -- near the stricken 23-year-old. Tottenham midfielder Rafael van der Vaart looked skyward as he prayed, and striker Jermain Defoe was close to tears.
The legendary Kevin Keegan, an analyst at the game for ESPN in the U.K., appeared to wipe away a tear a few minutes after Muamba was led away from the pitch. One of his former players at Manchester City, Marc-Vivien Foe, collapsed during a Confederations Cup semifinal with Cameroon in 2003 and died.
The players gave way to medical staff, who tried to revive Muamba, without success, and he was hurried to hospital.
The news later Saturday night was better, but only just. Bolton reported that Muamba is "critically ill" in a hospital's heart attack unit.
Football isn't a stranger to on-the-pitch tragedies over the decades. Benfica striker Miklos Feher suffered a heart attack during a game in 2004 and was pronounced dead in hospital; Sevilla defender Antonio Puerta suffered a heart attack against Getafe in 2007 and died days later; Espanyol captain Daniel Jarque died of cardiac arrest after a training session in 2009; and most recently, in 2011, Nigeria defender Bobsam Elejiko collapsed and died while playing for Belgian side Merksem SC.
This was supposed to be an uplifting day for the Zaire-born holding midfielder, too. He'd fallen out of favor with Bolton manager Owen Coyle, not starting the previous two games after being a mainstay in 2010-11, and so the former England under-21 international was looking to impress against Spurs.
The news devastated the football community.
"In football, whether you're a player, supporter, manager, coach or pundit, we're all part of the football family," former England international Tony Cottee said in a phone interview as he returned from covering a game in Yorkshire. "I remember when Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed. I think that was the incident that stunned football. I don't remember anything like this happening in English football. It's just very distressing, very sad news."
U.S. international and Everton keeper Marcus Hahnemann was at the Confederations Cup in 2003, and he recalls the incident hitting the U.S. team hard even after it was eliminated. "It's unbelievable to think how that can happen," Hahnemann said in a phone interview. "If you have an injury like a leg break or stuff like that, some players struggle to go on. But this "
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.