No limits for Liberian heroes
© FIFA.com

Horrors enough are generated by war but, occasionally, man's ability to rise above them generates powerful examples of inspiration that ring far beyond the battleground.

Take Dennis Parker. He is 33 and from Tubmanburg, Liberia. "In 1990, at 16, he was forced to take up arms on behalf of an anti-government guerrilla army headed by Charles Taylor. After three years of teenage killing for the National Patriotic Front, his right leg was shattered in a street gun battle. One year later he had the leg amputated just below the knee and after fighting on for four more years, found himself begging on the streets.

Yet now he is a hero, as a star goal scorer for the Liberia Amputee Sports Association one of half a dozen teams who field a total of more than 150 players - almost all of them, like Parker, victims of the civil war which wrecked the country.

Much of the credit for the sporting relief in a bleak landscape of hate and mistrust belongs to the Reverend Robert Karloh, a Pentecostal minister who had seen the therapeutic value of amputee football in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

It was Karloh whose negotiating patience persuaded Parker and more than 100 fellow amputees to end an occupation of Taylor's former headquarters and try to rebuild their lives through sport.

Karloh persuaded the suspicious, starving and initially belligerent Parker to help him create the LASA club. Their first match was a defeat by a team from Sierra Leone. But they finished runners-up in the first All-African Amputee Football Championship last February in Freetown to prompt a US government donation of €30,000-worth of medical support and football gear.

Liberia lost a thrilling final 4-3 to Ghana whose Collins Gyamfi finished as the tournament's top scorer with a haul of ten goals. Sierra Leone's Amadu "Bob Jones" Kamara was voted the event's top player.

Amputee football has rules all its own. Outfield players have only one leg, goalkeepers only one arm and, if the ball strikes the crutch of a defending player or the arm stump of a goalkeeper in or around the goal area then a penalty is awarded. The goal itself is half the size of a standard football goal.

Parker and his team-mates have a special reason to be grateful for the game. Some 13 years of war left the Liberian economy in tatters, its people massively impoverished. Very little mutual sympathy is available for anyone, least of all amputees whose very injuries often mark them out as having been boy soldiers.

He says: "People now take amputees to be bad people, like animals. When the fighting stopped there were thousands of us, a mob, on the streets, with nowhere to go and no-one to take care of us. Soccer allows us to be... well... renewed. And it has helped me go to places I would never have been otherwise.

"I have managed to go to Freetown in Sierra Leone, to Europe, to Russia. When I walk on the streets, people know me. We are able to live again. Before, taxis would not stop for a disabled man because the drivers would think we had been responsible for killing their families.

"Now all that is changing, little by little."

Football for reconciliation
Karloh became involved in the African amputee football movement through his work as deputy director of disarmament. For him the success and popularity of the players is not only a form of social work but also a feature in national reconstruction.

"The amputee status is a stigma," he says. "There is a tendency for people to reject these men who fought the war that tore the country apart. Now everybody comes along to see them play football and cheer for them. It sends a message: 'I have forgiven you.' It's a form of healing.

"For example," he adds with a smile, "we have people who fought against each other now playing on the same side."

Not only do Liberia's amputee footballers play in harmony they played with enough success to qualify for the Amputee World Cup in Turkey. This is one of six disabilities which 'own' their own international tournaments. The other categories are blindness, cerebral palsy, deaf and hearing impaired, partially sighted as well as learning disabilities.

Jeff Davis is national football development manager of disability at the Football Association in London. "When we started in 1999 our main aim was to give everybody an opportunity to reach their potential," he said. "That may just be playing locally but it could also be moving through the player pathway and eventually playing for one of the elite national teams."

The world in which Davis works in England and Europe is far different in context to the one in which Karloh found himself in war-torn Africa. But Davis strikes a similar chord when he says: "Before I joined the FA I worked for a disability organisation and I saw that sport could be really powerful for these guys."

In the case of Dennis Parker and his Liberian team-mates that translates as helping them regain a level of respect among their fellow countrymen; the angry rattle of an AK-47 has been drowned out by the roar of a football stadium.

As Dennis Bright, Sierra Leone's Sports Minister, told all the players who starred at the African Amputee Championship: "You have proved to the world that you are not second-class citizens but real heroes."