Amputee football on the rise in Europe with Paralympics the ultimate goal

When Brian Murray lost his left leg below the knee to cancer at the age of 10, he never thought he’d play football again.

But at 46, the defender from Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland is back on the pitch with English side Everton FC’s amputee football team.

Scottish amputee football player Brian Murray. Credit: John LintonSports like amputee running and wheelchair football have become more visible in recent years thanks to their inclusion in the Paralympic Games. Yet amputee football has remained relegated to the side-lines.

Now small grassroots organisations across Europe are chasing the goal to raise the sport’s profile on a global stage.

Brian discovered the game by chance when he spotted an advert while flicking through a magazine at SMART, a rehabilitation and prosthetic limb clinic in Edinburgh.

With no squads in Scotland, the EAFA (England Amputee Football Association) – an NGO that works to develop amputee football in the UK and internationally – helped Brian find a spot on a team in Everton, a district of Liverpool in northern England.

The Scot currently travels 150 miles from his hometown of Annan to join his teammates south of the border. But for Brian, who also works full-time as an accountant, it’s worth the journey. He says that returning to football has been a tough but cathartic process.

“It’s given me a lot more confidence,” says Brian as he leans on his crutches and catches a breath at the training grounds of Scottish premiership team Partick Thistle in Glasgow.

In an attempt to help launch the sport in Scotland, he’s spent the last hour introducing amputee Scots young and old to a more accessible version of the nation’s favourite sport.

“I drove up like this today without my prosthetic. I’d never do that; I’d wear it everywhere. Some people who I’ve worked with for years thought I just had a limp until they saw my photos on Facebook,” Brian adds.

“I’ve actually been using my crutches a lot more around the house to build up my upper body strength. I’m actually a lot stronger than I thought.”

Poland vs. Spain at an amputee football match in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Boris Streubel /UEFAAmputee football is played with five to seven players per team on a 70 x 60 metre pitch. Outfield players can have two hands but only one leg, whereas goalkeepers can have two feet but only one hand.

As Brian learned during one of his first practice sessions at Everton, the sport is a lot rougher and tougher than it sounds.

“My second introduction to the game was to get a ball right in my face and I went flying! My first instinct was to get back up but I was told to stay down since I was new to it,” he says.

“These guys want to win just the same as any other footballers. A lot of people don’t realise how skillful [amputee players] are, and there’s probably a lot more passion in our game.

“When players get knocked down they get back up straight away, none of this rolling all over the ground. There’s no fear, they just go for it.”

Many can also strike the ball with a power that rivals the average able-bodied player. At the 2014 Amputee Football World Cup in Culiacán, Mexico, 25 of the world’s top amputee players kicked a penalty shootout at an average speed of 58-59 mph, coming close to the 60-80 mph speeds achieved by able-bodied players.

“It’s brutal but also the most visually impacting disability sport there is,” says Dave Tweed, head of development at EAFA.

“Anyone can have a go but it’s very difficult to play because of the physical demands. There’s a steep drop off once people realise that, and a lot of that is purely mental. But if you’ve got a good club and people around you at the same level then that is going to make a massive difference.

“It’s been a real frustration over the years but thankfully now it feels like we’re getting somewhere.”

National amputee football teams from Poland and Ireland prove how competitive the sport can be. Credit: Inge HondebrinkAmputee football has been played in England since the late 1980s. The current UK league, managed by the EAFA, is comprised of five English teams and one from Ireland.

So far, the sport has failed to make inroads in Wales and north of the border but that could soon change. After successfully helping the sport evolve in Poland, the EAFA has set its sights on Scotland, and enlisted Brian to help get the ball rolling.

In February, the player organised an awareness day at his local football club, Annan Athletic. The next month, he joined Glasgow side Partick Thistle and Scottish charity Finding Your Feet to host a popular open day in Glasgow.

As a quadruple amputee herself, Finding Your Feet’s founder Corinne Hutton knows how important disciplines like amputee football are in promoting motivation and confidence.

“I just want to help other amputees back on their feet, and back to whatever they did before, be it sport, football or something else,” she says.

“There’s a time when you think you can’t do anything so just to go out on the pitch and be able to say ‘yeah I’ve played football’ is hugely motivating.”

With several other top Scottish teams already showing interest, Partick Thistle Charitable Trust hopes to develop a Scottish amputee league to rival that of England and Poland in the next five years.

Trust manager, Paul Kelly, adds, “Through Amputee Football, we’re harnessing the power of this sport to bring people together to have fun, as well as give them a sense of belonging and pride. Football can do that and we’re delighted that people in Scotland are getting this opportunity.”

Poland team huddle in match against Ireland. Credit: Inge HondebrinkBut Amputee football isn’t just growing within the UK. As a cheap and accessible sport, the game has roots around the world, including the USA, South America, Europe, Japan and Africa. The World Amputee Football Federation is made up of 23 countries, with more set to join in the future.

“From the beginning we try to show the sport, not a disability,” says Mateusz Widłak, head of Amp Futbol Polska (Amputee Football Poland) and second vice president of the European Amputee Football Federation (EAFF).

“Amputee football is very fast and spectacular, which is a big surprise to the people who see us for the first time. People like us because we show that anything is possible.”

Mateusz received advice from Dave Tweed and the EAFA to bring amputee football to Poland. Since their first match in 2012, Amp Futbol Polska has enlisted 60 players to form five teams across the country. Poland’s national team has also entered the Amputee Football World Cup twice, and reached the semi-final in 2014.

Polish players recently hosted a taster training session in Warsaw for several Greek amputees after Amp Futbol Polska was contacted on Facebook by a group hoping to introduce the sport in Athens.

“They had a great time here in Warsaw and have already started training back home,” says Mateusz. “It’s so motivating to see a new player, country, club, or junior academy. There’s nothing better in our work.”

A player from Amp Futbol Polska (Amputee Football Poland) chases the ball. Credit Inge HondebrinkBut despite an international reach and the undisputed skill of its players, this sport is yet to make it into the Paralympics.

In 2014 a bid was made for amputee football to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Games but it failed to make the grade last October.

Yet Mateusz remains optimistic. “It was a big success just to be shortlisted for Tokyo. Given the dynamic development of this sport just in the past four years, I’m sure that we will reach the Paralympic Games eventually. This is the main goal for us. It’s really important for our players.”

While it may have taken Brian three decades to get back onto the pitch, he hopes that getting more kids involved from a young age will boost the sport’s future development.

Back at the taster session in Glasgow, seven-year-old Keeley Ceretti is flying after the ball on her crutches. Judging by her speed, control and boundless enthusiasm, you wouldn’t believe she’d only played once before at the event Brian led in Annan.

What’s more, her mum Jan says Keeley – who would never wear crutches and “hated” football – is now spending more time on her crutches, and can’t wait to get back on the pitch.

“Both her dad and her two brothers play football. Keeley’s used to sitting on the side-lines watching the boys play. Now she’s doing it herself and is having a ball,” says Jan.

Corrine Hutton (far left) with Keeley Ceretti (2nd left) and Brian Murray (far right) at an amputee football taster session hosted by Finding Your Feet and Partick Thistle in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit: John LintonThe EAFF recently teamed up with UEFA to scout out a new generation of amputee football players, like Keeley. In March, a special, three-day training academy in Dublin, Ireland, introduced the sport to more than 40 children from across Europe.

After many years giving up his spare time to develop the sport, Dave has witnessed the positive power of amputee football, especially in younger players.

“If you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s never met another amputee kid or has been in a lonely place because of his cancer, he’ll get a boost of confidence and morale just from just talking to others like him,” he adds.

“It’s great to see people change and grow through sport and that’s one of the good things about being in a football team – people will be supportive but also have a laugh at your expense. That should help you grow as a person and take the few knocks you’re going to take in life.”