From 9 to 14 February 2007, the first All-African Amputee Football Championship, supported by FIFA, took place in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Those in attendance certainly did not go home disappointed as the four participating nations, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, gave thousands of spectators a tournament to remember. Football for amputees has thus far received little global recognition, but those involved in the game view their progress with justifiable pride. Football has breathed fresh hope in the lives of so many men struck by heart-rending tragedy, and helped rebuild the futures of members of Africa's most traumatised communities. Read on for a closer look at this remarkable sport.
"Football has saved my life. I never thought I'd play the game again until I discovered football for amputees. It's given me hope again." These are the words of 27-year-old Victor Musa, captain of the team from Sierra Leone, a small West African nation sandwiched between Guinea to the north and Liberia to the south. In 1999, with civil war raging, Victor lived in Daru, a village located 300 km from the capital, Freetown. One evening, Victor came across a road block. "The rebels demanded that I stop, so I started to run. They shot me, and my leg was in such a bad state that it couldn't be treated. I was taken to Freetown hospital, where they amputated it," he explains.
There were an estimated 4,000 such amputations during the civil war, which lasted from 1991-2000 and resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths. Many of these amputations were caused by anti-personnel mines, bullet wounds, torture, or a lack of proper first aid. Here in Sierra Leone, Victor's story is disturbingly commonplace. All the lads on the team have experienced similar horrors, like Maxwell 'Kallon' Fofanah, who was shot in the leg and not treated soon enough to save it. In Obai Sesay's case, he lost a limb at the hands of rebels when he tried to stop them raping his mother and sister. The goalkeeper Sulaiman Sesay, who was captured and used as a slave, had his arm chopped off after refusing to carry out one of his many tasks.
These young men have endured more than their fair share of suffering, but on the evening of 13 February 2007, it was a game of football that had many of them reduced to tears. After an agonising semi-final defeat against Ghana, several players from the host nation could be seen pummelling the turf and lamenting how a place in the Final had slipped from their grasp. Like footballers the world over, they were torn between sadness and recrimination - towards their opponents, towards the referee, and towards themselves.
"We really should have had a penalty in the semi-final, and it would have changed the game. That's why we're not happy," was Musa's verdict on proceedings. "We haven't got the Cup, but we've got courage and strength. What's more, we're proud to have hosted this 'African Cup of Nations for Amputees', and proud that Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana are all here."
A team is born in Aberdeen camp
But how did this story begin? During the civil war, the amputees were brought together at Freetown's Aberdeen camp. Morale could not have been lower, for while being an amputee is difficult anywhere in the world, it is especially so here.
Dee Malchow, an American who underwent an amputation at the age of 19 and launched football for amputees in Seattle in 1985, then arrived at the camp. "'Mam' Dee explained the game to us, then sent us a video and some boots. We immediately put a team together," says Musa. Malchow, who came to watch the tournament, elaborates: "This sport has restored their hope. Instead of being seen as pathetic beings wandering the streets, they are recognised. People say to them 'hey, you're one of those guys who plays football!'"
When Mambud Samai returned home from Guinea after fleeing there during the war, he paid a visit to the amputees' camp. The children there asked him to help them organise the project, and Mambud has done just that. The Single Leg Amputee Sports Club (SLASC) was born in 2001. "It's become a passion, purely and simply. I've been doing this voluntarily for six years now. We travel around Africa showcasing our brand of football, and we're kind of like ambassadors for Sierra Leone. The amputees want to use football to promote peace in Africa and aid the reintegration of civil war victims into society."
Samai is doing his utmost to make his team known throughout his native land and the continent as a whole. And little by little, he is succeeding. In Freetown, everyone now knows that the amputees train on Aberdeen beach. "Now we need to develop our programme in different communities within the country. We've currently got three teams in the SLASC, two from Freetown and one from Makeni. We're also planning to start up teams in Kenema, Kailahun, Bo and Kono." He is currently doing his best to try and raise money and collect much-needed equipment. "It's true that we lack a lot of things, like more balls, crutches and crutch protectors, etc. But we're starting to bring in a little bit of money by hiring out a sound system and organising a transport service for amputees."
The first 'African Cup of Nations'
Courtesy of these funds and some additional aid, the team has done a fair amount of travelling in recent years.
Their visits to England, Russia and Liberia have boosted international awareness of a discipline that has led to the creation of the World Amputee Football Federation (WAFF) and encouraged FIFA to help Sierra Leone stage the first-ever All-African Amputee Football Championship. For over a year, Samai and his assistant Albert 'Wizzy' Mustapha have worked tirelessly to put on what many regard as the first 'African Cup of Nations for Amputees'.
"We've worked very hard since last year to make this tournament a success. We hope it will be the starting point for a regular cooperation with FIFA. The fact that we've already got four teams together is a great thing in itself. By taking part in this first-ever tournament, the Ghanaians, Liberians, Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans have gone down in history," enthused Samai at the end of the competition.
With 10,000 spectators present at Freetown's national stadium for the opening game between Sierra Leone and Ghana, and some 40,000 attending over the five days of the event, he has every reason to be satisfied. The local media covered the competition, along with the BBC, Reuters and France Television. As a result, a host of people have been able to discover this impressive sport, characterised by speed of movement, physical commitment, powerful shooting while using crutches for support, body swerves and acrobatic one-armed goalkeeping.
On 14 February it was Ghana who succeeded in winning the event, overcoming Liberia 4-3 in a breathtaking final. Black Stars striker Collins Gyamfi finished as top scorer with 10 goals, while Sierra Leone's Amadu 'Bob Jones' Kamara was presented with the player of the tournament trophy by the country's minister for sport, Dennis Bright. The minister summed up the general feeling when he said: "You've proved to the world that you're not second-class citizens but real heroes." The locals, so disappointed after their semi-final defeat, rallied strongly to end the tournament in third spot.
In the wake of their third-place finish, skipper Musa chose to reiterate the home side's determination to come back even more strongly next time around: "I try not to dwell on the past too much. Ghana may have won it, but we'll take the trophy next time. Liberians, Ghanaians or whoever: we'll beat them all!" The next big event on the amputee footballing calendar is the World Championship in Turkey later this year.
Keep an eye on FIFA.com for more from Sierra Leone, including articles, footage and photographs from the tournament.