The tragic tale of Max Brito -- the Ivorian player paralysed at the 1995 Rugby World Cup

One 24-year-old winger’s life was altered irrevocably just over 20 years ago during a match with Tonga.

THE 1995 RUGBY World Cup was memorable for so many reasons. While there was the euphoria and symbolic power of South Africa’s defeat of New Zealand in the final in what was the first major post-apartheid sporting event that the former country had hosted, this celebration of all that was good about the game was also tinged with sadness.

While the tournament was filled with stars such as Jonah Lomu, Michael Lynagh and Will Carling, there were also countless obscure players with the so-called lesser countries that even hardcore fans of the game were unlikely to have heard of.

Max Brito was one of the less well-known participants to feature in the competition, appearing for Ivory Coast, the only other African team competing that year aside from the eventual winners.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup is regarded by many as the symbolic beginning of the professional era in rugby, but regardless, no player involved at the time was earning the kind of lucrative wages that many modern stars enjoy.

Brito was no exception — in addition to playing for Biscarrosse Olympique in the Fédérale 3 division of French rugby, he worked as an electrician.

Not many people expected Ivory Coast to have much of an impact on the competition given their lack of a rugby-playing tradition compared with other sides, and so it proved. They lost their opening two games — 89-0 to Scotland and 54-18 to France respectively — exiting the tournament at the earliest possible stage as a result.

Going into the third match, on 3 June 1995, Tonga had also been beaten twice, rendering the game a dead rubber, with both teams no longer having a chance of progression to the knockout stages. Brito was making just his third appearance for Ivory Coast at test level, and his second start in the competition, having featured in the first XV against France and as a substitute in the opening loss to Scotland.

After just three minutes of this encounter, however, an incident occurred that would overshadow everything that followed. Brito, playing on the wing, caught hold of a high ball. He ventured forward before being tackled by Tongan flanker Inoke Afeaki. As the play continued, a ruck formed over Brito and subsequently collapsed as he lay prone on the ground, with several players falling on top of the Ivorian as a result.

The seriousness of the injury that resulted was soon apparent. Brito was motionless on the ground for a sustained period as he awaited medical attention before being carried off on a stretcher.

The 24-year-old had suffered a broken vertebrae and was swiftly brought to the intensive care unit of the Unitas Hospital in Pretoria. Yet despite operations undertaken in an attempt to stabilise the fourth and fifth vertebrae, the incident ultimately left Brito paralysed below the neck.

Brito was given compensation following the accident, with every team who participated in the tournament contributing to the cause. Nonetheless, the scale of what has been described as ‘the greatest tragedy in World Cup history’ only grew thereafter. Ever since the incident, Brito has largely been bedridden and confined to a wheelchair.

A 2007 interview with Le Monde portrayed an individual deep in despair 12 years on from the accident, or “my curse” as he referred to it

“I have come to the end of my tether,” he is quoted as saying. “If one day I fall seriously ill, and if I have the strength and courage to take my own life, then I will do it.”

The ex-player, even after 12 years, could only move his head, upper body and one arm. His wife had left him, while his teenage sons, he claimed, only visited him “to take money off me so they can go out and buy things”.

Warning: The following video contains images that some viewers may find upsetting.

Source: Ruddy Darter/YouTube

A year after the accident, Harvey Thorneycroft, a Northampton winger, led a tour to raise funds for Brito, with other notable names including Martin Johnson and Graham Rowntree taking part. The Professional Rugby Players’ Association also tried to help the Ivorian, but ex-England sevens player Damien Hopley, who also had to retire early because of injury, highlighted the lack of support for Brito in the long term.

In additon, with rugby stars increasingly becoming bigger, faster and more aggressive than ever in the modern age, concerns have been expressed that a repeat of the Brito incident could occur in the near future. Although the injury that the Ivorian suffered was extremely rare, there is perceived to be a greater risk of such issues occurring at competitions like the World Cup, with minnows featuring amateurs coming up against much stronger professional teams.

Furthermore, in 2003, the Independent on Sunday quoted English Rugby Football Union chief medical officer Dr Simon Kemp saying that injuries such as Brito’s statistically “shouldn’t occur more than once in every four World Cups”.

Ivory Coast, meanwhile, have not featured in a Rugby World Cup since 1995, while Brito’s grim fate prompted plenty of debate on whether it was appropriate to allow inexperienced nations to compete with the heavyweights of the game in such pressurised circumstances.

And now, after more than two decades have passed since one of rugby’s most infamous incidents, Brito reportedly continues to live as a quadriplegic in Bordeaux. He retains some income from the Rugby World Cup insurance, while officials still offer invitations to subsequent tournaments, but the former player lives primarily off social welfare these days.

Yet, although not exactly a redemption, there has been at least a hint of positivity in recent times. Notwithstanding the immense trauma he has suffered at its hands, the latest reports indicate that Brito continues to reserve an unlikely, unflagging passion for the sport of rugby.

The Times reports that back in May, an ex-Ivory Coast teammate Djakaria Sanoko — who still visits Brito sporadically at his home — organised his first visit to the Ivory Coast in almost two decades.

A benefit game was arranged with over 60 players — many of whom were ex-teammates of Brito — taking part. More encouragingly still, at 44, Brito has a new partner who cares for him on a daily basis, while in stark contrast with 2007, he holds an increasingly hopeful outlook on life, telling reporters last May:

“I have managed to vanquish my handicap. When you accept what has happened, you can move on. When you refuse to accept it, you can never find a way through. My aim today is to relaunch rugby [in Ivory Coast] by training young players.”

Despite this positive note, however, Brito’s story remains essentially tragic. With the 2015 competition set to begin, the 1995 accident continues to serve as a timely reminder of the considerable risk involved and courage that rugby players at a high level require to continually put their bodies on the line, particularly during high-profile events such as the World Cup, where media hype and intensity levels on the pitch go into overdrive.

Brito’s sad tale ultimately gives a glimpse into the dark side of the sport, with most people preferring to associate 1995 with the image of a smiling Nelson Mandela in the Springboks jersey, rather than the haunting footage of a young Ivorian man laying prone on the ground for far too long. Just like the former event however, the latter one should not and cannot afford to be forgotten by anyone who loves and cares about the game.

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Paul Fennessy

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