THE date was 26 June, 2003, the venue Stade de Gerland in Lyon. Eric Djemba-Djemba can remember everything about the match between Cameroon and Colombia, a Confederations Cup semi-final in which his friend and team-mate, Marc-Vivien Foe, collapsed with a fatal heart condition.
“I was the last person to speak to him on the pitch,” says the 32-year-old St Mirren midfielder.
To this day, he can clearly recall the events leading up to his friend’s death. When a ball ran out of play, Foe turned to him and said: “Eric, I am tired.” Djemba-Djemba suggested that he tell the coach, which Foe did, but Winfried Schafer did not appreciate the seriousness of his condition and asked him to continue.
“After that, he said to me again, ‘Eric, I am tired’. And when he said that, Carlos Kameni, our goalkeeper, kicked the ball, Mario Yepes, their centre defender, headed it and, as the ball came down, Foe just fell.”
There had been no one around the 28-year-old Cameroon international when he collapsed in the centre circle. Attempts were made to resuscitate him on the pitch, after which he was stretchered off, but Djemba-Djemba and his team-mates had no reason to believe that his life was at risk.
“When he went off, we just continued playing. We didn’t know what was happening outside. After the game, we were happy because we won. When we went inside, we saw Roger Milla [the former Cameroon striker] crying. We thought he was crying because we were the first African team to go into the final of the Confederations Cup. But no. He just said to us, ‘Marc-Vivien Foe has died’. It was a shock.”
As those who witnessed his surprise arrival in Paisley last week will testify, Djemba-Djemba is a cheery soul with what his new manager, Danny Lennon, describes as a “lovely smile”, but 11 years ago, there was only sadness when he and the football world were confronted by Foe’s death.
There was an outpouring of grief, not just in Cameroon, but in England, France and beyond. He had become an internationally-renowned player during the previous season, which he spent on loan to Manchester City from Lyon. His sudden death came before most in football had even heard of the syndrome now blamed for the loss of so many professional athletes.
“Everyone in the world mourned him because I think he was the first one,” says Djemba-Djemba. “He was a big loss for Cameroon, a big loss for his family, a big loss for the players. It was a very difficult time.
“He was a friend to me because he was playing for Lyon and I was playing for Nantes. After that, he went to Manchester City and he was saying to me all the time ‘Eric, come, you can sign to Man United. Come, come, come. English football can fit you very well’.”
Within a month of Foe’s death, Djemba-Djemba completed an emotional move to Old Trafford. Not only had it been his friend’s wish, it was his own lifelong dream. When he was a boy, growing up in Douala, his father gave him a United strip with No.7 on the back. From that day on, Eric was nicknamed “Cantona”.
Foe, though, had been wrong about England. As everyone now knows, it didn’t work out for Djemba-Djemba in the Premier League. Hailed as a potential replacement for Roy Keane, he turned out to be one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most regrettable signings. After 19 months in which he made only 20 appearances, he moved to Aston Villa, where he fared even worse.
Eventually, a line was drawn under that difficult chapter in his career with a transfer to Qatar, where he was at least able to pay off some of the mountainous debts he had accumulated in football. Djemba-Djemba had struggled on the pitch, but off it, he was in more trouble, haemorrhaging so much of his newfound money – on himself and others – that it led to financial ruin.
Now, after four years in Denmark, one in Israel and six months in Serbia, he has pitched up, rather mysteriously, in Paisley. It is hard to credit that, just over a decade ago, he made his Manchester United debut in the same game that Cristiano Ronaldo made his. Both of them came on as substitutes in a 4-0 defeat of Bolton Wanderers.
“It was a great moment,” says Djemba-Demba. “They were great times. I lived near him, we went to Nandos together and he was my room-mate. We were together all the time. Today, he has more experience, but you could see then, on the training ground, that he was going to be a fantastic footballer.”
The highlights of Djemba-Djemba’s United career were his late winner against Leeds United in the League Cup, his goal against Panathinaikos in the Champions League and his FA Cup winner’s medal. He did not play in the side that beat Millwall in the 2004 final, but he holds no grudge. “How can you be disappointed when you have Paul Scholes on the pitch and me on the bench?”
Today, he is hoping to feature in a Scottish Cup fifth-round tie for new club St Mirren against Dundee United. He will bring composure, smooth passing and a physical presence to midfield, where he will form a robust partnership with Jim Goodwin. Djemba-Djemba likes to put the foot in. There is a picture of him clattering Jackie McNamara, now the Dundee United manager, in a pre-season friendly against Celtic. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described as “obscene” his tackle on Sol Campbell in the 2003 Community Shield. “If I miss the ball, I can take the legs, but I always go for the ball first,” says the player.
Demba-Djemba has had his problems, on and off the field, but St Mirren manager Danny Lennon is interested only in what he is capable of now. His lengthy stint with Odense, where he was shortlisted for Denmark’s player-of-the-year award, suggests that he is more than a just a happy-go-lucky Manchester United flop with eccentric spending habits.
“You never truly get to know someone till you’re in there working with them,” says Lennon. “I think I’m reasonably good at reading people. My first impression is that he lights up the room when he comes in. He is infectious. He loves football. I don’t have any problem with him. We didn’t bring Eric here because he signed for Manchester United for £3.5 million. We brought him here because of what he has done recently. He is still full of ambition.”
Djemba-Djemba claims that a return to regular first-team football could earn him a place at the World Cup finals, although it is five years since he last played for his country. If he does find himself in the Cameroon squad this summer, he will be looking forward to one fixture in particular. Their Group A match against Brazil will be held on the anniversary of Foe’s death.
“I think about him when I watch Man City or when I watch Lyon or when Cameroon play. When I see number 17, I think about him. When I went to Hapoel Tel Aviv in Israel, I wanted to take 17 because it was his number, but it was taken.”
The man who will wear 99 for St Mirren says that everybody in Cameroon prays for Marc-Vivien Foe on 26 June. He will be no different.