Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2000

Amputee soccer: Pungent mix of pride and passion
Forearm crutches snap in the hard-charging world championship here

By Kristin Dizon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

One deep whiff is all it takes. This is the smell of tenacity.

The Amputee Soccer World Championship is a pungent mix of sweat, taut nerves, intense competitiveness and national pride.

It also is a showcase for the international language of frantic hand gestures.

But, really, it's all about the soccer, so hard-charging that players dive, collide and tumble to the ground. Metal forearm crutches get snapped in half by balls that are whacked at more than 80 miles an hour.

Soccer, called football by most other countries, is not an American stronghold, either in the amputee or able-bodied game. This proved true as the U.S. lost 11-0 in its opening match against Ukraine, part of the amputee tournament that began yesterday in Seattle.

"This is the strongest team we've had," said Tom Feller, a U.S. team member for 15 years. "We've come in here as the underdogs."

The other five countries in the tournament -- Russia, Brazil, England, Uzbekistan and Ukraine -- were all kind in their assessments of the home team.

"They've got a lot of experience," said a gracious Steve Johnson, captain of the British team. But Johnson, who lost his leg when he slipped on a wet indoor soccer field and plowed through a glass window, won't give the hosts any quarter.

Winning, he says, "is the only thing that matters."

The other teams are similarly serious about the game. Most of these men have played soccer since childhood and come from countries where soccer is practically a religion.

By contrast, most of the American team picked up the sport for exercise after they became amputees.

When Russia scored its first goal against England, player no. 9, Steve Foster, yelled at his teammates, "Keep your heads up. You wear an English jersey!"

But England's hope of upsetting the favored Russian team was dashed by an aggressive, well-coordinated passing game. The Brits lost 2-0.

The Brazilians, defending champions, showed off their free-flowing style and high ballet kicks as they routed a spirited Uzbeki team 4-1. In a country where this ball-kicking game approaches a national obsession, the boys from Brazil showed their stuff.

They practice against two-legged players and have even scrimmaged with some of Brazil's one-name legends like Romario and Edmundo.

The Brazilians have a deep bench and cheering fans. By contrast, their Uzbeki opponents came on a shoestring budget with just one substitute player.

"This team has no money at all," said Dildora Mukhamedjanova, team translator. "Their coach gives his soul to these guys. He loves them like they are his children. He collected these guys from the streets. Football is their life."

Beyond the trophy and who emerges as the victor in the amputee version of the world's most popular sport, it's the deep camaraderie that makes this tournament an amazing slice of humanity.

Rick Hofmann, a U.S. reserve player, recalls that sense of sharing at last year's championship. He was surprised when he congratulated Ruslan Butsayev, Russia's assistant coach.

"He took his silver medal from around his neck and put it around mine. It just blew my mind," Hofmann said. "This is friendship at such a profound level -- when you can't even talk."

The players' stories are the stuff of war, strife and accident statistics.

Russian No. 10, Sergei Kuzhetsov, lost his leg to a landmine during the war in Afghanistan.

Brazilian No. 7, Celso Santos, had his leg amputated after the venomous bite of a cobra.

U.S.A. No. 15, Farah Aden, was shot three times in the leg during the Somali civil war five years ago. The 17-year-old was playing soccer on a Mogadishu field, where he watched many of his fellow players bleed to death in the dirt.

But it's also the story of renewed hope and fresh dreams.

Bill Barry has seen that reawakening of hope.

A Seattle man who has coached local amputee teams, Barry, who is not an amputee, is an enthusiastic ambassador of the sport.

"There's a light that comes back in their eyes that's been missing," he said.

The Amputee Soccer World Championship, sponsored by Shurgard Storage Centers Inc., will be played tomorrow through Saturday.

All games through Thursday are at Arena Sports, 4636 E. Marginal Way South and begin at 10:15 a.m. The final rounds on Friday, starting at 6 p.m., and Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m., are at Mercer Arena. There is no admission fee.

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