Words by: Oliver Andrews
Football is undoubtedly the nation’s passion, whether it’s the England team walking out at Wembley and the whole nation coming together, or the return of league football and the reigniting of club rivalries. Having said that, men’s professional football is no longer the single point of interest for the population.
In recent years we’ve seen a surge in popularity in the formats of football that have long been cast in the shadow of the men’s game. Women’s football has gone from strength-to-strength since the Lionesses’ terrific 2015 World Cup performance, and variants such as Freestyle Football and Futsal have begun to find their place on our shores with a little help from the spectacular footage that proliferates social media. However, despite this newfound interest we have yet to see another underappreciated format, Cerebral Palsy (CP) Football, take-off in the same way.
If you’re not familiar with CP Football, it is a 7-a-side format of the sport that utilises smaller pitches and goals, and doesn’t abide to the offside rule. Players are given a classification between 5 and 8 (class 5 defining the players that have most difficulty with movement), and each side must sustain a squad that features players with varying levels of impairments. For example each side of seven must include one squad member from class five or six.
CP Football was formally introduced at the 1978 CPISRA International Games in Edinburgh, where Belgium were crowned the eventual champions. Despite this long heritage, the game was never given the chance to kick-off in England, in spite of the fact that soon after its inauguration, Great Britain picked up a bronze medal the 1984 Paralympics in New York.
The game faded into obscurity with the British Paralympic Association seemingly disinterested in forming a competitive team for future championships. This resulted in a 16-year absence from Paralympic tournaments, before re-emerging in 2008 for the Beijing Games.
Since then the sport seems to have taken a stride in the right direction. In 2008, the former head of the FA, Lord Triesman, set a goal for CP Football in the ‘Disability Football Strategy 2010 – 2012’ to “maximise participation through increased playing opportunities”, and to allow “disabled players to reach their potential and play at the highest level.”
While not reaching the target of fourth place set by this strategy, CP Football in the UK has showed significant signs of growth. The England Squad are currently ranked 8th in the world following some impressive results in recent tournaments and the National CP Football League was formed in the UK for the 2015/16 season. The FA has also seen a 14% increase in the number of affiliated disability teams playing regular football.
As the FA has shown a reinvigorated interest in CP Football and disability formats as a whole, the public have begun to as well. According to the most recent ‘Active People Survey’ by Sport England 1.58 million people aged 16 and over, with a long term limiting illness or disability, took part in sport once a week. The figure was up by 17,500 participants, with almost half of them playing football.
Slowly the format is also beginning to gather more coverage. The FA recently launched the ‘For All’ campaign which aims to tackle old-fashioned stereotypes around gender, disability, sexuality, faith and age. England CP star James Blackwell has become the face of the campaign alongside famed Lioness, Casey Stoney. ‘For All’ has gone a long way to give CP Football national attention through James’ incredible story that saw him transform from a promising young player that felt he had to hide his disability to the vice-captain of the England CP team. See his story below.Video credit: Tubby Brother/Vimeo
Given that 2017 is also another World Championship year for CP Football, we are undoubtedly going to hear a lot more about the sport in the UK, particularly if live streams for all the games are available as they have been with previous tournaments. At the launch of the ‘For All’ campaign, James Blackwell talked about England’s preparations for the tournament that takes place later this year:
“We’ve got the World CP Championships coming up in Argentina, so we’re preparing for that… We train once a month at St. George’s Park at the moment and that’s a great part of being involved in international football, being able to go there and work on the same pitches and unbelievable facilities as the senior team.”
There’s no doubt that CP Football has come a long way but I feel it’s going to take some time before it is truly accepted by the masses in the same way Women’s football now has. 1993 was the year that the FA truly started to rejuvenate the women’s game, I’m just hoping that it won’t take as long for the same effect to take place in CP Football. Given that disability formats of the game are now a staple in the FA’s agenda, maybe it’s only a matter of time before the nation sees it for the great sport that it is.
If you are interested in getting into CP football there are many local outlets to fulfil your needs, which can be found at www.cpsport.org.