ISTANBUL — Dr. Erik Lamberg is gathering his players. “Alright guys, can you hear that? the coach asks. “It was a shock. Everyone is in shock. You guys just beat England!” Gathered players and staff of the US National Football Amputee Football Team give out cheers and raise crutches in the air in celebration. “And you looked good doing it. Where is our scorer? Musa!
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Eighteen-year-old striker Musa Nzirimwo scored the goal that launched the U.S. Amputee Football World Cup campaign, but he was barely on the field. Not only because, as a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he lost his leg to a hand grenade that he mistook for a ball, but also because his US refugee status meant that he only received a visa to enter Turkey. to participate in competitions. in the tournament just a few days before the end. But here he is running towards a perfectly weighted ball from team captain Nico Calabria, who helped recruit Nzirimwo to the team, and gave the Americans a decisive 1-0 victory.
This is the world of amputee football, a sport in which players are either born with a difference in limbs or endured an amputation, where their personal stories may well inspire others, but take a back seat when it is a serious task to represent their country in the World Cup, and in horse victory.
“Ultimately, we want to get through it, so that’s not all, ‘Wow, isn’t it great that they’re still playing, it’s so inspiring,'” Calabria told Sportzshala. “It’s more like we overcame the difficulties, now look at how we can play, athleticism, competitiveness. I try to stay away from the inspirational side of the story because, frankly, I’m sick of listening to it.”
Held from September 30 to October 9, the 2022 World Cup — the 17th in a row since the first in Seattle in 1984 and the fifth organized by the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) — is, in terms of participation, the biggest in 40 years. summer sports history. It was the first tournament in which so many national teams competed for a place in the final that regional qualifiers were held to reduce the 48 original entries to 24 teams that made it to Turkey. Like many other sports for people with disabilities, amputee football is constantly struggling to attract more funds and investment to continue its growth. Many people may not have heard of it before, but once you see it played for the first time, you won’t forget it.
A seven-player game consisting of two 25-minute halves on a three-quarter-size football field can be tough and physical. Six outfielders can move at speed using one solid leg and a pair of titanium forearm crutches, and while gliding tackles are not allowed, there are many serious challenges and encounters that result in one or both players hitting the ground, often landing on or on top of each other. sticks. Players have plenty of chance to recover if needed as coaches can make unlimited substitutions.
“It’s a very physical game, more so than what we’d see healthy people play, as sticks often hit people and leave different kinds of bruises that last a little longer,” Lamberg said.
As Calabria added: “Basically it’s the same, except you just give all these dudes a weapon and they fight them there. It’s pretty physical and stressful. pretty badly hurt. Lots of falls.”
Goalkeepers, the only players with two fully functioning legs but with a difference of limbs in one hand, are not allowed to leave their penalty area – this entails a free kick for the opponent – and they must defend their goal (which, measuring 7 by 16 feet, slightly wider than a field hockey goal) with an amputated arm tied to his side.
“Because there are many differences between goalkeepers with an amputated arm – like how long or thick it is – we have to tie it to the body,” said England goalkeeper Kieran Lambourne. “So learning to dive on the weak side is much more difficult. You have quite a few bruises and bumps on your shoulder and arms, which is not good.”
Many goals are scored from set pieces in amputee football due to the frequent free kicks awarded for fouls and “handballs” – where the ball hits a player’s hand or crutch in an unnatural position – and kicks used to restart play. from the side.
“In general, it has a more fluid pace than traditional football,” Calabria said. “But it depends on the game, the team and the style.”
Lamberg, 48, is in charge of Team USA’s style of play, but like so many in the sport, he has multiple roles: He has been head coach since 2014 but also became president of the American Amputee Football Association (AASA). two years ago.
“We as an organization have two missions: one is to compete at the most elite level, and the other is to grow, find all these players and develop them; they are polar opposites,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do both well because you can’t put resources into one and not the other.”
A tenured professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Associate Dean of the New York School of Health Professions at Stony Brook University in his native Long Island, Lamberg spends most of his free time raising funds and charting the future of sports in his country. With no regular financial support from the government or US football for this World Cup, AASA relies on sponsors and donors to keep going; and this year he had a successful attempt to raise $200,000 to fund the campaign. In terms of development, it is hoped that developing ties with several Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs will help overcome the challenges of playing an amateur sport in such a large country.
While the number of participants is growing, many people are not aware of the existence of the sport, making it difficult to find potential new players for the US. Theoretically, it’s just an internet search, but most Team USA members found amputee football through a chance meeting with someone who was already involved in the game.
“This goalie grew up without an arm,” Lamberg said, citing one recent example. “He played high school football as a one-handed goalkeeper. His local newspaper wrote an article about him. Only about nine months ago did he even know that we existed, and we never knew that he existed. him in the USA”
Any exposure a team receives can be critical to raising new funds. Each training camp costs up to $20,000 and has been held in the US every month since qualifying in March ahead of the Worlds. It took $40,000 just to send a team of 15 players and 11 support staff to Turkey, and that’s not counting other private donations from the players and their families.
The 2022 World Cup provided an opportunity for Lamberg not only to celebrate his team’s progress against the best international teams, but also to learn more about what might be possible in the future from countries with more resources, such as host country Turkey.
“They are trailblazers in the sport ahead of everyone else,” said England head coach Owen Coyle Jr, who combines his eight-hour, 500-mile drive back and forth to national team training camp as part of his day job as trainer. First team coach at Scottish Championship club Queens Park, where he works under his father, former Bolton, Blackburn and Houston Dynamo manager Owen Coyle Sr. ex-military who play in the national team. They are very patriotic as a country and they are very passionate about football. So when you juxtapose those key components of their values as a country, then it starts to add up to the point where they’re going to be pretty much funding it.”
Coyle, 26, has firsthand experience with such a powerful machine. His England team lost 2-1 to Turkey in the European Championship final in Istanbul five years ago in front of more than 40,000 fans at Vodafone Park in Besiktas. In a recent series of three World Cup warm-up games against Turkey, England lost all three.
England is one of the few countries to have a national league with teams linked to Premier League clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal through their charitable foundations. However, in Turkey, the game is played professionally by 30 clubs and almost 600 registered players from three divisions, which means that the gap between them and the rest is huge. “In terms of the resource gap, the best way to describe it would probably be an FA Cup clash between a tier seven team and a Premier League team,” Coyle said.
Through a massive advertising campaign calling on local residents to support “Fearless” (“The Fearless”), but due to the government’s new requirement for fans to pre-register online for tickets, 10,000 fans were at the 27,150 capacity Fenerbahce Stadium on Friday night. They saw Turkish pop star Deria Ulug perform before the hosts began their quest to avenge their penalty shootout defeat to Angola in the 2018 World Cup final by comfortably beating France 3-0 in the first leg.
“I didn’t expect the fans to be so loud,” said Kavi Pandya, one of the youngest members of Team USA, who watched the game. “Whenever Turkey scored a goal, they yelled in our faces!”
Despite the fact that they were supposed to play each other in the first match the next day, the US and England teams had to travel to the opening ceremony from the hotel where they and 12 other teams were staying. The atmosphere during the trip around the city to the stadium in an open-top bus accompanied by police was calm and cordial, despite…