Ghana: Cerebral palsy football offers escape from stigma
"You have to always be alert," says goalkeeper Sayuti Alhassan, looking smart in his blue boots and dark gloves. "You know you're deficient on one side. You can dive and save the ball when it's played towards your stronger hand. For the other side, if you don't act fast you concede."
Like many kids from Ghana, Sayuti fell in love with football right from infancy. He used to mooch around the house kicking any object in sight, which forced his parents to buy him a ball as soon as he could take his first steps.
But all that effervescence and ebullience faded when Sayuti was nearing his 4th birthday. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP), the most common motor disability in childhood, which affects a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture. He subsequently lost the use of his left arm and leg.
Throughout his time in school, Sayuti was considered a "sickie" by his mates and teachers. His parents also barred him from any physical activities for fear of escalating his condition and, according to him, "they never spared me any time when they caught me playing."
But Sayuti's dream of becoming a footballer would be reinvigorated by the chance sighting of a physically challenged sportsman. "I saw a goalkeeper for an amputee team and realized he was using only one hand," he told DW.
"That was when it dawned on me that I could also do it. So I started playing again. When I discovered there was a CP football team around, I decided to join them."
Cerebral palsy club offers hope
Sayuti is now one of 30 players on the books of the Ayawaso CP football club, the first and only organized CP team in Ghana.
Founded four years ago by Emmanuel Akpabli, the Nima-based club accommodates footballers with different types of cerebral palsy. The club is on a mission to give young people with CP a purpose, provided they have the passion and talent to play.
With no functioning CP football league in the country, the team usually trains by engaging non-disabled lower-division teams in friendly matches. Akpabli has been running the club with his own finances, and although there's been very little support, he says that he finds joy in putting a smile on the faces of the players under his care.
"When you look at the nature of their disability, they go looking for jobs and nobody wants to give them jobs. So they put their all here [in CP football]," Akpabli said.
Like many professional clubs, Ayawaso CP recruits its players through scouting. Others were also picked from the streets, where they were homeless, while some parents were just happy to bring their children to a place where their conditions are not judged and stereotyped.
"Some of the kids don't have friends to play with," said head coach Abdul Karim Mustapha. "The stigmatization is so much that, when parents hear we have time for people with special needs, they're surprised, so they quickly call and bring them to join the team."
Such is the talent in the team that Ghana's national CP team draws on a number of its players.
Cerebral palsy rates high in Ghana
According to Ghana's Population and Housing Census data, one child in every three households has a disability and is not in school because of her or his condition. Cases of cerebral palsy, in particular, are also very high in the country, accounting for one in every 300 newborns.
The Center for Learning and Childhood Development estimates that 85% of children with CP in Ghana have no formal education because they don't meet the basic functional capabilities the government requires for school enrolments.
Sport has often offered an escape, but unlike other para-sports like athletics, amputee football, wheelchair cycling and goalball, CP football is quite new in Ghana.
But Akpabli says plans are underway to set up more CP football clubs across the country. The goal is to welcome all people with cerebral palsy who wish to play football, irrespective of their location.
Already, Ghana is one of the few African countries with a CP national team. The country's first-ever CP football game was against rivals Nigeria, a match they lost 7-0.
The long-term goal of the Ghana Cerebral Palsy Football Federation is to qualify for the IFCPF World Cup or the IFCPF World Championships, which are the two biggest competitions for CP national teams.
But CP football remains one of the least-financed football sectors in the West African country. Internal wrangling amongst the hierarchy of the Ghana Cerebral Palsy Football Federation has also created a leadership crisis that is hurting the development of the sport.
Disability sport struggles for funding
And while Ghana's non-disabled national teams continue to be spoiled with finances — the men's national football team spent $5.1 million (€4.7 million) at the Qatar 2022 World Cup — CP football and other para-sports get very little support from the government and usually rely on the benevolence of individuals.
"We need more CP football teams around to even have a league and to promote those interested and bring them out of the streets. There are many of them on the streets; the stigmatization they face alone is not easy," club coach Mustapha adds.
Meanwhile, Sayuti, whose idol is Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois, says he'll "keep on training and waiting for my opportunity."
It's all he can do for now. CP football is fledgling in Ghana, but with no support system in place, all the players have is the dream of bigger stages to showcase their talent — even if things aren't looking up at the moment.
Edited by: Matt Pearson