Disability in Football: Part II
“I didn’t know England had a cerebral palsy football team.”
This is something I’ve heard a lot since publishing my first blog on disability in football. I must admit that I wasn’t aware of their existence either. However, a tiny amount of research yielded a lot of information on the subject proving that it’s more about ignorance on my part rather than clandestine secret societies.
International football started for CP sufferers in 1978 and is governed by Cerebral Palsy International Sport & Recreation Association, (CP-ISRA). CP-ISRA has modified the rules to make the game more accessible. These include shrinking the team sizes to 7-a-side and abolishing the offside law. One of the biggest facets of the game comes in its classification model. Players are split into four categories, C5, C6, C7 and C8. C5 team members are the most affected by cerebral palsy and C8 the least affected. To ensure fairness sides must field one C5/C6 player at all times and no more than two C8 players are allowed to be on one side at a time.
Discovering that there is an England CP team has been a bit a revelation for me. It’s been a while since I showed any interest in the able-bodied teams. John Terry is more likely to steal my parking space than evoke any feelings of national pride whilst the recent on and off the pitch antics of people like Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole make it hard to feel like they represent me as an Englishman. To find out that there is an England team filled with people like me who have very average lives but also happen to be fantastic footballers is almost a throwback to the clichéd days of going to the game on the bus with your favourite centre forward. This is a team worthy of our support.
As part of my research for this series I was lucky enough to talk to Jeff Davis. Mr Davis is the FA’s national manager for disability football and he explained how the FA had put in place a strategy to map a clear path for youngsters with CP to achieve the goal of representing England. Mr Davies spoke about how there is a chance for everyone to enjoy the game, “if people want to play, football can cope with any disability”.
Being the national manager for disability football means that Mr Davis is particularly interested in making sure talented CP players are aware of the opportunities available to them. The FA are committed to identifying talented youngsters within the school system. Once identified these players can then be made aware of the large network of teams and levels in which they can be involved. These range from small local sides, 34 county leagues, a national league with 8 regional teams and then on to the elite level with 8 regional centres of excellence, an England development squad and finally the full England team.
For the players talented enough to represent their country it can, as with so many sports, offer the prospect of visiting other nations and experiencing cultures they might not have otherwise had the chance to. England & Great Britain have had mixed fortunes in recent international tournaments. In last year’s European Championships England finished 6th out of 10 teams. Huge wins against Finland, (12-0) and Spain, (8-0) were matched with similar defeats to Rep. Ireland and the eventual winners Ukraine.
One of the most interesting things to come out of my research into CP football is the dominance of Ukraine in the sport. I asked Mr Davis why he thought Ukraine were so successful. Prior to the Beijing games in 2008 the FA had made a visit to a sports camp for disabled Ukrainian children being held on the Black Sea coast. 30,000 children had made the journey to attend this camp. I was amazed at the sheer numbers involved and even more amazed to hear that such high participation is as a direct result of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The rupture of a reactor and subsequent fallout have reportedly left 2.4 million Ukrainians with health problems. In a strange twist the disaster has left Ukraine with a vast pool of talent from which to cherry pick the very best disabled athletes. Whilst admitting that England were quite a way behind their eastern European counterparts, (Russia are no. 2 in the world) Mr Davis did say that the Ukraine team was getting older and hopefully England could close the talent gap in the near future.
Being able to support an England team with which I feel a great affinity has become one of the many positives I can take from this experience. It is worth remembering though that whilst there is a national team there are also vast numbers, as with the able-bodied, of people who’ll never play international football. CP football is something that all sufferers can be involved in. It is also a way of getting back into the game if you played previously and have suffered an illness or an accident which has led to disability. Football rightly paints itself as global sport and we can all get out there and play.
Huge thanks for help with article go to Jeff Davis and Matt Phillips at the FA. If you would like more information on the work the FA does with disability football email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thefa.com