By Angela Johnston
It’s an early-morning soccer practice on a beach in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. With the shriek of a whistle, players leap into action, dribbling the ball with careful precision. It may be a typical soccer practice, but it’s not your typical team—this is Ghana’s national amputee soccer team, the Black Challenge.
Waves from the Atlantic Ocean crash in the sand. Every so often, passersby stop and curiously watch players in action. They’re running a kicking drill, dusting up sand with their crutches with each step. It looks grueling.
Still, these players are used to tough conditions, both on and off the field. The Black Challenge is the highest-ranked amputee team in Africa. Its goalkeeper is the best in the world. And yet players face daily difficulties, at times begging on the street, or struggling to find bus fare to get to practice.
John Mensah Badu plays defense and is the captain of the Black Challenge. He catches a bus by 4 a.m. to get to practice, and on his own dime. His left leg was amputated more than 20 years ago, after a traffic accident. Now, he says he has a point to prove.
“I want to help my nation and prove to Ghanaians and my colleagues who are physically challenged that being disabled is not inability,” he says.
This is Ghana’s national team, but players buy their own sachets of filtered “pure” water from informal hawkers walking by on the beach. Some do not play with proper soccer cleats.
Black Challenge coach Ali Jaraa says the team does not need much: “Water, transport—that’s all.”
Jaraa used to be one of Ghana’s rising star goalkeepers. He scored a contract with European club FC Cologne, and also played for the Accra Hearts of Oak.
That changed suddenly 18 years ago. A neural disorder, Guillan-Barré Syndrome, temporarily paralyzed him. He does not play anymore, but he still has a career in football. He currently runs a goalkeepers’ academy and coaches the Black Challenge.
“While you are kicking, and you are a star, everybody hails at you, follows you . . . but when something happens to you, nobody cares,” he says. “That’s the situation we are in. And I feel I’m part of them.”
Jaraa may say all the team needs is water and transport, but there have been larger financial problems in the past.
Last year, the Black Challenge was set to play at the amputee soccer World Cup in Argentina. But the team had only raised half of the 80,000 cedis (approximately $52,000 CAD) needed to attend a week before the tournament. The Ghanaian government eventually helped out.
And this October, Ghana is slated to host the amputee African Cup of Nations tournament. So securing money is currently on the country’s amputee football federation president’s mind.
Francis Adjetey Sowah says finding money for big events is one thing. But securing government, NGO or donor money for the team’s everyday operations is more difficult—a feat made no easier without any office computers or vehicles to get around.
“If you have enacted a law, and that is the disability law, which says that government will be able to provide the needed resources to people with disabilities . . . then I think it is an indictment on government to be able to assist them tremendously,” he says.
Off the field, finding work can be a challenge for the players, says Sowah. He says many have completed high school and university but struggle to get a job. He says some save money from tournament per diems to start up small businesses.
At the end of practice, the players stretch, and then huddle together in prayer.
The trek from the beach back to the main street is gnarled, with the players gingerly stepping over open gutters and piles of rubbish. Still, team captain John Mensah Badu says he wouldn’t give this up for anything.
“I’d like to play ball until the last drop of my blood,” he says, and then laughs, “Yeah, until the last drop of my blood.”