The players sang passionately as sweat dripped down their bodies; another rigorous training session has just been completed under the scorching sun at the Legacy Pitch at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos.
They might be missing a limb but these special set of football players have just as much talent, passion and love, if not more for the game like their able-bodied counterparts.
Some were born with the condition, others slipped into the anguish by accident, life as special athletes has been challenging for many of Nigeria’s amputee footballers but in all, they have stood tall and their dream of a World Cup appearance is now a reality.
At the height of the initial uncertainties surrounding their appearance at the 2018 Amputee World Cup in Mexico even five days to the commencement of the tournament, the Nigeria Amputee Football Team nicknamed Special Eagles showed so much tenacity and belief in their dream of making into the global stage.
“I will say we have been training for the past 15 years for this moment” Goodluck Obieze, players’ representative in the board of the amputee federation told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Obieze recalled the endless sacrifices he and his colleagues had given over the past decade to make it to the World Cup, but their efforts always ended up being futile.
“We kept on qualifying for the World Cup but nobody to sponsor us there, we were even suspended after the last edition and only got readmitted after we paid our fine earlier this year,” he said.
A tough game, amputee football makes professional football look like child’s play.
To hit a ball, players in the seven-a-side game need to lean sideways on their crutch and then kick their one good leg with lightning speed lest they fall over.
“You are not allowed to wear a prosthetic limb at all and you can’t use a crutch to hit the ball. It is a highly technical and skilled game and definitely not for the faint-hearted. If a professional footballer had to play with his good leg strapped up they would find it extremely hard,” one of the players explains the rudiments of Amputee football.
For goalkeepers, the rules are slightly different in that they must have a missing arm rather than a missing leg.
Ahead of Sunday’s opening game against Brazil, players and officials of the Special Eagles finally left the country in batches from Thursday for the global showpiece in Mexico.
For a team that starved itself, took on extra menial jobs despite their physical conditions and were also involved in an auto crash on their way to procure travelling visas, they are already seen as winners even before they kick a ball at the World Cup.
Mr Obieze, the players’ representative in the board of the amputee federation was full of praises for Fred Edoreh, the former President of the Lagos State Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, SWAN (Lagos Chapter) who orchestrated their rigorous online campaign that helped the team get the needed funds to actualise their World Cup dream.
“We are very grateful to everyone that made this dream come true especially the former vice president Atiku Abubakar, Fred Edoreh and also to Super Eagles captain, Mikel Obi who brought two flight tickets for our players.
“Aside from the flight tickets, Mikel is also sending us Adidas kits from London and I have already gotten the notification that they are already being shipped to Mexico.
“We must also thank Atiku who helped us with N10 million, we wish him well as he seeks election to be Nigeria’s next president, he already has our own support and we pray he wins because if he can do this while he is not in power, he will definitely do more when voted in. We must also thank the NFF, Super Eagles and other well-meaning Nigerians that helped us, we cannot thank them enough but God will surely reward them accordingly.” Mr Obieze told PREMIUM TIMES.
The Special Eagles Captain, Yomi Bamgbopa was so full of appreciation when leaving Poland for Mexico on Thursday as he rained prayers on Mikel for his unflinching support and loyal countryman’s attitude.
“Am so happy for this last minute bailout from fellow countryman and international footballer of great repute, John Mikel Obi who waded in through his agent, Mr Emman and am promising him nothing but to give our best to fly the nation’s flag for gold, I also pray that God in His infinite mercies continue to bless everything about him, Amen,” Bamgbopa prayed before leaving for Mexico.
Despite the tortuous route taken to the World Cup, Mr Obieze is not toning down on what they can achieve in Mexico, he said ‘seeing is believing’ and would want their performance on the pitch of play to speak more for them.
“I can’t really say much, seeing is believing, we have practically been preparing for this World Cup for over 15 years now as we failed to go for the past three editions that we qualified for. But we thank God we are going now, and we promise that we will not disappoint Nigerians, we will not want the money spent on us to go like that, by the grace of God that Cup may come to Nigeria. The players are very hungry for glory and we are going to do our very best.”
One of the inspiring stories from the Special Eagles is that of Emmanuel Ibeawuchi who lost a leg in a road accident.
It is gladdening to see that 16 years down the line, his dream of playing soccer in a World Cup is about to become a reality.
He is expected to feature prominently in Mexico as the Special Eagles kickoff their campaign with a crunch clash against Brazil.
The Special Eagles are hoping they can follow in the footsteps of the well-decorated Paralympians who won eight gold medals at the 2016 Paralympics, along with two silver and two bronze medals, to finish 17th in the medal table and top among African countries.
“We are the best all over the world so whatever we do we excel,” said Ibeawuchi, a 38-year-old bus conductor, citing the success of Nigerian physically-challenged athletes across a range of sports.
“There is no difference between one leg and two legs in terms of football because it is the same rules,” added the father-of-three, who has played the game since his lower right leg was amputated a few inches below his knee.
While Nigeria is lucky this term, the hopes of their West African neighbours, Sierra Leone have been washed away.
The Sierra Leone Amputee Football team will not be part of this year’s Amputee World Football tournament due to lack of support and funds from Sierra Leoneans and the government.
The team has missed previous editions of the Amputee World Cup due to the same problem and this year’s tournament in Mexico will not be an exception.
Albert Mustapha told the Sierra Leone Concord Times why it is seemingly difficult for them to access funding.
“As a team, we are not under the supervision of the Sierra Leone Football Association like the country’s national team, Leone Stars who are getting funds from the government,” he said. “Unlike Leone Stars players, our boys are not even asking for bonuses or allowance.”
“Our players just want to represent the country in the World Cup and showcase what they have.”
It is surprising that there is inexplicable apathy to amputee football across the world with the likes of England also complaining of being left in the lurch by their FA before the Premier League organisers came to their rescue.
Other teams such as Mexico also have various stories on the numerous hurdles they surmounted before making it to this World Cup.
Already, Nigeria has been drawn in Group E with the likes of Russia, Brazil and El-Salvador with their first match with Brazil kicking off this Sunday.