Disabled stars pride and glory
At the CPISRA European Championships, it quickly becomes clear that every player has a story, each different and seemingly more extraordinary than the last. These, after all, are footballers united in suffering from cerebral palsy or related neurological disorders, and none has enjoyed a straightforward road to this continental showpiece.
Yet what also becomes evident at this impressive event in Glasgow is that their disability is not the only thing these young men have in common. As all are quick to testify, every one of them has seen his life transformed by football.
FIFA.com caught up with Jonathan Paterson, who four years ago was checking out statistics on the Scottish Football Association’s website when he stumbled across an advert offering trials for a national team with a difference. It was a defining moment for the then 18-year-old, who established himself so quickly in the Scotland team that just two years later he found himself captaining Great Britain’s Paralympic team in Beijing.
“At first when I saw the advert, I just thought I was coming for a few games,” recalled the Scotland skipper. “But I ended up going to Dublin and then on to Brazil and then to Beijing, so it’s been an amazing experience, travelling the world and playing football in all these different countries. Football’s given me that and, for anyone with a disability, it’s important they know that there are opportunities like this out there.”
For the CPISRA (Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association), reinforcing that message is the very essence of tournaments such as this one. Staging the event in Scotland has also represented something of a homecoming for the organisation, whose first international tournament was staged in Edinburgh 32 years ago. Tom Langen, who has been involved in disability football for well over two decades and is now Chair of the CPISRA’s football committee, explained to FIFA.com how he has seen the beautiful game change lives for the better.
“I was coach of the Dutch team for 22 years and you just wouldn’t believe the impact football can have," he said. "These guys grow up thinking of themselves as being behind ‘regular people’, so to be out there representing their country on the pitch gives them so much confidence and pride in themselves. It shows them that they can be successful, that they can do something special. That’s so important for their lives in general.”
This philosophy finds a wholehearted advocate in Stuart Sharp. For the SFA’s National Development Manager for Disability Football, who is coaching Scotland at the CPISRA event, the sight of young disabled fans cheering on his team means the tournament can already be declared an unqualified success.
As he explained: “We had a football festival the other day where we had 40 kids with disabilities attending. For them, players like Jonathan are fantastic role models, and hopefully those kids all went away knowing that, no matter the extent of their disability, football is something they can all get involved in and enjoy. I just look at my own players in that respect. A lot of our guys were the only ones at their school with a disability, so being involved in a team and tournaments like this has shown them that they’re not alone and that they can really achieve something.”
Alerting disabled youngsters to the opportunities open to them has been a key achievement, but the CPISRA European Championships has also succeeded in educating the wider public on the ever-improving standard of disability football. “It’s great to change people’s perceptions,” admitted Paterson. “Everyone who’s been along can’t believe the quality of play, so that’s been another big positive.”
Leading the way in this respect are the impressive eastern European duo of Russia and Ukraine, who go into the concluding stages of the seven-a-side event as firm favourites to contest the final. Both are protecting 100 per cent records following a group stage that involved Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Republic of Ireland, England and Australia, who are participating as invited guests.
Only the Dutch and the Irish, who finished second in their respective sections, can now prevent these former Soviet nations from locking horns in Saturday’s decider. For all four, the next challenge will be the CPISRA’s World Championships in the Netherlands in 2011, where teams will do battle for places at the following year's London Paralympics.
“That’s the big one for everyone here,” grinned Langen. “The Paralympics is for us what the World Cup is for mainstream football, so we’re looking forward to it already. If we can get the same support and fantastic hospitality we’ve had here in Glasgow, we’ll be delighted.”