In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action
ANGOLA: Amputee soccer stars shine
Blue's striker Luis Gabriel, first from the left
Luena, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Luis Gabriel used all the strength in his arms as he swung back to use his one good leg to blast the ball towards the opposition's goal.
His free kick landed with almost perfect precision a few metres in front of the goal mouth and he yelled encouragement at his attacking teammates chased his cross. But luck was not favouring the Blues, and the nimble Red defenders, their powerful arms propelling their crutches forward, got to the ball first and safely cleared it up the field.
The sight of 14 men, all amputees and victims of landmine accidents, playing a fast and furious game of football had drawn a sizeable and vocal crowd, as it does every time.
Football on crutches is the brainchild of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), an NGO that runs rehabilitation programmes for landmine survivors. It has taken Luena, capital of the eastern province of Moxico in Angola, by storm.
"Our three teams - the Blues, the Reds and the Yellows - practice on Monday, Wednesday and Friday," said Nelito, a team coach and assistant manager of the VVAF Sports for Life programme. "We always get quite a lot of spectators."
Most members are former soldiers who suffered landmine injuries during Angola's brutal 27-year civil conflict. The field players are all leg amputees, while the two goalkeepers have each lost an arm.
No one wears a prosthesis, which keeps the playing field level, regardless of whether the amputation is above or below the knee and if the ball touches the stump, it is considered a foul.
VVAF also supports athletes, organises wheelchair basketball games and offers therapeutic sporting activities at its orthopaedic centre.
The NGO believes sport can offer people with disabilities - whether natural or as a result of landmines - new hope and improved self-esteem, as well as helping them to re-integrate into home communities in a country where they typically receive little support.
According to Graziella Lippolis, rehabilitation manager for VVAF in Luena, the footballers' morale has improved since they started playing.
"When they first arrived, they were bad-tempered and aggressive - they would take their crutches and hit people, but sport has really improved their outlook," Lippolis said.
The players themselves could not agree more.
Sweaty, thirsty and a little forlorn - neither team had managed to score by the final whistle - Gabriel explained how he now has more hope and feels much happier about his life because of football.
A driver and mechanic in the military police during Angola's civil war, Gabriel used to trace broken vehicles and assess the damage. While on a job, he stepped on a freshly laid landmine and lost his right foot.
The accident left him angry, miserable and pessimistic about his future.
"Of course, after the accident and the amputation I was in shock," he said. "I was thinking a lot of stuff about my life. I was reconsidering everything. Afterwards, it was difficult for me to interact with other people.
"But in the hospital, this organisation [VVAF] proposed that I start playing football. Now I am very happy I took the decision to play."
One of the lucky ones, Gabriel still has an administrative post with the military police - Angola's sky-high unemployment rate keeps most of his team-mates are out of work and they stand little chance of getting a job.
Amputee soccer match
There is also scant support from the government and many depend on the generosity of their families to survive, but playing football has improved their self-esteem - they are often considered local celebrities.
"Here in Angola, some people admire us because they know that playing football on crutches is difficult - that makes us feel very proud about what we are doing," Gabriel said.
Even those once deemed hopeless cases are finding some satisfaction and enjoyment in the game.
One player, known as "Sete-Sete" or "77", wobbled on his crutches, slurring encouragement and derision at his team-mates on the pitch. Obviously drunk, his peers refused to let him into the line-up.
"That's '77'. This was our worst guy," said Nelito, pointing to 77 as he teetered on the touchline. "I remember being scared of this guy as a kid. He was seen as dangerous - a troublemaker at the Moxico level. But now we are slowly helping him recover and we are realising that he is not so bad."
Lippolis agreed that while 77 could sometimes be a handful, football had made a dramatic difference to his conduct and outlook.
"He was very demanding and still is, but to a lesser degree," she said. "He is still drinking, but not so often, and he keeps coming to training or dropping by the centre to say hello.
"Football is a social activity for him and it benefits him to see others in the same situation," Lippolis continued. "He knows if he wants to play he has to change his behaviour. In the beginning, he could not even stand on the field because he was so drunk."
The game has changed their perspective. They do not complain about inadequate food or unemployment, but of a lack of decent opposition. Many have been playing each other three times a week since 1998-99 and need a change.
Extra funding needed
"We are good, but we are just playing recreationally," Gabriel said. "We would like to play other teams from other provinces and eventually go abroad. We need other teams in other provinces or countries to challenge us. For five years we have only played each other - no other team."
The problem is funding. VVAF wants to expand the project, initially to the neighbouring provinces of Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul, but that would require an additional US $100,000 on top of the $150,000 needed for the Sports for Life project in 2005.
"I can understand why they are frustrated - they want a national competition," Lippolis said. "Most of them have this ambition and that is good. It is a priority to try to make happen for them."
If the NGO acquires adequate funding, part of VVAF's plan would be to work in collaboration with the Angolan Para-Olympic committee in the country’s capital, Luanda, to try to make football on crutches a national activity.
Some people may question the need for the project when Angola is battling with other pressing problems, such as hunger and child mortality, but Lippolis believes that focusing on improving quality of life is a key part of Angola's development.
"When people really look at what these athletes are doing, and they start to see the benefits to the people, they realise we are working on the quality of life of the people," she said. "I am part of their rehabilitation and I can see how they are improving each and every day."