Amputee footballers eye up medals at European tournament
Games are seven-a-side, played on a half-sized pitch over 25-minute halves
Members of the Irish Amputee Football Association team training for the European Championships for Amputee football. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Chris McElligott training for the European Championships which take place in Turkey. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
James Boyle and Simon Baker training for the tournament which takes place in Turkey, starting on October 2nd. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The team warming up at during training at AUL, Clonshaugh, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
When Chris McElligott, a former League of Ireland footballer, lost his leg in a road traffic accident 16 years ago he was resigned to his playing days being over.
He was sceptical when he received a phone call some time later which raised the prospect of him kicking a ball again. But he took the opportunity and is now part of a 13-man Irish squad that has departed for Turkey, where the European Championships for amputee footballers is taking place this week.
“I wasn’t sure about it on the day,” says McElligott (47) of trying out the game. “I tried it with my prosthetic leg on, then I took the leg off and found it much easier.
“It was like learning to ride a bike again because I was naturally right-footed when I was playing football and it’s my right leg that’s gone, so I had to learn all over again with my left leg.”
The Irish Amputee Football Association (IAFA) was established in 2011 and is part of a network of 52 international groups involved in the game.
Eligible players only have one standing foot and cannot control the ball with their crutches or residual limb. The games are seven-a-side and are played on a half-sized football pitch over 25-minute halves.
The Irish side, which has a training base at the University of Limerick, had a humbling experience at the World Cup in Mexico in 2014 but hopes are higher now and they are targeting medals in their debut Euros appearance.
“We went to the World Cup and we didn’t really know what to expect,” says Simon Baker, a current Irish player and chairman of the IAFA. “Our performance was very bad. I’ve never seen grown men cry, but when we got knocked out they just bawled.”
The players possibly face an even tougher challenge in Turkey, where they are in a group including world champions Russia, a side that can pick players from a professional domestic league.
The promotional videos for the upcoming championships highlight the physical and technical ability of the players.
“It’s tough but you train for that. If I put you on a set of crutches could you do what I do? Not in a million years. I can do a bit of what Robbie Keane can do, but he can’t do what I can do,” says Baker.
Baker, a founding member of the European Amputee Football Federation, wants to see Europe lead the way for amputee football around the world, and he has been involved in its application to be recognised as a Paralympic sport.
At a domestic level work is ongoing to establish a four-province league which Baker hopes will kick off in November. This would provide Irish players with an alternative to spending weekends flying over and back to the UK for tournaments against established teams such as Manchester City and Arsenal.
After his initial scepticism, McElligott has come to regard the sport as an excellent way of keeping fit. He emphasises the endurance aspect of playing the game at a high level.
“It is demanding on the body but it’s so rewarding to play,” he says.
Ireland’s group games: Russia – October 3rd at 3pm (Irish time); October 4th 2.30pm v England; October 5th 10am v Greece. More information about the tournament can be found at http://eafc2017.tbesf.org.tr/