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Is there a link between heart failure and African players?

Opinion

There were plenty of people looking for a way to get Cheick Tiote into China four months ago, even though he’d fallen way down the pecking order at Newcastle United.

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Uniformed members of staff salute over the coffin with remains of soccer player Cheick Tiote during a memorial service in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Agent Christopher Atkins, known for his links with Chinese clubs, says Tiote was ‘offered’ to him - though seemingly by an intermediary with no legitimate connection, looking to cash in on the Chinese football gold-rush.

‘People are offering players for China who are not their players. You’ll find there are four or five people between you and the player,’ he says. Atkins, of RWMG Sports Asia, did not respond to the email extolling Tiote’s skills.

The player had been desperate to leave since the previous August, though his £50 000-a-week salary on Tyneside was the impediment. Would-be buyers wanted him on a free transfer because of the size of the salary, though Newcastle wanted a transfer fee.

Moves to Galatasaray, Russia and a Championship side had fallen through before Beijing Enterprises - a club in China’s second tier named after a vast property company - agreed to pay the Ivorian £1.7million a year after tax. It was more than he received at Newcastle - and more than he would get anywhere else.

The acclimatisation was difficult. Beijing started the season disastrously, losing seven games out of eight under Bulgarian coach Yasen Petrov and Tiote started slowly in the oppressive March heat. ‘He didn’t look in the best shape and wasn’t always playing,’ says Atkins.

Players of Beijing Enterprises mourn for Cheick Tiote at his funeral at the Babaoshan funeral center. Photo: Xinhua/Xia Yifang

In May, the picture brightened. Former China national team coach Gao Hongbo replaced Petrov, began picking Tiote and the team began winning. He played in a 4-2 win over a North China region team Baoding Rongda on June 3.

Within 48 hours of that game he was dead, after collapsing on the team’s state-owned training ground, which is part of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium complex. ‘He seemed to faint,’ said one team-mate.

Nine days on, Beijing Enterprises have still not explained why Tiote died and Sportsmail has been unable to secure answers. Chinese clubs stage press conferences, rather than field calls. Beyond a few platitudes, Chinese football has seemed keen to move on.

Beijing Enterprises asked last Saturday’s opponents Meizhou Hakka if their game could be postponed but the request was turned down. Beijing won 1-0.

Fans of Beijing Enterprises attend the funeral of Cheick Tiote. Photo: Xinhua/Xia Yifang

The investigation into Tiote’s death is certain to centre on his heart. Under consideration will be the possibility he is the latest of a number of players of African descent to be affected by sickle cell trait, a genetic condition which can cause cardiovascular problems after intense physical activity.

One study in Nigeria suggests 75 per cent of footballers who have died through cardiac failure since 1990 are of African origin. Research in the United States found that black basketball players are seven times more likely to drop dead on court than white players.

Medical science has saved the life of some players, including Fabrice Muamba. But the gifted young Tottenham player Radwan Hamed was left with catastrophic brain damage by the cardiac arrest he suffered playing for the club’s youth team.

Soccer player Jin Hui of Beijing Enterprises attends the funeral of Cheick Tiote. Photo: Xinhua/Xia Yifang

Specialists in this field of sports science indicate that the young player’s case, which saw Tottenham pay £7million in High Court damages for failing to screen him adequately, has been pivotal to the pursuit of better screening.

Yet there is an acceptance among medical specialists that the link between cardiac arrest and black players remains elusive.

The heart is complex and evolving, demanding repeated screening. Tiote’s tests at Newcastle showed no problem with his heart.

‘If you look at any screening process, you are going to get some who screen as normal but have disease. This is called a “false negative”,’ says Dr Ian Beasley, former England national team doctor and senior lecturer in Sports Medicine at Queen Mary University of London.

‘It doesn’t mean the individual has been screened wrongly, but that maybe there are other tests we don’t yet have. There are always advances on the way in medicine. There are things we don’t know.’

People react as they attend a memorial service for soccer player Cheick Tiote in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

The desire to make it in football is leading some players to live with marginal risk. Sportsmail has established that one player’s medical at a Premier League club last summer revealed a possible future cardiac risk — yet he moved to another club instead. 

Former Millwall player Tobi Alabi, who suffered a heart attack on a pitch at 19 and runs screening charity Heart4More, believes football ambition clouds some players’ willingness to be repeatedly screened.

Mohamed Diame’s medical at Lens revealed a potential heart defect. Doctors advised him to never run again, let alone play football. Second opinions were sought and he now plays for Newcastle. Chelsea striker Loic Remy’s known heart defect saw him fail a medical in 2010, but still join Marseille from Nice.

The medical complexities underline the need for China to have a medical infrastructure for players. Yet many sources in the country describe a shambolic set-up, even though the nation has witnessed a footballer’s cardiac arrest in the past.

Supporters react behind a banner with image of soccer player Cheick Tiote during a memorial service in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Serbian Goran Gogic, a 29-year-old at Qingdao Hainiu, collapsed on the team bus on the way home from training two years ago and could not be resuscitated.

‘There was coverage for a day then it was swept under the carpet,’ says one source. ‘You never heard any more about it. I felt that it had never happened.’

China’s accelerated football spending is fuelled by the riches of tycoons and enthusiasm of President Xi Jinping — a fan of the game who wants to turn China from a footballing backwater into an international power.

But after the latest overseas star has received a flashbulb welcome at the airport, he finds himself working out in a public gym.

Teammates stand by as a coffin with remains of soccer player Cheick Tiote is brought during a memorial service in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

‘It’s a plaything for the clubs’ rich owners; a bubble,’ says one source. ‘There is no substance behind it.’

Tiote is remembered at Newcastle for his extraordinary work ethic. ‘He trained like he played,’ says an insider there. ‘If anything, you’d have to calm him down because he gave his all. He never sulked when he fell down the pecking order.’

It was the same Tiote they saw in the heat of Beijing two Saturdays ago. He almost put through his own net at one stage just before half-time and his enthusiasm was as evident as ever.

‘He was nine out of 10,’ says one journalist who saw the game. ‘He gave everything.’

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