Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Footballing heroes: from battles to ball control

The players in the amputee football world cup finals, which kicked off in Turkey yesterday, are not highly paid professionals – some are the victims of war. Sean Thomas tells their astonishing stories

The rules are simple. Goalkeepers are only allowed to have one arm. Outfield players may only have one leg. Penalties are given if the ball strikes a defender's crutch, or the stump of a goalie's arm, in the penalty box. The goal itself is half normal size. There aren't many headers in this version of football.

It may sound like a surreal television sketch but it's far more serious. This is amputee football, a testament to the resourcefulness of the human spirit, and the power of sport. And over the next fortnight, its world cup finals are being held in Antalya, southern Turkey.

image Amputee football dates back 30 years to a group of El Salvadorean players, all injured in the country's civil war, who decided to create their own versionn of the game. Just because they had lost limbs to bombs and landmines, they saw no reason to forsake their favourite sport. So they made up their own rules, designed their own kit, and sought other maimed opponents.

Since then, the sport has grown in size and organisation – 12 national teams from four continents will be present in Antalya this week. The team with the most poignant story must be the one from Liberia, a country better known for "blood diamonds" and brutal civil war than sporting prowess.

One of the stars of the squad is Dennis Parker, 33, from Tubmanburg, a remote, diamond-mining hill town. In 1990, when he was just 16 years old, he was forced to fight for President Charles Taylor in Liberia's first civil war, which devastated the west African country from 1989 to 1996. After three years of fighting, he was wounded in a street battle in the capital, Monrovia. His right leg was shattered, requiring amputation at the knee. Incredibly, he fought on until the end of the war, then found himself begging on the streets.

"People used to see amputees as bad people, like animals. When the fighting in Liberia stopped there were thousands of us, a mob, on the streets, with nowhere to go and no one to take care of us," he says. "Taxis would not stop for a disabled man because the drivers would think we had been responsible for killing their families. Now all that is changing."

Parker and 300 other amputee fighters took action in late 2005, storming the party headquarters in Monrovia of the now-exiled former president Taylor. The amputees had served in various armies during the war, but they shared a savage sense of injustice. They had no jobs, no pensions and, of course, were missing limbs. Some were drug addicts, hooked on the crack and heroin once given them by the militias to keep them loyal; almost all were beggars. They spent their days loitering around grocery shops and on street corners.

Into this tense and potentially violent stand-off stepped Reverend Robert Karloh, a warm, smiling, thick-set Pentecostal minister. Mr Karloh had spotted the potential therapeutic value of amputee football in neighbouring Sierra Leone while he was working there as deputy director of disarmament. One day, he saw wounded soldiers kicking footballs around streets that had recently been their battlefield. Realising that the game could be harnessed to help others, he joined the African amputee football movement.

At the party headquarters in Monrovia, he persuaded the protesters to quit the building and try to rebuild their lives through sport. Starving, suspicious and initially belligerent – as he himself admits – Parker was a pretty unwilling recruit. But Mr Karloh charmed and encouraged him to create the Liberia Amputee Sports Association, the Lasa club, one of six in the Liberia league, which has more than 150 players.

Parker is now a genuine football hero, a regular player in a Liberian national team. "We found soccer, and soccer allows us to be renewed," he says. He looks across the pitch at his team warming up, some of them wielding crutches, some of them running as fast as many a two-legged player. "This kind of football has helped me go to places I would never have dreamt of going before. I have managed to see Freetown in Sierra Leone. I've been to Europe, even to Russia. When I walk on the streets, these days, people know me. We are able to live again."

Lasa's first match was a defeat. But then Liberia qualified for the first All-African Amputee Football Championship, held last February in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In the event, Liberia lost a thrilling final by 4-3 to Ghana, whose Collins Gyamfi was the tournament's top scorer. Sierra Leone's Amadu "Bob Jones" Kamara was voted the event's best player. But Liberia's strong performance prompted the US government to donate $30,000 (£15,000) to the country's amputee football movement.

That relative triumph brought home a truth. Parker and his Liberian team-mates realised that their efforts – and victories – had helped them regain a level of respect among their countrymen. As Mr Karloh put it: the rattle of an AK-47 had been superseded by the roar of a football stadium.

For the minister, the benefits of amputee football stretch far beyond the pitch. The popularity of the players is not only good for them as individuals, but is a vital element in national reconciliation. "There is a tendency for people to reject these men who fought the civil wars. Now everybody comes along to see them play football, and cheers for them. This sends a message: 'I have forgiven you.' It's a form of healing, if you like."

Among the ailments being treated by the sport are the divisions between former combatants. "We have people who fought gun battles against each other who are now playing on the same side," he says.

And now Liberia are in the biggest event of all: the Amputee World Cup in Turkey. The teams which have qualified for Antalya include well-financed squads from countries such as England and France, as well as the Third World. The European teams have medical back-up, trainers, special kit, and comparatively good facilities.

Amputees are just one of six disabled groups which stage their own international football tournaments. The others are people with cerebral palsy, the blind, the deaf, the partially sighted and those with learning disabilities. All of them share the same aim, and the same spirit, says Jeff Davis, the national football development manager of disability at the Football Association in Soho Square, London. "When we started these cups in 1998, our main aim was to give everybody an opportunity to reach their potential. That may just be playing locally but it may not. The overall idea is to develop a hierarchy and a network.

"Put it another way. At the beginning, the aim for the players is just to kick a ball around. But like any sportsman, as they progress, it becomes a really serious competition – and the players want to be the best players they can. And it doesn't get much bigger or better than a World Cup, whether you are Wayne Rooney or Christiano Ronaldo, or some poor guy with a war wound from Freetown."

The world in which Mr Davis works in Europe is very different to the one in which Mr Karloh functions in Africa. But Mr Davis strikes a similar chord when he says: "Before I joined the FA, I worked for a disability organisation and I saw that sport could be really powerful for these guys – to help them with rehabilitation or just to help them as an extra activity, something to enhance their lives. This is sport as a healing process."

As for the eventual World Cup winners, Brazil are the favourites, with England, who finished third in the inaugural tournament in Manchester in in 1998, expected to to do well. Some of the cognoscenti look to the teams from the east: Uzbekistan and Ukraine are highly rated and Moldova are thought to be useful.

Maybe one of the teams with women in their ranks (amputee soccer is a gender-neutral sport) will strike a blow for sexual equality. But if sheer guts are anything to do by, then Liberia are definitely in with a shout. As Parker leaps off the bench to join his teammates, it's difficult to see any disability. Just talent. And courage. And sheer sporting fun.

Footballing heroes: from battles to ball control - Independent Online Edition > Europe