Amputee football is growing in popularity across the world
In Scotland, backing from the national association is helping spread the word
We hear from two amputee footballers on the game’s life-changing impact
“Football saved my life” makes for a bold assertion. But this claim, made in a widely shared Scottish Football Association video, is one to which Rebecca Sellar holds firm.
“You can’t overstate how important the game has been to me,” she told FIFA.com. “I say in the video that I’d be a shell of myself without it, and that’s how I feel. When I’m out there playing, the pain and the anxiety just goes away, and I wouldn’t have thought that possible.”
Sellar, who had her right leg amputated as a baby, is an example of amputee football’s remarkable power to transform the lives of its players. The game is well established in many countries around the world; Turkey, for example, boasts a professional, televised amputee league.
And while Scotland’s programme is still in its infancy, the impact it is having on Sellar and others is already plain to see.
As Ashley Reid, the founder and CEO of Amputee Football Association Scotland, explained: “We’re already seeing the success stories, and the impact on the players’ mental health is as great as the improvement in their physical health. Playing football makes people a lot fitter than they were, of course, but it tends to make them a lot happier in their general lives too.”
That was certainly reflected in what FIFA.com heard from two Scotland amputee internationals – Sellar and Iain Matthew – about what football means to them.
“I was born with a deformed left foot and a club foot on my right, and I needed to have a bone inserted in one ankle and the other foot amputated. That happened when I was four. But my parents always encouraged me to get into sport.
“Before football, I’d been involved in swimming and was part of the Great Britain team at the Paralympics in 1992 and '96 and the Commonwealth Games in '94. But I’d been playing five-a-sides with some able-bodied pals and then I saw an advert in the paper for para-football. It’s been a big part of my life ever since.
“Even when I swam, football was always my first love. I love playing it but I also love the social element – getting together with a bunch of pals and having a laugh. Swimming can’t compete with that. Football is great for anyone but it’s especially so for disabled people because it gets you out of the house, gets you out of your shell a bit and brings you together with other people in similar positions.
“I’d represented Scotland at the Commonwealth Games but doing that in football – wearing the full kit, hearing 'Flower of Scotland' – was something else completely. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
“I was born with congenital deformities that meant that I was missing a fibula. The doctors knew I wasn't going to be able walk with the use of that leg, so they amputated and fitted me with a prosthetic.
“Going through school, there was no sport that was disability-related. It was basically: ‘You can join in but if you can’t keep up with the other kids, go to the library.’ It’s different now fortunately, but there weren’t the opportunities back then for kids like me to become involved in sport.
“I developed major hip issues that were building as I came into my 20s, and back issues started arising too. I remember one low point in 2015, when I was trying to do the dishes and couldn't even stand because I was shaking so badly.
“I ended up being completely isolated at that stage because it was affecting my day-to-day life so much and restricted my ability to socialise. I was stuck in my flat with no-one to talk to and nothing to do, and it just came to a point of saying, ‘Do I make the best of this, accept it’s the way it’s going to be, or look to make a change?’
“I’m so glad I went down the latter route because disability sport changed everything for me. It’s been massive for my physical and mental well-being. I really couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have. Playing for Scotland has definitely been the high point. I’d worked so hard after taking up football and that felt like the culmination and reward for all those efforts.
"As a disabled person, I’ll always have issues to face. But football has helped me face those and will continue to help me.”
Images courtesy of Amputee Football Association Scotland