Nigeria’s amputee footballers rise above neglect

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Nigeria’s national amputee football team gather to pray before the start of a training session in a bare field at the national stadium in Surulere district in Lagos, Nigeria July 6, 2018. Picture taken July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The Nigerian amputee football team has entered the national consciousness, but perhaps not in the manner they would have preferred.

They would have liked to be recognised for their spirit and their strength of will, which has seen them transcend their physical disadvantages. Or even for the fact that, in just over a week, they should be representing the country at the 15th Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico.

Instead, it is in the form of a plea for help, the very fate they sought to escape by taking up sport and rejecting the indignity of a life spent grovelling on street corners. In order to participate in Mexico, the players have been forced to take it upon themselves to raise about $68,000 required to take part in the sport’s showpiece event.

This is expected to cover travel expenses, upkeep and welfare, as well as other logistics.

“As a disabled person, we don’t want to beg,” says team founder and board member of the federation, Are Feyisetan. “But we’ve ended up begging people to come and support us. Because we know we have good people in Nigeria that can always come to our aid. So we’re waiting for them.”

Former national powerlifter Feyisetan, who also doubles as the country’s powerlifting coach, is a man whose passion for the involvement of the physically challenged in sports is unmistakable.

“Anything disability sport, I am always involved because I just want our people to stay off the streets. I want people to see us as responsible people. We’ve been able to make Nigeria proud.”

In truth, the difficulty in accessing funding is not peculiar to Nigeria. Per a Guardian report, the English team had to raise £70,000 pounds themselves as the FA cut funding over a decade ago, and required support from the Premier League to hit their mark. They also relied on a sponsorship deal with Simply Business, a UK-based insurance company, to make up the shortfall.

There is little to indicate any concerted funding from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), although President Amaju Pinnick made a generous $12,000 dollar donation to aid the team in reaching their total. Members of the senior national team, the Super Eagles, also pitched in, contributing almost $18,000 dollars.

Suddenly, it seems like the dream is a lot closer to fruition.

It would certainly mean a lot to these individuals, who have been a testament to the human spirit’s capacity to soar above challenges. According to team captain, Emmanuel Ibeawuchi, the team has been training for the past 16 years at the national stadium, all the while without meaningful financial incentive or reward.

As one can imagine, there are quite a few already very experienced players in the ranks. How they have kept their motivation is a mystery. It is even harder to grasp when one listens to the goalkeeper of the side, Blessing Agu. Going by his account, it has been a tale of frustration down the years.

“We qualified for the 2007 World Cup, in Turkey. We collected the visas, but we couldn’t go. Then the second time also, in 2010, we qualified for the same World Cup, we couldn’t go,” he revealed.

Their serial inability to honour three previous tournaments has forced the hand of the organisers, who have threatened to ban Nigeria outright in the event of another no-show this year.

This is perhaps why the clamour has been so much greater this year: a ban would mean the death of many a dream, considering the advanced age of a couple of members in the team.

The response to their cry for help has certainly been commendable, but more than just a one-off intervention, it ought to shine a light on the plight of these athletes, and grease the wheels of change. One would hope that, going forward, there will be a plan within the NFF for consistent funding to this, and other national teams who do not enjoy the glamour and level of followership of the Super Eagles.

It is also important that brands see the opportunity here to be a part of a gripping story. In a depressing turn of events, the team was, on Tuesday, involved in a bus crash on the road to Abuja for their visas at the Mexican embassy. Their bus skidded off the road along Lokoja-Abuja highway, trapped players and officials, who suffered minor injuries, were rescued by military officials.

Surely, it would not have been out of place for one of our local airlines to fly the amputee team as an official partner? This sort of mutually beneficial arrangement would also go toward fulfilling their Corporate Social Responsibility and would be a major boon to their brands.

For many of the squad, this will be the culmination of a long journey, and the fulfilment of a dream. However it turns out in Mexico, they have exceeded themselves, and are an inspiration to us all.