Sports Features of Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Source: Fiifi Anaman
It's late afternoon on a Monday, and heavy rains in many parts of the capital means the refreshing cool breeze from its wake blows into the Accra Sports Stadium.
On the pitch, a football team is having a practice session. It is a national team training, yet there’s not a single fan or journalist in the stands to cheer or observe, to encourage or report.
Apart from the footballers and their coach, the only people around are some young boys acting as “ball-boys”, while the few others are grown men, encompassing officials and one journalist - sitting on ledges inside the inner perimeter.
The deserted stands tell a depressing story of neglect, but the team on the pitch carries on training diligently nonetheless.
The team on the pitch is Ghana’s national football team.
Except this version is made up of players not fortunate enough to have two legs – or two arms, in the case of goalkeepers.
This team on the pitch is Ghana’s amputee national football team: The Back Challenge.
A fellowship of inspiration
Despite the emptiness of the stadium depicting a glaring lack of support and attention for their activities, the players on the pitch – comprising the main national team (mostly professionals) playing against the locals (considered to be the upcoming generation) – are playing with a peculiar sense of seriousness and commitment. So serious that, at a point, a player brutally tackles his opponent who is advancing towards goal.
The coach – seated close to me by the pitch – gets up almost impulsively and roars. “Hey, it’s just a training session, and you’re playing it like you’re on TV!” The player respectfully turns towards his coach, focusing an attentive gaze, a smile waiting to happen drawn on his face. “You wait,” the coach, named Ali Jarah, continues. “Don’t do all your tackling here. When we go to aburokyire (abroad), I’ll let you hack down any player you want!” The rest of the players burst into laughter. It is a congenial atmosphere afterall.
Watching this – a group of young men in crutches – rising above their limitations and taking the art of determination to a whole new admirable level is perhaps the most inspiring phenomenon I’ll ever experience in my career as a sports writer. My body succumbs to an inevitable invasion of goose bumps as I observe the sheer display of technical skill and intelligence heartwarmingly overshadowing glaring disabilities. They say disability is never inability. They never lied.
There’s an indescribable feeling of awe that is hard to shake off watching these players use their disabled bodies as a beautiful expression of power and energy, achieving the seemingly impossible coordination of the basic elements – controlling, passing, running, crossing shooting et al – with so much forceful effort yet it comes across with calming ease.
“Isn’t it amazing,” smiles Philip Otuo, an Accra-based journalist who has followed the team since its inception. “Look at the amazing things they are doing on just one leg. It is why some of us decided to follow this team. They are so talented!”
At the end of the first half of the training match-up, the locals are ahead and dominating. “What shows that you are different from the younger ones?” Jarah bellows, standing over the sweat-drenched players who have gathered, seated on the grass for a pep-talk. He is referring to the main stream side. “The younger ones totally outplayed you, and all you could do was fight among yourselves? Where was the understanding we worked on? The one-touch passing? What shows that you are different? Even as a coach I’m expecting to learn more from you, given all your experience abroad. At least, let us see that you’ve learnt something over there.”
The players are listening intently as Jarah rants, his gripping tone reflecting his disappointment at his first team’s abysmal first half display. “We move around begging for money,” there is dead silence when Jarah passionately yells these words, which echo and reverberate across the empty stadium. “We need to prove a point!”
That last statement, filled with a lot of noticeable emotion, is a summary of the team’s painful struggles over the years. The team – a very talented unit that is arguably one of Ghana’s best performing national teams across any sport – has been subject to a shocking level of neglect, both from the public and from the government over the last few years.
Challenged Challenge and the bigger picture
During the same year it was founded, the team won the first ever Africa Cup of Nations for Amputee Football (CANAF) in 2007 (Sierra Leone), but, shamefully, couldn’t defend their title in 2009 because there was no money to facilitate the trip to Liberia, just hours away from Ghana.
Indeed, during the Amputee Football World Cup in Argentina four years ago, the team’s struggle for financial sponsorship team meant they arrived close to three days after the tournament had started. The budget amount they had so much difficulty raising? GHC 89,000. While the country’s Sports Ministry inexplicable failed to raise the figure (about $28,000 in today’s rates), the National Sports Council at the time also infamously admitted to exhausting its budget for that year, thus not being in a position to help out.
The irony of the situation lay in the fact that that same year, the Ghana government had sponsored a lot of football fans to South Africa to cheer the country’s football team, the Black Stars, on at the FIFA World Cup. Yet here it was, a government responsible for the well-being of its assets, unable to lend a helping hand to a whole national team. A national team, in fact, that merited help, given the fact that they were ranked number one in Africa and number four in the world at the time.
“Of course we’re not asking anything huge from the government and I’m afraid when we participate we lift the flag of Ghana high,” a disappointed Adjetey Sowah, then the Vice President of the Amputee team, said. “Are we saying they (the fans sponsored to South Africa) are more important than us who are going to be real actors of the game?”
While corporate bodies, touched by the side’s plight, came in to help out in bits, it took the timely intervention of Ghana’s President at the time, the late Prof JE Atta Mills, to personally order the release of $75,000 to the team to finally enable them travel.
The relief, however, was short-lived. Their problems didn’t end there. After a long trip from Ghana to Argentina, the team had to travel 12 hours by bus to their match center, and had less than four hours to prepare for two games that were played about eight hours apart. Even worse, their luggage arrived close to a week after touching down in Buenos Aires, meaning they had to borrow jerseys to honour their games. For the team’s campaign at the 2012 World Cup played in Russia, where they would eventually place 6th against a tough obstacle course, all the Sports Ministry could give them as a parting gift was a local smock called Fugu.
Otuo - who travelled with the team for that tournament - is shaking his head as he recounts the story. The look of disappointment is palpable. “We reached Russia and the weather was so cold - we’re taking negative temperatures - and we didn’t even have jackets,” he recalls. “They had to give us blankets – imagine, blankets!- to enable us cope. Later, the Ghana ambassador in Russia sponsored the purchase of some jackets for the team, but even with that, not everyone got one. We didn’t even have adequate medical resources to treat our players. During out 5th/6th play-off clash with England, we had about five out of 12 players out injured, and we ended up losing 2-0. We had to borrow everything, including ice cubes and gentian violet.”
“A philanthropist had to sponsor the team’s jerseys. We had virtually nothing: no money to buy food. I remember how gari became such a savior, especially in 2010,” Otuo adds, falling into fits of laughter he clearly wishes to stifle. “I don’t know why, but it’s interesting that just as the name Black Challenge suggests, we always have challenges.”
The unavoidable debate that emerged from these episodes, especially that of 2010, was whether Ghana really cared about the interest of her citizens living with disability. “Issues of persons living with disability are not issues of politics. They’re issues of fundamental human right and it’s a shame we find ourselves in such an unfortunate situation,” Sowah had claimed, adding that he feared it was only going to deepen the stereotypical discrimination towards the team and the people they represented.
As if being subjected to a negative socio-cultural perception is not enough, persons living with disability In Ghana – estimated by the World Health Organization to be between 7-10% of Ghana’s population – have long suffered from a lack of support from the government.
According to the Ghana Federation for the Disabled, they “constitute an impoverished marginalized” group in the society who are “characterised by lack of access to public health, education, and other social services that would ideally support and protect people with disabilities living with disability”. Consequently, the norm in Ghana is a heart-breaking sight of disabled persons unfairly confined by their fate to the streets, helpless, begging for money from commuters.
Tellingly, most of the current players of the Black Challenge were recruited off the streets, a process that has evidently breathed uplifting hope into their lives. “About 60% of them knew very little about football when we took them in, so we had to start from scratch,” Jarah reveals. “We had to even teach some of them how to walk in crutches. And then from then on, how to run in them, how to work with the ball in them and so on.”
Calm and progress as big test looms
Despite being dogged by challenge after challenge, it hasn’t been all gloom. As the team prepares to depart for Mexico to partake in the World Cup [Nov 30-Dec 8] after placing third in the CANAF in Kenya last year, things are steadily improving. “I can say this year has been good,” Jarah admits. “We have had 110% support from the Ministry. Preparations have gone quite well.”
Amputee football began in Ghana around 2001, when some Englishmen in Accra gathered some disabled boys and started teaching them how to play, mostly around Kwame Nkrumah circle, the bustling hub in central Accra. It has come a long way since those modest beginnings. While it was the norm for the national team to train on dusty, foul-stench filled pitches in Accra, they now train at the national stadium – the Accra Sports Stadium, and sometimes at the plush Lizzie’s Sports Complex, owned by Marcel Desailly.
Whereas most of the players are amateurs, it is interesting to know that the team is nourished with some players who play professionally in Turkey. Dreadlocked captain Richard Atta Openstil, his vice Francis Darkwa , midfielder Richard Akwam, and Collins Gyamfi – who commendably is the leading scorer in the Turkish league – are the foreign-based key members of the side.
After the last world cup in Russia, the exposure the players got meant Collins Gyamfi was snapped up by Turkish league, a motivating reward for the team’s efforts. “We pray that after Mexico, more people will be discovered to go, learn come back and contribute,” says Otuo.
In a situation that threatens to derail their focus, there is a court dispute involving the team’s management, a struggle for power and control common amongst Ghana’s sports associations. But Jarah is adamant it won’t affect the team’s hopes of making an impact. “I don’t want to talk about it [court case]. Ours is to build a formidable team to go and do Ghana proud. We will make mother Ghana proud.”
“The only problem,” begins Jarah, a former highly regarded youth International goalkeeper for Ghana, who now has a noticeable walking difficulty due to a spine injury sustained while playing, “…is that I think journalists give too much attention to the glamorous national teams. But we are the disabled ones, the people who need help and support the most. If these players feel noticed and loved by Ghanaians, we will be able to achieve.”
A sport on the ascendency
Amputee football – a game played on a seven-a-side basis (outfield players must have a single leg, while goalkeepers must have a single arm) – is a game fast gaining worldwide prominence.
“It was one of the fastest growing games now,” remarks Otuo. “But unfortunately it’s not an IPC (International Paralympics Committee) registered sport, meaning its not played at the Paralympics. But efforts are being made to incorporate it, and if that happens, at least we can start benefiting from grants.”
Interest in the game is on the rise too. “There will be 23 nations for this year’s World Cup, compared to the 12 of four years ago,” Otuo observes. “So it tells you that it’s gradually taking shape. When we (Ghana) hosted the CANAF in 2011 there were journalists from big organizations like Reuters, and top countries like Spain and the US.”
“The way the game is developing especially in Turkey is amazing. They have a structured league . And since it’s a good initiative, other countries have started pushing their players into their league. Uzbekistan (who won the last World Cup in Russia) is the leading country in the sport, but the Turkish have always been on the podium after every World Cup,” the articulate Otuo, seated by the pitch, explains.
Achieving against the odds
With no running league and no system at all in place for the game’s development, it remains utterly impressive how Ghana – ranked sixth worldwide - is considered one of the world’s top teams. Even with the clear lack of motivation and support, Ghana is Africa’s leading amputee football nation.
Otuo believes the country must capitalize on this reputation to improve. “We must work hard and hold on to it because we don’t want to become known later as one of the countries that developed it but faded out, thus missing out on all the benefits that the game’s growth brought.”
“We should be more proactive,” he adds. “We only wait till somebody has moulded them together and achieved something before you see people in suit and tie stepping in to claim all the glory. Let this team win the trophy [in Mexico], you’ll see the number of people that will come out and usher them to the flagstaff house (Seat of Ghana’s Presidency).
“We should take it serious because disability sports are changing lives. How do you feel when you see some of these people on the streets begging? Look at the danger they put themselves in in a bid to make ends meet. We should know that they also have talents which they can feed on and make something of their lives and be of importance to the nation.”
He believes it’s high time the nation stepped up in its efforts towards disability sports. “We’re only praying that at least we can get a mini sports arena not only for disabled footballers, but for other sportsmen in other disability sports their skills. Look, some of them are multiply talented too: some are also cyclers and some practice taekwondo,” he says, pointing out some players as they busily train on the pitch.
While Ghana’s Black Stars continue to underachieve (the team hasn’t won a trophy since 1982), they continue to enjoy massive attention and a range of enviable privileges, being on the receiving end of superstar treatment and conspicuous pampering. Receiving fat bonuses and living like kings across five star hotels, they remain the country’s most patronized and powerful sporting institution – so powerful that their demands brought the country to a standstill during the World Cup, with the President having to step in and fly close to $4.5 million dollars on a chartered flight to settle their bonus agitations.
But, receiving barely one millionth of the support the Stars get, the Black Challenge – who are not beneficiaries of any structured bonus systems and are owed tons of cash from previous assignments - continue to overcome many barriers in an admirable bid to fly the flag of Ghana high.
“It’s a very difficult game to play, as you can see,” says Otuo, as we watch the players exhibit unbelievable perseverance in replicating able-bodied football antics in crutches; a magical sight. “When they make all this effort and they aren’t even recognized, it’s sad,” he adds. “Very sad. Sometimes, its not even just the logistical or financial support. They need psychological support too. People have to show care.”
At the end of the session, with night fast approaching, some of the players approach Otuo - “Philipo” – as they affectionately call him, to ask for coins to buy sachets of water, because there are no provisions made for it. Otuo looks at me and shrugs.
A source of hope
The players, tired but in a chatty mood, walk out and head towards the team bus in front of the stadium. In the short ride from the stadium to their camp – a hostel on the compound of Ghana’s National Hockey Stadium – I am seated by Hafiz Iddi, one of the team’s players.
He’s noticeably quiet as he looks out the window. “Do you feel the nation does not care about you?” I ask, curiously. He nods slowly. “Yes,” he whispers. “Yes. As you can see, the Black Stars for instance have people throng to the stadium to watch them train, but for ours, we are always alone.”
He is right. There wasn’t a single spectator at the 40,000-seater stadium. Heck, most Ghanaians are not even aware of the existence of the team, and the few who do unfortunately find themselves on the verge of losing interest due to the media’s lack of attention towards the team.“It’s sad, but things will get better,” he opines.
Unlike many other countries whose amputee football teams are made up of ex-military men (who acquired their disabilities as a consequence of wars), 80% of Ghana’s team, reveals Otuo, became disabled due to accidents.
Iddi, who works a modest job as a cleaner up North in Tamale, painfully remembers how his leg became amputated. “I was a young boy in Tamale,” he recalls the touching story, slowly. “I was with my brother. And then there was a car. Hmm,” he pauses momentarily. “It knocked me down, and my injuries were very serious.”
Iddi believes amputee football has given meaning to a life that would have been otherwise so hard to live. It has made him happy. “It has given me hope,” he says, his face surrendering to an encouraging smile as he movingly clenches his fists for emphasis.
The smile speaks a thousand words, an expression of the joy of finding life’s purpose in this sport.