A Dream That Died on the Pitch: The Tragic Story of Patrick Ekeng

Simon Akam@simonakamContributing WriterMay 11, 2017

Kurt Ismail for B/R

On the evening of May 6 last year, Dinamo Bucharest midfielder Patrick Ekeng ran out wearing his usual No. 14 shirt into the tattered stadium fans call 'Groapa,' a Romanian word that translates as "hole in the ground."

After coming on as a substitute, in the 70th minute Ekeng collapsed in the center circle. His knees bent before he tumbled backwards. He went into cardiac arrest at 10 p.m. Eastern European time.

Eighty-five minutes later, the 26-year-old Ekeng lay inside the nearby Floreasca Hospital, so close to "the hole" its higher blocks overlook the stadium. By 11:25 p.m., the heart monitor connected to Ekeng's chest had displayed an isoelectric line—a completely flat readout—for five full minutes. Romanian doctors declared him dead.

That was not how it should have ended for Ekeng. This is his story.

Patrick Ekeng began his football career on a dusty pitch in Anguissa, a neighbourhood in the fourth arrondissement of the Cameroonian capital Yaounde. Born in 1990, to a mother who worked as a preacher, serving that role in her local church and in the media, Ekeng's passion was always football. Ekeng played regularly at Anguissa; his mother and his friends sometimes cheered him on from the sidelines.

Officially a "stadium," the pitch in Anguissa is little more than red laterite earth littered with pebbles and rubbish and scored with the fading lines in white chalk. It is the training site for a club called Canon Yaounde, which Ekeng joined as a 16-year-old in 2006. In the wet season between April and November, the pitch becomes a quagmire, draining into an open sewer that runs along one side. In the dry season, red dust rises up during games, sheathing players so they look like sprites.

The pitch at Anguissa where Ekeng played.
The pitch at Anguissa where Ekeng played.Alexis Huguet

A statue of a Cameroonian dignitary named Mbida Minkoulou Alphonse overlooks the ground. Around the sides of the pitch, women lay out blankets covered with deep green ndole leaves, a popular ingredient in Cameroonian cuisine. Others operate small stands topped by crooked umbrellas.

They sell juice, soft drinks, sweets, phone top-up cards and fresh sugar cane arrayed in white buckets. Their businesses flourish during matches as spectators gather around, gossiping and exchanging views on the game.

"He was always such a cheerful guy, always joking," Steven Manas, a 19-year-old footballer with the Scoutte Detection du Cameroun team, tells Bleacher Report. "He always had friends around him. He was my idol."

Ekeng was disciplined with his diet and his exercise routine. He would train almost every day of the week, run on Mont Febe, a lush jungle-covered mountain in Yaounde, and play matches every weekend, leaving little time to go out to parties with friends.

One of the goalposts at Anguissa.
One of the goalposts at Anguissa.Alexis Huguet

Millions of African boys aspire to make it as footballers, perceiving the sport as a way out of poverty, an opportunity to better their condition and that of their families. During trials at Anguissa, dozens of children perch on the sidelines of the pitch, their school books lying forgotten at their feet, to watch the older youths undergo training exercises or demonstrate their dribbling skills.

Those local boys who do make good and reach the European professional leagues are household names; they gain a domestic status that borders on the divine. In Cameroon, the standout example of recent football success is Samuel Eto'o, born in poverty in Douala, Cameroon's largest city, in 1981; his mother sold roasted fish in the street markets. Eto'o went on to play for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Everton. He was named African Player of the Year a record four times.

As Ekeng was growing up, everyone in Cameroon knew of Eto'o. Many wanted to impersonate him; Ekeng came closer than many.

A coach instructs players at Anguissa.
A coach instructs players at Anguissa.Alexis Huguet

According to Maxime Nana, a Cameroonian football agent, Ekeng's break into European football with Le Mans came after his performance in the youth version of the African Cup of Nations in Rwanda in early 2009 impressed the French side. "Le Man's president knew the sporting director of Canon Yaounde quite well," Nana says. "I then took care of Patrick because I already had a player at Le Mans."

That July, when Ekeng signed a three-year deal with the club, Le Mans ranked in the French first division. The boy from Anguissa had secured a professional contract with a European top-flight side.

Ekeng lay motionless on the turf. Each minute that passed before he received proper medical attention cut his chances of survival by seven per cent, as per Dr Sanjay Sharma, a professor of cardiology at St George's Hospital in London who works with young adults, and consultant cardiologist for the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young.

In the crowd, Stephen Carpenter, a Crystal Palace fan from London visiting Romania as a football tourist, wondered if there had been an altercation or if Ekeng was "just rolling over like footballers do."

Ekeng lies on the pitch after he collapsed during the football match between Dinamo Bucharest and Viitorul Constanta in Bucharest May 6, 2016.
Ekeng lies on the pitch after he collapsed during the football match between Dinamo Bucharest and Viitorul Constanta in Bucharest May 6, 2016.Getty

Unedited footage from a sideline camera operated by DigiSport, a Romanian broadcaster, provides a timeline of events that followed. Eight seconds after Ekeng collapsed, his teammate Sergiu Hanca reached the midfielder, pushing past Dinamo winger Dorin Rotariu. Hanca heard Ekeng making strange breathing sounds. "It was something like the respiration of a pig," Hanca tells Bleacher Report.

Liviu Batineanu, the Dinamo team doctor, arrived on 10 seconds. He rolled Ekeng on his side, as though aiming for the recovery position.

In the days that followed, the team doctor changed his story regarding his actions that night. He first claimed he determined at the scene that Ekeng had no heartbeat. "I could see he entered cardiopulmonary arrest," he told journalists. Two days later, however, by which point the medical response was facing increasing scrutiny, Batineanu told Romanian journalists Ekeng had a pulse and was breathing when he reached him. "There was no need for a resuscitation on the pitch," he said. "I could not perform an external cardiac massage while his heart was beating."

Kurt Ismail for B/R

Conversations with several experienced cardiologists have taught me Batineanu's second claim is unlikely. The manner in which Ekeng collapsed suggests he went immediately into ventricular fibrillation, in which the heart has no regular beat at all. The sounds Hanca heard were probably hypoxic gasping as the brain begins to starve of oxygen. Batineanu turned down a request to be interviewed.

Thirty seconds after his collapse, the players standing over Ekeng and the crouched doctor were becoming increasingly worried. Valentin Lazar, another midfielder, raised both hands, one holding a water bottle, and shouted. Paul Anton, a Dinamo midfielder, gave a rapid substitution gesture with rolling hands to the touchline.

Ekeng's career in Europe was flagging after unremarkable stints in France, Switzerland and Spain. In late 2015, Bucharest appeared his only viable option. He negotiated a deal worth around €5,000 per month to join Dinamo and arrived at the club in January 2016; his wife, Nathalie, intermittently visited him.

Bucharest is not where young Africans imagine playing in their starry dreams of European football fame. But Ekeng would not be the first African player to end up there. He hoped that a spell at Dinamo could resuscitate his career.

Before he could start playing, however, he needed to pass a medical. On Tuesday, January 12 last year, he reported to the National Institute of Sports Medicine in Bucharest. He underwent the same examination all professional footballers in Romania receive. The tests covered a variety of fields including orthopaedics, ophthalmology, neurology and dentistry.

Ekeng (centre) in action for Spanish club Cordoba in August 2014.
Ekeng (centre) in action for Spanish club Cordoba in August 2014.Getty

They also included cardiology.

Dr Adriana Maria Marinescu performed Ekeng's heart exam. Marinescu wrote the description "healthy from a cardiology point of view" on his report, signed and stamped it. An ECG test (a device that records the electrical activity of the heart through electrodes placed on the skin) found Ekeng "cardiologically normal," though Marinescu noticed "certain peculiarities" and recommended Ekeng subsequently undergo an echocardiogram—another test of the action of the heart using ultrasound waves—at a centre of the club's choosing.

Two days later, on January 14, Medas, a private clinic in Bucharest, performed the echocardiography; it was normal. Marinescu inserted the result in Ekeng's records; the midfielder received a six-month medical approval.

Marinescu was adamant the tests were clear. "From my point of view, Ekeng didn't have any problem," she told the Romanian newspaper ProSport after his death. "He was normal from a cardiology point of view. I've asked for an extra echocardiography just because I thought so."

Kurt Ismail for B/R

Cardiac soft-tissue abnormalities—the likely conditions affecting Ekeng—are much harder to detect than electrical faults. To detect them would have required a cardiac MRI scan, an expensive procedure rarely given to footballers.

Romanian medicine did not cover itself in glory when it came to both the handling of the footballer's death and the subsequent investigation. His January 2016 screening, however, says more about the fundamental limitations of that process than local inadequacies in Bucharest.

A similar story played out in the UK with former Premier League player Fabrice Muamba; he sailed through obligatory screenings before his cardiac arrest in 2012 (Muamba survived but retired from football). After the incident at White Hart Lane, Sharma went back and examined Muamba's original screening results. He found nothing.

Forty-six seconds after Ekeng's collapse, a small-wheeled buggy equipped to stretcher players off the field arrived. It was clear, though, that there was a need for higher-calibre assistance. Romanian regulations require the presence of an ambulance at organised sporting events. Dinamo had an arrangement with Puls, a private ambulance service based in Bucharest.

Ekeng is lifted from the pitch to a stretcher.
Ekeng is lifted from the pitch to a stretcher.Getty

Mihnea Ionescu, a Dinamo fan watching the game from a stand overlooking the centre of the pitch, said he observed Elena-Mihaela Duta, the 31-year-old doctor from the ambulance crew, lean against a fence eating what appeared to be popcorn. According to Ionescu, when the alarm reached her, she threw down the popcorn and started to run, zigzagging first towards the ambulance, a converted Volkswagen Transporter van, and when she realised that was already moving, turning back towards the pitch.

Almost a full minute passed between Ekeng's collapse and the ambulance starting to move. Seven per cent had already fallen off his prospect of survival.

The Volkswagen turned right onto the athletic track that girded the pitch—tailgate open as it drove. Duta and a male assistant, both dressed in white coats and carrying holdalls, ran forward separately. At 1:11, they crossed the barriers at the edge of the pitch. At 1:16, the ambulance, which had driven down the west side of the field as far as the dugouts, turned onto the turf, crossing paths with the retreating buggy as it approached Ekeng. At 1:28 the ambulance and crew were on scene.

The Puls Ambulance HQ in Bucharest, Romania.
The Puls Ambulance HQ in Bucharest, Romania.Andreea Campeanu

Eleven seconds later, an assistant broke out from inside the ambulance a bright red case; that bag contained an Nihon Kohden TEC-5531K model defibrillator, a device used to electrically shock a patient's heart back into correct rhythm.

For several seconds from 1:40 onwards, Batineanu exchanged words with an assistant. Although the camera pulls away at one stage, that conversation appears to culminate with the assistant placing the defibrillator to one side. In the stands, the English fan Carpenter, a trained first-aider from his London job as a postman, saw the medics put the distinctive red case down.

"That's why I thought it wasn't that serious," he explains.

We may never know the exact nature of the problem with Ekeng's heart, as the same alleged medical incompetence that withered his chances of survival on the evening of May 6, 2016, extended to the post-mortem investigation.

After Ekeng died, a Romanian doctor performed an autopsy at the National Institute of Legal Medicine in Bucharest. The autopsy report claimed Ekeng's heart showed three major anomalies: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is abnormally thickened; left ventricular non-compaction, a condition in which the heart muscle is malformed with crevices in the inner lining of the heart; and arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is replaced by fat and scar tissue.

Dinamo fans gathered for a vigil on May 7, 2016, in memory of Ekeng.
Dinamo fans gathered for a vigil on May 7, 2016, in memory of Ekeng.Getty

Each of these conditions, found individually, is rare, with probabilities of occurrence of 1 in 500, 1 in 2,000 and 1 in 1,000 to 5,000, respectively.

Dr Sanjay Sharma says that for a patient to have all three of these conditions at one time is almost inconceivable. For one with all three to be able to perform high-level aerobic exercise as Ekeng did before his death is profoundly unlikely.

"The autopsy report's nonsense," says Sharma. "It's clearly been done by someone who doesn't have a clue what they're doing."

"Candidly—seems they are covering all possible causes rather than suggesting a clear cause of SCD (Sudden Cardiac Death)," adds Matt Janik, an American cardiologist at Wilmington Health in North Carolina.

The usual figure given for the occurrence of Young Sudden Cardiac Death (YSCD), the clinical term used to describe the sudden death due to heart abnormality of an individual under the age of 35 within 12 hours of previous good health, is 1 in 50,000 per year for men between 18 and 35, as per a paper authored by Sharma and Dr Matthew Wilson. The risk is significantly lower in women; for men of African origin, it appears to be as much as eight times higher.

Candles and flowers laid in tribute to Ekeng on May 7, 2016, at Dinamo's stadium.
Candles and flowers laid in tribute to Ekeng on May 7, 2016, at Dinamo's stadium.Getty

There is no single cause. Rather, four major classes of pathology can cause YSCD: faults with the electrical system that controls the heart rhythm, problems with the heart muscle, failure of the blood supply to the heart and malfunctions of the valves that control the flow of blood within the heart itself.

The National Institute of Legal Medicine in Bucharest did not respond to a request for comment on their findings, citing medical confidentiality. In Sharma's view, a reasonable inference from the garbled pathology is that Ekeng did have issues with the musculature of his heart, the majority of which were probably genetic.

Two minutes and 13 seconds after Ekeng collapsed, by which point he had received no attempted resuscitation and his survival chances had fallen by more than 14 per cent, he was wheeled on a gurney to the rear of the ambulance. As the DigiSport television camera panned to follow him, the defibrillator remained on the grass.

Ionel Danciulescu, a former player now employed as director of sport at Dinamo, stood back from the vehicle in a red zipped top and jeans. Danciulescu held his head in his hands; he was weeping. "I figured it's something very serious and then the game didn't even matter," he tells Bleacher Report. The then-39-year-old was old enough to remember Catalin Hildan, another Dinamo player who died after collapsing on the pitch with cardiac arrest in 2000.

Mircea Rednic, the Dinamo manager, stood with his one hand in his pocket and the other held to his face. At 2:54, the ambulance started to move off. In the crowd, Mihnea Ionescu, like Danciulescu, was also thinking of Hildan. "I felt powerless and I had a deja vu," he says.

Kurt Ismail for B/R

From Ionescu's position, the ambulance seemed to move excruciatingly slowly; Ionescu estimated no more than 30 kilometres per hour. Ekeng's survival prospects were now 21 per cent down.

The ambulance carrying Ekeng left the pitch over three minutes after he'd collapsed. The Volkswagen passed out of the stadium compound and turned right, continuing until it reached the parking bay that serves the emergency department at Floreasca Hospital. The state-run facility is regarded as one of the better medical centres in the Romanian capital.

From examining CCTV footage, police confirmed the ambulance turned into the hospital courtyard at 10:04 p.m. Ambulance records state the arrival time at the hospital as 10:05 p.m. Those inside the Volkswagen with Ekeng for the brief journey included Batineanu, the Dinamo doctor, and Elena-Mihaela Duta, the doctor from Puls.

They were hidden from television cameras, but there are a number of indications suggesting what did, and equally importantly what did not, go on during those critical minutes.

In the event of cardiac arrest, best practice, as enshrined in documents like the European Resuscitation Council Guidelines, is to immediately begin resuscitation, first with chest compressions and assisted breathing and then—if the patient is in ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, a haphazard heart rhythm that is physiologically useless but potentially can be corrected with a DC electric shock—with a defibrillator. All this should take place in situ—the plummeting survival prospects over the first minutes make transfer before defibrillation, even a hop as short as the trip to Floreasca Hospital, ill advised.

The entrance to the emergency room where Ekeng was taken in Bucharest.
The entrance to the emergency room where Ekeng was taken in Bucharest.Andreea Campeanu

CCTV footage shows that as Ekeng was brought out of the ambulance on a gurney, hospital staff began resuscitation. "He was brought to us in cardiopulmonary arrest at the emergency room, in an ambulance without resuscitation measures as far as we know," Cristian Pandrea, a doctor at the hospital, told the media.

If that is correct, five minutes passed between his collapse and the first correct response, shaving 35 per cent off his prospects of survival. Contrary to the hospital's view, in another TV interview Dr Batineanu claimed he performed cardiac massage in the ambulance "when we were close to the hospital."

Hospital records show that after Ekeng arrived doctors performed chest compressions and administered adrenaline, along with the anti-arrhythmic drug amiodarona and the beta-blocker Betaloc. They also used a defibrillator. After 40 minutes and approximately the 12th round of external shocks, Ekeng's heart went into idioventricular rhythm, a slower than usual rhythm. The rhythm ran between 25 and 28 beats per minute. On the ECG, the signal showed a "QRS complex," the spiky part of the graph, indicating Ekeng's ventricles were contracting.

Doctors could not keep the fragile rhythm constant. Ekeng entered a state known as electromechanical dissociation, when the readout on an ECG suggests a patient should have a pulse but no pulse can be found. From there he went into asystole, also known as flatline, when there is no activity in the heart at all.

After that state had endured for five minutes, the doctors abandoned further resuscitation attempts. Due to ongoing legal investigations, the hospital declined to provide further comment with regard to Ekeng's treatment on the field, in the ambulance and in their facility.

The block of flats stands in a hotel compound at Otopeni, outside Bucharest between the airport and Dinamo's training ground. The proprietor is Ionut Negoita, the Romanian hotelier mogul who owns Dinamo, and the building serves as accommodation for many of the team's players. Ekeng inherited his apartment from Patrice Feussi, another Cameroonian footballer, who had played for Dinamo until late 2015.

Language was an issue. Ekeng communicated with teammates in a pidgin of French and broken English, the usual argot of international football. There were other Francophone players of African origin in the Dinamo squad, notably the French-Ivorian midfielder Harlem Gnohere. Ekeng's tightest friendship in Bucharest, though, was with Marcel Essombe, a striker also from Cameroon in his late 20s who had come to Bucharest by way of French clubs Pacy Vallee-d'Eure and Jura Sud.

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"They were like brothers," Feussi tells Bleacher Report (Essombe did not respond to a request for an interview). At a Bucharest shopping mall, Feussi showed me photographs of Essombe, Ekeng and himself hanging out after games. In one they were smoking shisha. In another they sat wearing tracksuit tops at a table stocked with beers. As Ekeng settled in at Dinamo, Nathalie travelled over from France to see him periodically. "His wife, she didn't come straight away," says Salif Nogo, an agent from the West African nation of Burkina Faso who represented Ekeng.

On April 20 last year, Ekeng scored his first and only goal for Dinamo Bucharest, slamming in a long-range strike to equalise away against hometown rivals Steaua in the semi-final of the Romania cup. The rivalry between the two Bucharest sides, rooted in the communist period when Steaua was founded to provide sporting opportunities for the army and Dinamo for the huge police arm of a surveillance state, is ferocious. It reached a nadir in 1997 when Dinamo fans smuggled drums of gasoline into Steaua's stadium, as their team lost 3-1 to the hosts.

Ekeng's goal firmed his position in the imagination of the Dinamo faithful. The Cameroonian would make 12 appearances for the team before his death.

Feussi was watching the Dinamo game on television with his own teammates from Concordia Chiajna when he saw his fellow Cameroonian go down. "I don't understand," Feussi recalls. "I just see what's happening; he's on the floor. He's not getting up."

Feussi ignored his manager's stricture that he should stay with his teammates and rushed to the hospital, arriving 10 minutes after the ambulance crew brought Ekeng in. A few minutes later, Marcel Essombe arrived.

"Then we see how he's on his bed, at the hospital in the room," Feussi recalls. "I saw him; I was traumatised. I was like, 'Come on, bro, move. What are you doing?' I said, 'what is this,' but then the doctor was like, 'calm down.' I was like: 'What's happening? Do something! He's there, you're not going to leave him like that as well?'"

Patrice Feussi
Patrice FeussiAndreea Campeanu

The wider situation was chaotic. Ekeng's wife was on the phone trying to find out extra information. The game had continued to the end after Ekeng collapsed, but now news of the seriousness of the situation was filtering out. After the final whistle, Sergiu Hanca walked to the official stand where players' families sit and saw his wife crying; he rushed to the hospital as soon as he had showered. Many fans lingered in the stands after the match, waiting for an official announcement that never came.

Mihnea Ionescu overheard a journalist. "I know his heart is not beating since he left the stadium," the reporter said. "So he's probably dead." Stephen Carpenter disregarded the early rumours and initial tweets but heard confirmation as he waited for the bus to his hotel. Ionel Danciulescu also went to the hospital; he heard news of Ekeng's death from a police officer. "It's a tragedy that will never be erased from our souls," Danciulescu said.

At the time of his death, Nathalie Ekeng was pregnant with Patrick's child. He also had another child by another woman.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, two inspectors from Romania's Department for Emergency Situations, Madalina Dusciuc and Bogdan Pop, visited Puls ambulance service. Dusciuc and Pop first telephoned the headquarters, located near the stadium. When they received no answer, they went down in person.

According to Dusciuc and Pop, the compound appeared deserted. They called the office line again with no result. Eventually Pop dialled the emergency number stencilled on the sides of the ambulances parked up in the compound: 3-1-1. Pop explained his powers of investigation, and the director of the company finally appeared from within; he said he was bombarded by media calls and had sequestered himself, but was subsequently co-operative.

An ambulance parked at Dinamo's stadium during a game in October 2016.
An ambulance parked at Dinamo's stadium during a game in October 2016.Andreea Campeanu

Dusciuc and Pop began their inspection, and the findings were immediately damning. There was medical waste inappropriately stored in yellow plastic bags; there was dirt. "It was very clear that they didn't wash the ambulances every day, or at least once per week," recalled Dusciuc.

There were expired drugs in the ambulances. When they tried to open the door of one ambulance, it fell off its hinges. Regulations mandated that the ambulance at the game should have been a "Type B" vehicle, the second level of sophistication in a three-point scale, meaning it had clinical supplies not required in simpler vehicles intended just to transport the infirm. Yet the ambulance from the game the previous evening, the Volkswagen with plate B973LTD, had "Type A Ambulance"—the least well-equipped category—stamped clearly on its bodywork.

By far the most damning finding came from the defibrillators. Fifteen Puls ambulances carried them. On that Saturday morning the two inspectors found that in 14 the batteries in the defibrillators were flat. The only exception was the Volkswagen with license plate B973LTD, at the Dinamo game the night before.

Already the situation seemed suspicious. Homicide police had attended the hospital the night of Ekeng's death. It was clear the case was not a murder, but the newly opened file went to Marian Trusca, a young Bucharest prosecutor who had built a reputation dealing with killings.

Dinamo fans support their team during a home match in October 2016.
Dinamo fans support their team during a home match in October 2016.Andreea Campeanu

The authorities intercepted a call in which the ambulance assistant spoke to a member of his family; he was swearing and cursing about the behaviour of Puls doctor Elena-Mihaela Duta. The assistant said Duta wanted to defibrillate Ekeng on the pitch at the stadium but he had shouted at her, saying she was stupid and that as the grass was wet the shock could conduct through the pitch and injure bystanders. (The Resuscitation Council in the UK says it is usually safe to defibrillate a patient on a wet or metal surface, as long as the pads are applied directly to the patient's chest and there is no direct contact with the patient when the shock is delivered.)

In another intercepted call, the authorities heard Duta herself in a panicked voice say that the battery in their defibrillator was not working and they needed to cover that up before the inspectors arrived.

Raed Arafat, state secretary at Romania's ministry of health and the man who co-ordinates all emergency services in the country, says the emergency department fined Puls Ambulance 20,000 Romanian lei; the health department levied another 13,500. The total sanction of 33,500 lei is equivalent to £6,271.

"When you have a cardiac arrest, you need to defibrillate immediately; you need to work immediately on the case," says Arafat. "It seems that there what we had was a lack of action, or a lack of proper action."

Ekeng was laid to rest on May 15, 2016, in Cameroon.
Ekeng was laid to rest on May 15, 2016, in Cameroon.Getty

The Romanian authorities shut Puls down for around six weeks until it passed a further inspection. Puls refused to comment on the case.

According to prosecutor Marian Trusca, Elena-Mihaela Duta is "officially a manslaughter suspect." She is not currently technically and legally accused of anything, as in the Romanian system the prosecution will only press charges at the end of the investigation, which is still ongoing (some early media coverage incorrectly stated she had already been charged). She is currently under administrative sanction, though, limiting her ability to practise as a doctor, and must periodically report to the authorities. Trusca has also asked the other countries where Ekeng played to supply his investigation with the player's medical records; he has not yet received them.

If charged, Duta is likely to stand accused of manslaughter via negligence, with a custodial sentence of two to seven years. Batineanu, the Dinamo doctor, is unlikely to face a charge. Via her lawyer, Duta turned down a request for comment. Following the incident, Gino Iorgulescu, the president of Romania's football league, said he is pushing an initiative to install defibrillators in all sports facilities in the country.

Four months after Ekeng's death, I sat with Sergiu Hanca, the Dinamo midfielder, in a pagoda at the club's training ground at Saftica south of the city. Hanca described the bleak atmosphere in the days that followed Ekeng's death. Mircea Rednic, the coach, gave his squad a few days off before calling them back to training. When they returned, Rednic, whose contract would not be renewed at the end of the season, told them they had to refocus on their football and in particular the upcoming cup final. The training ground felt haunted.

"You think that when we go to eat here in the restaurant you didn't see him, or when you go in the conference room you saw just one chair," Hanca said in his threadbare English. "Many go and see where he stayed in his room; nobody was there, he had all the things and backpack was in his room.

Mourners at Ekeng's funeral in Cameroon on May 15, 2016.
Mourners at Ekeng's funeral in Cameroon on May 15, 2016.Getty

"We don't train with pleasure how we did before this," he added. "The bad thing was after we start to train we're training like you know, block people; we're just like machines, train here and go."

Ekeng wore No. 14, and a victory in the Romanian cup final would have granted Dinamo that trophy for a 14th time. It seemed to dovetail neatly, but the team was defeated. Marcel Essombe announced he was done with Dinamo; he fell into a deep depression and retreated to his room for many days. He left the team and turned down offers from several other clubs to play. Last year Patrice Feussi believed Essombe was in France, unsigned.

Ekeng's brother Jacques, who works as a policeman in Belgium, arrived in Bucharest, along with Ekeng's wife, Nathalie, to take Patrick's body back to Africa. Eto'o, the pre-eminent Cameroonian footballer of all time, wrote a widely shared eulogy on Instagram. Thousands of Dinamo fans attended a memorial event at the stadium in Bucharest. A Mercedes hearse carried a coffin surrounded by flowers, preceded by men walking slowly carrying photographs of Ekeng. Nathalie, pregnant, wore a white dress and hat.

On May 15, 2016, after repatriation to Cameroon, a huge funeral took place in Yaounde. Flowers and a portrait of Ekeng on the pitch hemmed the coffin. The huge cortege included upwards of 100 cars. Sports minister Bidoung Kpwatt represented Cameroon's president, Paul Biya.

"When I heard the news, I couldn't believe it at all that he was dead," Steven Manas, the 19-year-old Scoutte Detection du Cameroun player, says. "Because he had been feeling just fine; he was in top form. He didn't have any problems. It was like the mourning for a president. ... It was as if the president had died."

Before he died, Ekeng was building a house back in his home neighbourhood in Yaounde; it is a large structure with pillars on the frontage. Now, on the incomplete first floor hangs a large banner installed by Ekeng's friends. In French, the banner reads: "A lion does not die, he sleeps. Rest in peace."

Dinamo offered to continue to pay out Ekeng's monthly wage until the end of his contract. Vlad Hosu, a Bucharest lawyer retained by Ekeng's mother and siblings, emphasises that the family did not ask for this measure. The first payout was delayed as Dinamo did not know where to send the money. Ekeng's wife, Nathalie, disputes the family's rights to the money and has retained her own counsel. Dinamo eventually determined to wire the funds to Ekeng's own account in Bucharest.

In May, Nathalie confirmed in a phone conversation that Dinamo paid for her husband's funeral, but she has received nothing more. She continues to grieve for the man she met at school and married in 2011. "I still feel bad, it's still fresh, it's still recent," she said. "Yes, I still feel that emptiness."

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After the new season started, Dinamo once more played their local rivals Steaua, away at the National Arena. Some 15 minutes into the match, Sergiu Hanca saw a black bird flying above them. After the bird disappeared, Steaua scored. "I'm thinking like this is a sign," Hanca says. "Ekeng is here, watching us."

Last September Dinamo had an away league fixture six hours north in Botosani, a town close to the Ukrainian border. The authorities locked the small contingent of travelling fans in an enclosure; within minutes they had lit a flare and started throwing coins. They sang songs about Romanian nationalism, as well as the usual verses about Hildan.

Among the banners that almost obscured the view out of the enclosure, one showed the late Hildan's moustachioed face in outline. There was a new flag, too, held by a young fan named Bogdan Turea. Its device combined Hildan's No. 11, in white, and Ekeng's No. 14, in black. Turea explained that a friend of his made it after Ekeng's death, looking to combine the two dead Dinamo men in one device.

"I wasn't present at that game," Turea said. "Maybe this is faith; I think we're cursed."


Simon Akam is a contributing writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @SimonAkam. Inna Lazareva contributed reporting from Cameroon. Chanel Karlaille Tcheukam helped with translation.