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What happened to Max Brito? The Ivory Coast rugby player who broke his neck at 1995 World Cup

At the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Max Brito broke his neck playing for Ivory Coast in the second minute of the team’s third pool match against Tonga in Rustenburg, South Africa. He was a quick and nimble wing who was in the squad only because of an injury to his older brother, Patrick.

Returning a box-kick from a scrum, Brito was tackled to the ground and as he tried to lay the ball back, players of both sides fell on him, forcing a blast of pressure through his head and neck, severing his spinal cord at the fifth vertebra, and leaving him a tetraplegic in a wheelchair for life, with only limited movement of his head and arms. He was 27.

It led inevitably to a changed existence of immense challenges that we outside observers can only attempt to imagine. I spoke to Brito in June 2020, 25 years on from the injury, and despite his frail voice, he had a powerful and maybe surprising message of resilience regarding the playing of sport.

“Accidents happen in rugby and other sports and everywhere in life,” Brito told me, from his home in Bordeaux. “If we stop playing sport for fear of injury you might as well stop doing anything. I had 13 or 14 years of fog where I didn’t know where I was. The accident was very violent. But after that I had a spiritual enlightenment and I understood that it was necessary to accept my handicap.”

On the question of the financial assistance he had received from rugby, Brito said: “Over time that has diminished. I just about get by now.” He passed away in hospital in December last year, aged 54.

To bring Max Brito’s story up to date now is immensely poignant, with the potential for much positivity, with still some hurdles to clear. That question of whether rugby provided sufficient support has lingered.

Brito’s brothers Fabrice and Patrick were interviewed at the trio’s old club, Biscarrosse Olympique, by Gabriel Clarke for ITV’s World Cup coverage on Sunday night, and they stated: “Maybe a more famous player would have received more support, but he was lucky to have people who enabled him to live with dignity.” So the brothers harbour no grudge with World Rugby, the organisers of the quadrennial Rugby World Cup, which has gone from strength to strength as the generator of revenue for the world game since 1995.

“For Max, of course rugby was his sport,” Patrick Brito said in the interview, with Fabrice adding, smiling: “He was an extraterrestrial, he was different.” Patrick concurred: “Yes, different, he was a bit stronger and better than the rest, but he wasn’t looking for glory or the spotlight.”

As to whether Brito was otherwise left to cope alone, too much, that is subjective. He became estranged from his wife and two sons. “He was lost. At times he didn’t want to live,” Patrick recalled.

World Rugby told i this week they assisted Brito where possible, including the purchase of a motorised wheelchair and adaptations to his home, in addition to raising the first insurance payout. They say he was visited frequently by Bernard Lapasset and Marcel Martin, two of their past chairmen and pillars of the French Rugby Federation who have themselves now passed away. Brito was a guest at the 2015 World Cup in England, but with travel and accommodation arranged to Japan in 2019, there was a mix-up with an airline over carrying his wheelchair, and he did not go.

Having seen interest in rugby decline as a result of the events of 1995, the Ivory Coast Rugby Union had a reset in 2019, and came close to qualifying for this World Cup, beating Namibia in 2021, when Brito travelled from his home to speak to the players inspirationally, before and afterwards. If they had beaten Madagascar, it might have been Ivory Coast and not Namibia at the current tournament in France, the country adopted by Brito’s mother from Ivory Coast and his late father from Senegal.

For the last four years, the Ivory Coast Union have planned a programme to nurture players – the country’s version of the Marcoussis rugby centre in France – to be named the Max Brito Academy. He had agreed to be the manager in absentia. “We did not want to do this only in the spirit of paying tribute to him, but because he is someone who has an excellent vision of rugby, an outside eye, a new eye,” said Olivier Diomande, general manager of Ivory Coast’s national teams, in 2020.

Frustratingly, it appears the academy has yet to be established. Rugby is an Olympic sport in its sevens format, so can draw money down from the “Olympic Solidarity” fund for athlete development, but it is understood markers of good governance are still to be met. World Rugby place the Ivory Coast union at the “participation” level, meaning they can help with the provision of 1000 rugby balls in the “Get Into Rugby” initiative. It must be hoped the Max Brito Academy will open its doors soon.

Brito’s accident remains the most serious to befall a player at a major rugby competition, and it can be unsettling to contemplate a sporting venture ending in a wheelchair. Anglia TV footage found for the ITV piece shows Martin Johnson and Matt Dawson hanging on Brito’s every word after a fundraising match played by an England XV against a Springbok XV in Ivory Coast in 1996, organised by Harvey Thorneycroft, the former Northampton Saints wing.

But we can also see Brito was encouraging others to play, through to the last days of his life, and it was his intention for his legacy to be used for good. Maybe it is time to institute a Max Brito Award at every World Cup – to be made on the basis of fortitude, talent and inspiration, with a generous contribution to a rugby cause of the recipient’s choice. It would be a wonderful memorial to a life with lessons for us all.

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