Augusto Alonso had his leg amputated aged ten after a football injury developed into a malignant tumour. Last week, the 15-year-old from Mendoza scored two goals while wearing the blue and white stripes of Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup.
Thirty years after the sport was first created by Don Bennett in the US, the Amputee Football World Cup 2010 kicked off in Argentina last week. Over 200 players from 16 nations—each members of the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF)—strode onto a floodlit field in Crespo, Entre Ríos, flying the banners of their countries.
Delegations from Angola, Great Britain, Russia, Liberia, El Salvador, Turkey, Iran, France, Haiti, Ukraine, Japan, Brazil and Argentina (with later arrivals from Ghana and Uzbekistan) were hailed with appreciative roars from a capacity crowd at the Crespo Union de Fútbol. As darkness fell, the atmosphere began to crackle with shouting voices, whistles, drums, streamers and confetti picked out by the bright floodlights.
The warm reception really set the tone for the ten day tournament as the towns of Cerrito, Viale and Paraná joined forces with main host Crespo to welcome the teams and celebrate the world cup of a sport that after three decades is still struggling to gain official recognition.
A world away from the ‘other’ World Cup in South Africa this summer, there was no wall-to-wall media coverage, shrieking vuvuzelas, or two-penny memorabilia here: amputee football still isn’t acknowledged by football’s governing body FIFA or included as a Para Olympic discipline.
Mauricio Gregnor, of the Mundial Organising Committee at Crespo said: “There are a lot of personal sacrifices made to play this sport because at first nobody took notice of amputee football players. Everything they have achieved they’ve done on their own and now finally they are getting some recognition.”
Setbacks are common: the tournament was supposed to be held in Brazil last year but was cancelled with less than three weeks to go for financial reasons. Each town’s preparation for this event was a labour of love and determination and each team’s journey to Entre Rios was complicated and uncertain. Many of them only made it by the skin of their hides.
If anything captured the tournament’s battle against the odds, surely it was the sight of the Haitian national team making their way onto the pitch during the opening ceremony, merely ten months after an earthquake devastated the country. Three of the team were victims in the tragedy, including Francois McKewdy, who had to saw off his own leg to escape from the wreckage of the t-shirt factory he was working in when the quake hit.
Established not long after the natural disaster occurred, the team was created by the US-based International Institute of Sport (IIOS) and their arrival in Entre Rios came after a colossal fundraising initiative to pay for fares, equipment and uniforms.
Evens Esaïe Jovin, pastor and secretary of the national team said: “It was hard to organise because there were so many people that lost limbs in the earthquake. They came here without clothes because they literally didn’t have anything else to wear: every house was broken.
“Getting ready to come here was really hard. None of the players had travel papers or birth certificates, everything was lost,” he added.
In Haiti, amputee football is still in its infancy, but a lack of funding is an issue that is common to all teams that participate in the sport. Even in countries like El Salvador, where the sport has been established since 1986, the squad only managed to buy the last three plane tickets a few days before the competition started.
Their background is that of a 12-year civil war which ended in 1992 and there are only three players that don’t have an ex-guerrilla or military background. There was initial backing from the armed forces, but even that support has gradually dwindled.
Rene Velasco, 43, from Ilobasco, has been with the team since he lost his leg to a land mine during the war. From their lodgings in Cerrito, while his team mates are sprawled about watching Tom & Gerry he says: “We’re competitive. We also have to have other jobs (apart from playing football) to earn enough for tickets and uniforms: it wasn’t easy.
“We’re trying to get a bit more organised and hoping for help from sports federations and departments in the government, including FIFA. We’re demanding an answer as to why amputee football isn’t recognised as a sport. Everyone’s been asking why FIFA doesn’t lend its support to us but we still haven’t had an answer,” says Rene.
While Para Olympic sports get government funding in most countries, WAFF is still in negotiations to get amputee football included as a discipline and in the mean time the teams rely on thrifty fundraising.
Rehabilitation Through Sport
Investment in the sport would support more than just the teams themselves. According to many amputees, participation in sport was a crucial part of their physical and psychological rehabilitation as they recovered from the loss of their limbs.
Oscar Barablis, 42, Mendoza, is one of the Argentina’s three goal keepers. His arm was amputated 22 years ago in an accident at the gomeria where he worked.
“Of course I had to re-train and get used to playing with one arm but with the help of my friends and family I managed it – playing really helped me integrate into society because you feel part of a group again,” he says as the team basks in the warm spring sunshine, enjoying a free morning.
The positive impact is also felt by friends and family who struggled to comes to terms with the injury to a loved one. Oscar´s mother, Josefina, came from Mendoza to Crespo to watch her son represent his country. She says that seeing him play had finally helped her to accept that her son had lost an arm after more than 20 years of denial.
After a group of young boys come by to slap the players on the back and wish them luck for the next games, Oscar talks about the squad: “No player is bigger than the team. The main goal is to be as one and grow one step at a time and not to lose our modesty.
“We go out with our chests raised high in the knowledge that even if we lose, each player has contributed the best of themselves to our sport – that’s the idea,” he says.
An Inspiration for Others
Back in the El Salvador camp, Rene describes the team’s ambition to foster wider change back home: “We are really working to set an example, so that society sees that life doesn’t stop when you have a disability.
“When you have an amputation you feel like your world has ended. We want to work with these people and show them that life continues and they can carry on being the person that they were before the accident. We’re not psychologists but we can support them and help them by showing them that we have a living history; that we’ve overcome all of the obstacles that stood before us.”
The Haitian team also hopes to inspire others by setting up a national centre for amputee sport in Port au Prince with the backing of the IIOS to help earthquake victims recover from their injuries when they return home.
Speaking from Viale football club, as the team relaxed in the sun, listening to Sean Paul and having broken conversations with local school children, pastor Esaïe Jovin said: “There aren’t really any other amputee sports in our country. They don’t like unpretty persons and exile them from the society. It’s our challenge to come here and play in Argentina so that when we come back they will think differently.”
Although each team came to Entre Rios with the hope of taking the world cup home with them, the common long-term goal is to achieve official recognition for the sport so that they can spend less time on fundraising and more time on tactics. With the level of support, spirit of solidarity and number of flashbulbs on the sidelines at Crespo this year, there is a sense that amputee football is gradually getting the attention it deserves.
“I never thought that I would be out there playing for my country in front of such a big crowd,” says Augusto, “In other tournaments there were people but nothing like this. Their support is great!”
This is a sport that desperately needs publicity and investment – hopefully progress will have been made by the time the teams re-group for Japan 2012.