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The need to play on

Eric Djemba-Djemba. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Eric Djemba-Djemba. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

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Footballer Eric Djemba-Djemba talks about recovering from the death of a fellow player

Eric Djemba-Djemba understands fully well the burden of grief Australia’s cricketers are carrying as they take the field in the anguished aftermath of Phil Hughes’ demise. In June 2003, the former Manchester United midfielder was turning out for Cameroon in the Confederations Cup when his team-mate Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed on the pitch and died shortly afterwards. Even 11 years on, the memory has not left him.

“Life cannot be normal again,” he sighs. “Because you always have it in your head. I played with him for a long time – many matches in the national team. He was like our big brother. And now we have to live life without him.”

That evening in Lyon, Cameroon’s players trooped into the dressing room after the semi-final victory over Colombia to find Roger Milla in tears. “He told us that Marc had passed away. We could not take it. We decided not to play the final (with France) but Marc’s wife said she wanted us to play. That’s why we eventually did.”

The days immediately afterwards, he recalls, were difficult. “Everybody was thinking: It could be me tomorrow. Life can end like this (snaps fingers). You never know.”

The news of Phil Hughes’s demise has left him shaken, the 33-year-old admits. “We saw on TV how the ball hit him. After that we heard he was dead. He was there at a bad moment in a bad place.”

Now plying his trade with Chennaiyin FC in the ISL, Djemba-Djemba is in the city to launch Paris Saint-Germain’s Elite Training Programme. The popularity of football in India has taken him by surprise. “We did not expect it. Many people are coming to the grounds. They sing from the first second to the end. It is amazing.”

Djemba-Djemba and Cristiano Ronaldo debuted together for Manchester United. Their careers since have taken hugely divergent paths, but Ronaldo’s talent was evident to those around him from the very beginning. “For me there was no doubt about that. When you saw him walk, run, work on his fitness every day, you knew that this kid wanted to make it to the big league and he did it,” he says.

A figure of derision to many at Old Trafford, Djemba-Djemba left United after 18 months, before struggling through stints at Burnley and Aston Villa. “I have no regrets about it. It was a good experience at United. Alex Ferguson was like a dad to all the players. It was fantastic to share a dressing room with the likes of Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs. I just thank God because he gave me the chance to be there.”

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 4:54:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-need-to-play-on/article6691048.ece

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