Cerebral Palsy – Football in Ghana Offers Escape from Stigma | Sports | DW

“You always have to be on your guard,” says goalkeeper Sayuti Alhassan, who looks good in his blue boots and dark gloves, in an interview with DW. “You know you have weaknesses on one side. You can dive and save the ball if it’s played towards your stronger hand. On the other side, you’ll concede a goal if you don’t react quickly.” Like many people in Ghana, Sayuti fell in love with football as a child. He roamed the house, kicking every object that got in his way. His parents bought him a ball as soon as he could take his first steps.

But all that vivacity and exuberance faded for Sayuti just before his fourth birthday. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP) and was unable to move his left arm and leg. Cerebral palsy refers to a group of symptoms with movement disorders and muscle stiffness (spasticity). It is caused by brain abnormalities that develop during brain development before birth or by brain damage before, during, or shortly after birth.

During his entire school days, Sayuti was also considered a “sick person” by his classmates and teachers. His parents also kept him away from all physical activity, fearing his condition might get worse. But his dream of becoming a footballer was reinvigorated by a chance encounter with a physically challenged athlete. “I saw a goalie on an amputee team and noticed that he only uses one hand,” says Sayuti. “I thought to myself that I can do it too.” So he started playing again.

Cerebral Palsy Club offers hope

Sayuti is now one of 30 players in Ayawaso CP football club, the first and so far only organized CP team in Ghana. Footballers with various types of cerebral palsy are active for the club from the city of Nima, which was founded four years ago by Emmanuel Akpabli. The club’s mission is to give meaning to young people affected by CP with a passion and talent for football.

Sayuti Alhassan is standing on a tarred square

Despite physical limitations, Sayuti Alhassan shines on the football pitch

As there is no football league for the team in Ghana, Ayawaso CP requests regular lower division teams for friendlies. Akpabli has financed the club with his own money and although there has been little other support, he says he enjoys putting a smile on the faces of the players under his care. “They’re looking for jobs, but nobody wants to give them any. So they give here [im CP-Fußball] everything,” explains the founder of the club.

Like many professional clubs, Ayawaso CP recruits its players through scouting. Others were also brought into the team from the streets where they lived as homeless people. Many parents are just happy to take their children to a place where their handicap is not judged and stereotyped. “Some of the kids don’t have friends to play with,” says head coach Abdul Karim Mustapha. “The stigma is so great that parents are surprised when they hear that we have time for people with special needs. So they call quickly and put them on the team.” The wealth of talent on the team is so great that too Ghana’s CP national team draws on a number of Ayawaso players.

Cerebral palsy is common in Ghana

According to data from the last population and housing census in Ghana, every third household has a child with a disability who cannot go to school because of his/her illness. In particular, cases of cerebral palsy are common in the country. About one in 300 newborns is affected in Ghana.

Emmanuel Akpabli (2nd from right) stands in front of his football team and holds a meeting

Emmanuel Akpabli (2nd from right) is committed to helping people with cerebral palsy

The Center for Learning and Childhood Development estimates that 85 percent of children with CP in Ghana do not receive formal education because they do not meet the basic functional skills required by the government for school enrollment. Sport often offers a way out of this exclusion. Unlike other parasports such as athletics, amputee soccer, wheelchair cycling and goalball, CP soccer is still fairly new in Ghana.

According to Akpabli, there are plans to form more CP football clubs across the country. The aim is to welcome all people with cerebral palsy who want to play football. Ghana is still one of the few African countries with a CP national team. The first CP football game in the country’s history was against Nigeria and ended 7-0.

As a long-term goal, the Cerebral Palsy Football Federation wants to qualify for the IFCPF World Cup or the IFCPF World Championships, the two biggest competitions for the CP national teams. Yet CP football remains one of the worst funded sports in all of West Africa. Internal squabbles within the hierarchy of the Ghana Cerebral Palsy Football Federation have also created a leadership crisis that is damaging to the sport’s development.

struggle for funding

And while Ghana’s national soccer teams continue to be spoiled with financial resources – the men’s soccer team spent $5.1 million at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – CP soccer and other parasports receive very little support from the government and usually are dependent on the goodwill of individuals.

Ayawaso CP FC players in a group photo

The Ayawaso CP FC players want to continue pursuing their passion

“We need more CP soccer teams to have a league at all and to encourage people and get people off the streets. It’s not easy to deal with the stigmatization that they are exposed to,” says Ayawaso coach Mustapha. Sayuti Alhassan, whose idol is Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, says he will ‘keep training and wait for my opportunity’. That’s all he can do at the moment.

Adapted from the English by Jörg Strohschein