Just as Sierra Leone’s under-17s were stretching the planet’s best junior sides at last year’s World Championship in Finland, another group of youngsters from the war-ravaged East African country were setting out to show just what they could do. Twenty of the nation’s best single-leg amputee footballers were on their way to England to raise awareness and spirits. Join FIFA.com for a look back, with an eye to the future.
18 August 2003: It was a bit of a scramble as the team found out only 24 hours before take-off that funds for their journey had become available. For most it was their first time on a plane and the next two weeks would prove a rare opportunity to match skills against some of Europe’s finest amputee players, while simultaneously spreading a poignant message of hope.
Before Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, many of the boys dreamt of footballing glory. But after a series of horrifying events and scarring rebel incursions in which amputation was common practice, the dream was put to rest. Now though, with peace finally a reality, those most affected by the perverse violence are turning back to the game they love.
Action for Children in Conflict (AfC) devised the idea for Sierra Leone’s Single Leg Amputee Soccer Club, providing kits, training facilities and transportation. With financial assistance from FIFA and the country’s FA, a dream tour of the UK became a sudden reality.
Up against the best
Generally played seven-a-side, with no offside and no prostheses allowed, the players, who can not touch the ball with their crutches, manage to produce moments of dizzying skill.
Their first outing was against Southend United. Billed as one of the best amputee sides in the UK, it was never going to be an easy task. But early in the second half, when striker Maxwell Fornah opened the scoring, it looked like an upset was in the making. Though their effort was ultimately in vain (1-2), none in attendance will ever forget the tear-filled celebration that followed Fornah’s strike. For the boy who took a bullet in the back of the leg while racing home to be with his family after gunfire erupted outside his school, it was a rare moment of joy.
“After seeing them play, you quickly forget that you are watching a disabled sport,” said Matthew Banks of Action for Children. “Their control is phenomenal and the passing can be as incisive as anything you’ve ever seen.”
Despite a 1-4 loss to an experienced Everton eleven in their next match, Dave Conner – Liverpool based manager for Football in the Community - heaped praise on the talented Africans. “I am amazed,” he said. “They don’t play like they have only been together for a year. If they continue at this rate they will not only beat our players one day, but also dominate at the international level.”
The tour concluded with a match against England’s national team. With the Sierra Leone community out in force, banging drums and swaying to traditional rhythms, the English must have forgotten they were in London – at one of Fulham’s training fields.
In the end, the Europeans proved too powerful. Down 0-2 before the half, Sierra Leone could find no way past a stingy and disciplined defence. It ended 4-1 as 17-year-old Amadu Sesay steamed through to grab a goal for pride in the fading moments. Amadu, who lost both parents and a leg in the war, celebrated the goal with an innocence bordering on the inspirational.
s the tour wound down, Midfielder Foday Dumbuya – one of 4000 who suffered intentional amputation by rebel forces - summed up the spirit in the camp. “I no longer feel like a victim of war, but an athlete for peace…I feel that I can represent a new peace,” said the teenager - one of only approximately 1000 survivors of the crude practice.
A brighter tomorrow
With the help of FIFA, Sierra Leone are hoping to take part in a loosely organised Amputee African Nations Cup to be held in Tanzania later this year. Banks sees the competition as a way for the boys to “become someone again.” They are also hoping to embark on a tour of the United States – one of the more developed amputee footballing nations.
Also, in 2005, amputee football will see its first “World Cup,” – most likely in Brazil. The South American nation has a full academy in place and focuses much attention on the game – and along with Russia and England - represent a vanguard of sorts.
For Sierra Leone, up next will be an emotional meeting with a Liberian amputee eleven at the national stadium in Monrovia. Currently embroiled in their own fractious and fratricidal civil war, Liberia looks sadly to be where Sierra Leone tragically found herself 10 years ago.
“The United Nations has offered to fly us over (to Liberia),” said Banks. “And we are hoping to make this more than a football match.”
Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan has not overlooked the regenerative and redemptive mission Sierra Leone’s brave side. “The values of social inclusion and the prevention of further conflict are being taught through the universal language of football,” he said.