When a congenital abnormality at a very tender age seemed to have shattered the ambition of Yusuf Bakare to be a football star, he braved the odds and today, he is the Assistant Captain of the newly formed Power Eagles, Nigeria’s Cerebral Palsy Seven-Aside Football team.
Many years down the lane, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for Yusuf as he can now pursue his life-long ambition of playing football at the ”highest level” and be celebrated all over the world.
Cerebral palsy is one of the commonest physical disability in childhood, experts say. One in four children with the ailment cannot talk; one in three cannot walk; one in two has an intellectual disability and one in four has epilepsy.
However, Yusuf sees a huge ability in the extremely challenging physical condition, claiming that he favourably competed with his able-bodied counterparts in football, a sport he loves passionately.
However, the stark reality of no prospect for a professional career and other limitations have always been a source of worry for the talented midfielder and indeed the over one million cerebral palsy victims in Nigerians, some of whom surprisingly nurse the dream of making football a career.
“I have always liked to play football right from my childhood days,” Yusuf, who alongside his teammates is preparing for their first international game against Ghana, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“I don’t know when this happened to me, but my mother told me that I had an accident when I was very small.”
Cerebral Palsy football, which is unique in its own concept and style, creates a fairer game of football for players with physical disability. It is similar to football for able-bodied players but with some modifications in the rules, team composition and size of playing turf.
For instance, there are seven players on the field at a time, rather than 11 and the measurements of the playing field smaller. Also unlike in the conventional football, there is no offside rule and throw-ins may be made with just one hand. Duration of matches consist of two halves of 30 minutes each.
Though relatively new in Nigeria, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings indicate that cerebral palsy football has gained ground in other parts of the world with some big clubs already creating departments for CP football. A functional league is understood to be in place in England and some other European countries.
In Africa, Ghana, South Africa and now Nigeria are the frontline countries that have embraced this new breed of football.
Gbenga Dosunmu, the coach of the Power Eagles team, explained to PREMIUM TIMES the sacrifices the players are putting in to realize their goals.
“As you know this is a relatively new sport in Nigeria but we have the talents that can excel if they are given the right motivation,” Mr. Dosunmu said. “I must salute the courage of this first set of players that we have. Beyond their talents, they are very determined; and that for me is the key to success.”
The Power Eagles say they hope to be a world power in the sports in no distant future.
“I want to be one of world’s best players,” Adewale Monsuru, another member of the team, said. “If there is a Ballon d’Or award like we have for the able-bodied players, I will like to win it someday.”
The Chairman of the Cerebral Football Association, Jude Uwazie, told PREMIUM TIMES that little has been achieved since the association was formed in 2012.
However, he remained optimistic that the team would soon be a force to reckon with like the Super Eagles and other Nigeria national teams who have high ratings in not just the continent but all over the world.
“We have big dreams to represent this country at the highest level,” Mr. Uwazie said. “The journey has not been easy but we are moving forward gradually.”
The Power Eagles Team Manager, Adegboyega Ganiyu, said despite the hurdles confronting the team, they would remain resolute in their dream to feature at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
“We have the vision of playing at the Paralympics but the route to achieving this is quite tedious,” he said. “We have decided to give it our best shot and by God’s grace, we will make it.”
A social campaigner for the physically challenged, Okey Stanley, said an enabling environment should always be created for young men and women hoping to make the most of themselves despite their challenges.
“There are over 20 million Nigerians living with all sorts of disabilities and these are people who cannot compete favourably to contribute to Gross Domestic Product,” he said. “If you create an enabling environment to get jobs , they will add to the GDP. This will be a major boost.”