Arsenal exclusive: Defender’s relief over Fabrice Muamba recovery

Johan Djourou: ‘He’s one of my best friends in football – it’s been a big shock’

Fabrice Muamba’s collapse has given everybody in football a different perspective, and few have been as affected as much as Johan Djourou.

The Arsenal defender came through the Gunners’ youth ranks alongside Muamba, and watching what has happened to his close friend after his heart attack at White Hart Lane has had a profound effect on the Swiss centre-back.

“I have been to see him of course, he is one of my best friends in football,” says Djourou.

“We were together in the youth teams and spent a lot of time together so it was a big shock what has happened. It was very sad for me to see him like that but now I can say I am just happy that we have him back.

“It has been unbelievable, but I am so happy now to hear he is getting better and that’s the most important thing. If he can get back and recover that would be the most amazing thing.”

Djourou was a year ahead of Muamba in Arsenal’s academy and made his debut a year earlier than the tough-tackling midfielder who was sold to Birmingham in 2007.

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But Djourou then spent a loan spell at St Andrew’s for the first five months of the 2007-08 season and the pair were reunited in Birmingham, forging a close friendship which remains to this day.

“We did a lot of things together, me and Fabrice, that’s why we grew so close. For him it was never easy to grow up in the Congo and come here and it was a bit the same for me [Djourou was born in the Ivory Coast before moving to Switzerland as a child] so we used to talk a lot about that and are best friends.

“I was away on holiday with him in the summer last year and so of course it has been a big shock for me and for everybody.”

The reaction of football and the wider world for his stricken friend has astounded Djourou and he admitted that the effect of it has been felt by Muamba’s family.

“It was good for Fabrice to know that everybody was thinking about him, and we all at Arsenal were definitely thinking about him.

“All we can hope now is that he recovers. There is a long way for him to come but we will all be there for him and he has a good strong family around him.”

For Bolton, for Arsenal and for Djourou, football goes on. And he was back in the starting line-up for Saturday’s 3-0 win over Aston Villa that continued Arsenal’s remarkable recent turnaround.

“We always did believe we could do it,” says Djourou. “We always had the confidence and the maturity to come back. We knew we didn’t deserve to be where we were and that was in our minds.

“The character of the team has come out now and since that Tottenham game we haven’t lost a game. We are aiming higher now.”

By his own admission, it has not been the easiest of seasons for the 25-year-old, with his red card at Fulham and below-par display in the 4-0 hammering at AC Milan among the low points of a campaign that has seen him pick up his fair share of criticism.

“Football is like that,” he admits. “When everything goes well then it’s good but when it doesn’t you are going to get criticism. But what is coming out now is that we haven’t been affected by that criticism. That’s what is so important, that you trust your team-mates and that they trust you.

“Last season I was playing every game so of course this season has been harder for me, and I had to play a different position at right-back and stuff like that.

“In any position I will do my best for the team but it was good to be back in my position on Saturday. I don’t find it hard though. I’m 25, I’m still young and I still have time in front of me to show what I can do.”

Perspective comes to the fore again, with recent events underlining to everybody that football isn’t everything.

“It has showed the power of football, but also that it is a game,” agrees Djourou. “The supporters everywhere have realised what is important in life. To be healthy is the most important thing.

“Everybody realised that after what happened to Fabrice, fans from here and all over Europe, it was amazing. Nobody likes to see things like that happen and it is a lot more important than winning or losing a football match.”