Football: Conjuring ability upon the disabled

Is football only a game for the physically fit people?  What about the blind and physically challenged people? Can they not play football too? Aparajita Dutta explores the beautiful world of disabled football and Paralympics, weaving stories of their struggle in the international context and presenting the Indian scenario interviewing para athletes and the non profit organization, Civilian Welfare Foundation.

Stars unseen as they liberated the light,

Through adversities, without sight;

Hopes beaming in a missing hand,

Will blooming in passion’s wand;

A ball just for a leg of one,

A life, a love, football is the song.

Not “they”, it’s just “us”, break the disturbing wall,

It’s our life, it’s a family, it’s just “our football”.

Football: The world’s a playground, we are all players

Football: how do we play the game? With a fully fit physical body? But what about people who are born with or acquire permanent disabilities? Can such people play football professionally?  In a world that is driven by technology, limitations of physical disability are no longer a barrier. Football has already been introduced in the Paralympics.

Initially football was not considered as a part of Paralympics games. It was only in 1984, that football entered into the marvellous world of Paralympics. Today, two types of football are being played in Paralympics games. Various associations (international and national) have been working to promote the third type of football, known as Amputee football and to include it in the Paralympics games. There are several formats of football for disabled that have become popular. 5-a-side football, or futsal, was first included in Paralympic Games held in Athens. The players who played were partially or wholly blind. 7-a-side football is played by footballers with cerebral palsy. Amputee football, though not part of Paralympics yet, is played by players who have lower or upper extremity amputations.

Football at Paralympics
Football at Paralympics

The world of Paralympics football: The inspiration and the support

In spite of low media coverage of disabled and amputee footballers, footballers like Nico Calabria, Memuna Mansaray McShane, Ezra Frech and others came in the headlines with thrilling stories of their struggles and motivating victories thus conquering the challenges that came in their way. A teenager from Massachusetts, Nico Calabria, who represented the US in the World Amputee Football World Cup, Mexico, was born without the right leg. Support from his family, specially his parents, inspired him to chase his dream of becoming a footballer. Instead of considering Nico’s disability as a problem, her mother treated it as an opportunity. Support from his parents and his determination gave him strength to wrestle at high school, to practice gymnastics and of course, to play football. He made it to the varsity team at Concord-Carlisle High and came to fame as he scored a goal that drew nearly two million YouTube hits. He even starred in a Powerade commercial which made its debut at the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival at Tribeca Cinemas in New York, a commercial that also featured in the FIFA World Cup 2014. The commercial, which inspired every single spectator, showed snippets of Nico playing in the football field, doing hand pumps and push-ups.

Andrés Iniesta, Nico Calabria and Marcelo Schmidt speak with journalists in Barcelona - Powerade 2014 FIFA World Cup Campaign
Andrés Iniesta, Nico Calabria and Marcelo Schmidt spoke with journalists in Barcelona – Powerade 2014 FIFA World Cup Campaign     (Source – Coca Cola)

Memuna Mansaray McShane, a 19-year-old footballer of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, popularly known as the ‘Peace Girl’ is an amputee footballer who lost her right arm in a fire. Initially she wore long sleeves to hide her missing arm but she finally made peace with her disability. On the field, she creates magic with her one-arm throw-ins, her quick-footed passes, chipping balls, and in the process became the second – leading scorer of her school’s football team. She, like a shooting comet, a beauty riding off the dark, is leading a lot of other Memunas towards their dream.

Amputee footballers of Haiti brought in a wave of inspiration for the U.S. veterans who have lost legs during their tenure at Afghanistan and Iraq. These Haiti amputee footballers, survivors of the disastrous earthquake of 2010, held amputee clinics and played to encourage the veterans and educate them with the risks and adventures of the game, thus helping them discover their inner strength. The Haitians discussed their personal experiences, their scepticism about prosthetic and their eventual acceptance. This generated hope among the veterans and made them come to terms with their disability, exploring themselves on the football field.

The Haitian National Amputee Soccer came together only four months after the earthquake and reached quarterfinals in the last World Cup held in Mexico in September 2014. (Source- Washington Post) The Haitian National Amputee Soccer came together only four months after the earthquake and reached quarterfinals in the last World Cup held in Mexico in September 2014.
The Haitian National Amputee Soccer came together only four months after the earthquake and reached quarterfinals in the last World Cup held in Mexico in September 2014.

Even with the inspiring realities of these disabled and amputee footballers, the awareness of the existence of Paralympics football has become an exigency. Various football associations from all over the world are trying their best to promote Paralympics football with the aid of social media and public personalities. David Beckham did play blind football in 2011 to increase awareness but no other reputed footballer or media personality has come forward to promote other types of Paralympics football.

In order to promote amputee football and make it a part of Paralympics games, the European Amputee Football Association (EAFF) has been formed in February 2015. This has been followed by the addition of a new continental confederation at Dublin, Ireland. This marks an important step in the development of amputee football. The presence of the delegates of UEFA throws a ray of hope as it becomes a covenant of support for the amputee footballers. According to the reports, UEFA has declared to contribute €50k per season for EAFF projects which include grassroots development. Given this scenario, and considering the financial contribution, it can be rightly said that UEFA has showed the world the way to bring amputee football into the mainstream sports. Ten countries (England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine) have become a part of EAFF. Belgium, Georgia and Netherlands are expected to join in the near future.

UEFA has declared to contribute €50k per season for EAFF projects which include grassroots development

In order to empower the footballers who have physical disabilities, the Russian Disabled Football Federation (RDFF) has been formed.  A unique non-state organization with a state license, RDFF organizes tournaments, provides sports halls for rent, meets payment of transport for participants for competitions and has provisions for prize money. Such organizations like RDFF not only help in creating awareness but also try to resolve the problems which are hindering the development of Paralympics football.

The IPC educational program has introduced ‘Paralympic School Day’ in order to educate kids and youth about various Paralympics sport and football including football. A Paralympic School Day kit contains a set of activities along with the required background information which enable a child to get associated with individual differences and disability issues in a fun and playful way.

Apart from various organizations dedicated to Paralympics and amputee football, social media has also become crucial in promoting the awareness. Visa and General Electric are featuring slick commercials with disabled athletes thereby spreading the awareness among people. Paralympics footballers like striker Josh Blue and others have not only been showing their brilliance in sports but also have started to make their appearance on the social media. It is through these other endorsements that these athletes are trying to get themselves be known to the world, and it is through their individual identity that Paralympics football is getting promoted.

Paralympics football in India, a land unexplored: who actually cares?

While so many organizations and individuals are stepping forward to promote Paralympics football in various parts of the world, India has been deprived of the very presence of a Paralympics football federation. With Indian Paralympics athletes willing to play football, the dearth of a federation and infrastructure creates a tragic melody for the development of Paralympics football in India. Many Paralympics athletes complain the lack of initiative from both the state governments and the central government. Most of these athletes hail from very poor families. With no permanent careers in Paralympic sports, they also have to work elsewhere to earn their livelihoods. Thriving in abject poverty, these players not only have to overcome their physical problems but also have to struggle financially. But they are passionate. With very little or no reciprocation from the government, they have not taken any back seat. Many have continued their practice for more than 15 or 20 years and are still enthusiastic and hopeful about the development of Paralympics football in India.  Apart from support of government these athletes feel there is also a dearth of counselling facilities for their families. With lack of awareness among families of amputee footballers, these players cannot get the moral support that they so very much need. If the sad shadow of fear is not removed, the disabled people will forever be pushed into the darkness of depression. But there is a tiny ray of hope here. Working to improve this situation of Paralympics in India is a non-profit organization, Civilian Welfare Foundation (CWF). CWF aims at creating awareness among everyone regarding Paralympics and are working to provide support to the athletes. They have started to organize the Paralympics Walk, the first of its kind in the world since 2011.  CWF encourages people to walk with people with disabilities and amputees to show their support.  They are also trying to create Paralympics football federation in India, while running trials for players at the same time. This is not an easy task, especially considering no support from the government or the All India Football Federation. Other issues like lack of awareness, difficulty in raising funds, and lack of human resources have made the task for CWF even more uphill.

Amputee/disabled football in India with help from CWF (Courtesy : Krishanu Chanda)
Amputee and disabled footballers in India. (Photography : Krishanu Chanda)

Manoball: A new step forward

On 14th June 2015 CWF and FIIOB (a pan India football group called Football Is In Our Blood), in association with Goalden Times, organized Manoball, a football match played by amputees and disabled players. The event was organized as part of FIIOB’s summer tournament, Copa America 2015 (an event modelled after the real Copa America tournament).

The hot sundry weather of Kolkata was in a different mood as she embellished herself with the velvet of the rain, which poured like celebratory stars, as Manoball started. One of the organizers of the event, played the role of the referee, proving once again, that you don’t need to have a special training to host Paralympics football. All you need is love and passion for the game. In a half an hour of engrossing match, the two teams, a mixed bag of disabled players and amputee competed against each other amidst the cheering crowd, gifting the spectators with some wonderful shots and striking saves. Manoball scripted the word “inclusivity” in our hearts and showed that it is just another match of a football tournament.

Manoball evoked a sense of consciousness and appreciation among the spectators. Not only did they enjoy the event but some, who were well aware of similar events in Brazil were excited to see one in front of their eyes. There were many who were not even aware of the existence of such football and watched with intense attention and later followed up with the volunteers for more information. The cheers, the claps created a harmonica of acceptance for Paralympics football. Yes, Indians too want to watch such games. The inclusivity of Manoball within the tournament for general players made the spectators feel that this ‘exclusion’ has been removed and the Paralympics athletes are just like us.

A moment from the Monoball event. (Photography: Krishanu Chanda)
A moment from the Monoball event. (Photography: Krishanu Chanda)

The possibilities and hopes for a promising future ahead

Football is a beautiful game which transcends the barrier of physiological attributes. One-footed or two-footed, blind or one-handed, the normal biological sketch of a human being with physical fitness disappears when it comes to football. Football is a team game which not only focuses on individual prowess but also helps an individual to connect to other teammates, to coordinate, inducing not only physical well being, but also psychological fitness. Creating a sense of belongingness and family, football helps to unite human beings in a bond shared by love, passion and struggle. Anyone, yes, anyone can play the game. All we need is a tinge of cooperation, love, compassion and encouragement for these Paralympics athletes. The world of Paralympics has seen the steady inclusion of blind football and football for the disabled. Signs are positive that soon amputee football will be included. It can be done in India as well. Manoball showed the way. Cooperation from both state and national levels along with social media is necessary. The financial aid is necessary in order to build proper infrastructure and support Paralympics footballers. People from various spheres of life have to come forward and help in whatever way possible. A little spark can light thousands of candles. We need to invest in whatever way possible. Our stars are waiting with exuberance to reveal their enigmatic light to the spectators. Come, let us support them, let us cheer for them. Let us support Paralympics!!


Amputee Sports for Victims of Terrorism , Volume 21 of NATO Security Through Science Series , edited by Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism,  and published by IOS Press, 2007.

Feature Image Courtesy : Washington Post