Breaking The Barriers
© Football Hidden Story

A small triumph is being celebrated in Oslo. In a big indoor soccer stadium belonging to top Norwegian club side Lillestroem, a seven-a-side football team is exchanging slaps and jokes as they slot another goal. The referee whistles for the restart.

But the celebration here has little to do with goals, cups, or league tables: it is a victory over learning disabilities and mental problems. Because virtually all the players on both sides are in some way cerebrally challenged: the striker is autistic, the winger has attention deficit disorder, many are epileptic, dyslexic, and so forth.

The coordinator for the Norwegian FA is 51-year-old Anders Krystad. With his row of gold earrings, he looks more like an ageing biker than a facilitator of disabled footballers. But that is his role, and it is one he relishes.

"I used to work full time with the FA and have also worked for a professional club, Vålengra in Oslo.

But in the end I got bored with spoilt 18-year-olds demanding millions. I wanted to work with the grassroots. Now I deal exclusively with excluded and disabled people, and people of different ethnicity."

His most important project is Colourful Football. The campaign was started by Oslo club Vålerenga in the mid 1990s. The original plan was to fight racism, homophobia and violence, and find ways to include and integrate people with minority cultural or ethnic backgrounds; in recent years it has expanded, to benefit players with disabilities and special needs.

'Since 1996,' says Anders, "We've held Colourful Football tournaments every year, for boys and girls aged between 12 and 14. The games are seven-a-side, with at least four girls in each squad. But we deal with all ages, not just youngsters."

"Junkies are difficult to deal with..."

Anders mentions, in particular, a team of drug addicts in Tromso. "Junkies are very difficult to deal with because they never turn up for stuff. They will miss their doctors' appointments, they miss mealtimes, they miss meetings, they even skip Christmas Day with their families. Nothing matters. Yet you know what? They will turn up for a football match. Our team of drug addicts gets a 95% turn out every time."

Today, it's the disabled players who are Anders' concern. He helps to run a league of such teams right across the country. The Norwegian FA now administers 75 sides of  mentally-disabled players.

Anders watches as one player fouls another, quite spectacularly. He explains that, though the games might not be the most skilful in Europe, they are always competitive. "Everyone likes to win, no matter what their talent level. Sometimes we have a real problem with cheats - teams who include too many non-disabled players! The referees are specially trained to watch for that. It all takes a lot of investment, in time and money, but the professional clubs are happy to help."

The therapeutic value of disabled football is undisputed. It socialises the players - bringing out people who might otherwise be isolated, or even stuck in residential homes. It gives them exercise - people with mental disabilities are prone to over-eating. "Though," Anders chuckles, "the fattest guy out there today is probably the coach, and he's not disabled at all, apart from his addiction to burgers."

"We've got guys out there now who don't know their own name..."

The runarounds also boost endorphin levels, which help counter depression  and autistic introversion. Still another benefit is the way the players learn self respect, after a lifetime of being regarded as freaks or losers. "A lot of these players," says Anders, "have very severe disabilities - we've got guys out there now who don't know their own name, who can't tie their own laces. The striker, for instance, has never learned to kick the ball with the inside of his foot - in fifteen years of playing."

Anders applauds a decent header, then returns to his theme: "You might find that kind of disability comical or absurd, a lot of people do - they laugh at the mentally disabled. Yet when the players come out here they feel part of a team, they feel better about themselves, they don't feel like losers. A great example of this is the blonde guy over there; let me call him over."

The ‘blonde guy' is 29-year-old Martin Samdvik. He has unspecified learning disabilities and, like many in these teams, he is averse to discussing himself in terms of diagnoses or conditions. He would far rather talk about what he can do - rather than what he can't.

And Martin has done quite a lot for himself. Anders has given him a chance and trust and so he has overcome severe difficulties in his life. After a period when he was totally isolated, lonely, jobless and almost hospitalised, he has got a girlfriend, a flat, a purpose: he has also become something of a talisman to the rest of the Disabled Football movement in Norway, not least because he started his own team. He was a Norwegian representative at the Special Olympics. He even got to meet George W Bush in the Oval Office. Not bad for a disabled blonde kid from the boondocks of Lillestrom.

You can see why the other players in the team look to Martin for guidance. He talks about his life with a definite courage, almost an insouciance, despite his sometimes faltering speech.

"I hated being called a spastic..."

"I started playing when I was eight. Then, when I was 16, I had to go to a special school - I felt pretty bad then. My self esteem was very low. I hated being called a spastic. I suffered a lot of abuse. But after a few years I decided to do something about it: I wrote to the authorities and asked them if I could start my own team. They said 'yes' - so I did. I got a lot of friends from my special school to join me. Then we got press and TV coverage. It was very encouraging."

He shouts across the pitch. His team are being beaten by their closest rivals.  "What is so good," he says, "is that the team becomes like a family - I remember one game we played there was this girl on the side: she was sitting at the edge of the pitch, and she was crying. But we waited for her, then she felt better, and we carried on - as a team. Maybe in other teams she would have been laughed at - but we understood what she was going through. That is why the team is so important. We all help each other."

As if to prove Martin's point, at that moment a player runs off the pitch. He falls to the floor and starts bucking and writhing. He is having an epileptic fit: a doctor jogs over and tends to him. The players gather round - concerned, but not interfering. This is just another part of disabled football. Seizures are not uncommon.

Ten minutes later,  the player is sitting up, and sucking on a water bottle. The rest of the team are getting on with the game. And getting on with life.