Ghana's amputee footballers strive for international glory

Accra (AFP) - On a field scattered with rubbish, ripe with the smell of urine and criss-crossed by commuters and the occasional truck, a group of Ghanaian footballers practise drills, the early morning sun glinting off their metal crutches.

While footballers around the globe have their eyes on Brazil, Ghana's national amputee football team is gearing up to compete in a world cup of its own in Mexico later this year.

But standing between the Black Challenge side and victory in the 2014 Amputee Football World Cup are not just old foes such as Argentina and Liberia.

The team's ability to attract support for their unique brand of football is also in the balance, and unless they can raise the money needed to fund the trip, they may not go at all.

That hasn't stopped them preparing.

"We don't have much time, so we have to train hard," said one of the team's coaches, Benjamin Armah, as he watched his veteran players trickle in for an early practice session on a warm May morning in the capital, Accra.

The Black Challenge started officially in 2007 -- the same year the team won the first Cup of African Nations for Amputee Football, said Theodore Viwotor, administrative secretary for the Ghana Amputee Football Association.

The team came in sixth in the 2012 World Cup held in Russia, after Argentina eliminated the Ghanaians in the preliminary round.

In last year's cup of nations in Nairobi, the team was placed third after being knocked out by Liberia in the semi-finals.

Black Challenge coaches will hold trials in Ghana's two largest cities in August, choosing a squad from new recruits and returning team members for the tournament in November.

- Poles apart -

The rules in amputee football are much the same as in regular soccer, albeit adapted to take into account what the World Amputee Football Federation calls its "abbreviated" players.

International matches are played with seven on each side for two 25 minute periods, there is no offside and kick-ins replace throw-ins.

On the pitch, the movements stand out.

Outfield players -- all of them missing either an entire single lower limb or part of one -- dash across the field on metal crutches, using them for support as they jostle for the ball and kick goals home.

People with one missing or malformed arm are enlisted as goalkeepers.

While the ranks of Angola and Sierra Leone's amputee football teams are made up of those who lost limbs in brutal conflict, most of Ghana's players were victims of accidents or illness.

"I knew I could still play because I was already a footballer," said Mubarak Ademu, a striker who lost his leg in a car accident when he was aged six.

The Black Challenge's returning players say they are less worried about their fitness to compete than they are about paying their way to the world cup.

The team's practice pitch is a patch of dirt near Accra's shoreline that doubles as a car park, a garbage dump and an open-air toilet for a nearby shantytown.

Just down the street from the amputees' lot, Ghana's national football team, the Black Stars, practise in a monolithic stadium.

The Black Stars came home from Brazil early after failing to advance from the so-called "Group of Death" in the qualifying round, which included Germany, United States and Portugal.

The team's performance was a disappointment to many Ghanaians, as was the drama that occurred behind the scenes in the team's camp.

The players demanded that $3 million (2.2 million euros) in appearance fees be flown to them in Brazil on a charter flight in advance of what ended up being their final game against Portugal.

This ultimatum grated on many in Ghana, which is fighting the fallout from a depreciating currency, a yawning deficit due to falling commodities prices such as gold, plus slower-than-expected growth in its nascent oil sector.

"It's at times very painful that virtually everything is pushed to the Black Stars," Viwotor said. "Government should appreciate that every sport that represents the nation should be given attention."

- Money troubles -

Going to Mexico will cost about $200,000, Viwotor said. So far, only $22,500 has been raised, from private sponsors.

Without the team, Viwotor wonders what would become of the club's players.

Local governments in Ghana are required to give part of their budget to support people with disabilities.

But the bureaucracy required to access the money is daunting. At traffic lights in Accra, legless men on skateboards appear at the windows of waiting drivers, asking for spare change.

"Many of these people would probably be beggars or have lost hope in life," Viwotor said. "When you watch a one-legged person playing, it gives a sort of hope."

Days after their early morning practice, the Black Challenge arrived at a sports complex in an upscale suburb of Accra, where they split into two squads and played against each other.

Players with cerebral palsy joined in, showing little advantage over the crutch-wielding footballers, despite having use of both of their legs.

Frank Wilson, a non-disabled footballer who watched the Black Challenge play from the side-lines, was impressed by the rigours of the adapted game.

"They put in a lot of effort to play their game," he said.