“He said he closed his eyes and from the chatter on the field, the griping at the referee and the cheers after a score, he couldn’t tell our game from any other game … and that’s the point. This is real soccer; played with the [same] spirit [and intensity] as it is everywhere.”
The general manager of a soccer complex, who shared those words with Rick Hofmann years ago, was referring to the international sport of amputee or adaptive soccer. The comment was made right after a national 3v3 tournament. Hofmann, a former player from Wilmington, Delaware, and the past president of the American Amputee Soccer Association, says it was one of the most powerful statements he had ever heard about the game, a game that he says “has the power to redeem souls.”
A New Start
“This sport means so much to me. It has given me the opportunity to not only return to a sport I love and am passionate about, but to show others that life doesn’t end after you lose a limb … in fact, it can be a whole new beginning!” That’s what U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team goaltender Eric Westover says about it. Westover, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is also chairman of the board & CEO of the American Amputee Soccer Association and head soccer coach for the NubAbility Athletics Foundation, which introduces kids with limb difference to the game.
As goalkeeper, Westover is the only player on the field allowed to stand on both legs. He has been a right below-elbow amputee since 2004, after a work injury more than a decade prior and recurring complications with surgeries from it.
West over was a baseball catcher and goalie in hockey and soccer when he was growing up in Minnesota. But aft
er the amputation, team sport was the furthest thing from his mind. In 2006, however, his life changed forever: “I was recruited through Facebook to try out at a camp in Philadelphia. I went, and I dove around like a lunatic. They liked what they saw and asked if I would like to come and play. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Then they asked if I’d like to be the starter. I was floored and said, ‘YES!’”
Amputee soccer rules are very similar to FIFA rules (FIFA, or Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is the governing body for international soccer). Some differences include smaller pitch (field), goal size and team size. For amputee soccer, the international game is 6v6 with a keeper.
Other differences are: two 25-minute playing halves instead of the FIFA 45-minute halves, the throw-in is a kick-in, and there are unlimited substitutions without limits and no offside penalty.
But perhaps the biggest difference is the players themselves. The goalkeeper is the only player on the field who doesn’t have to have a leg amputation. Goalkeepers can have arm amputees, at or above the wrist instead. As for the rest of the players, they must have a leg amputation at or above the ankle. Two players per team with congenital birth defects affecting the limbs – “Les Autres” – may play at a time.
The game must be played on forearm crutches no prosthetics are allowed on the playing field. But the ball may not be controlled or advanced with the crutch – that would be considered a hand pass. Additionally, the residual limb may not be used to control or direct the ball.
And, as Hofmann explains, safety is taken very seriously: “Any offensive use of the crutch, which might draw a two-minute penalty in hockey, such as slashing, tripping or high-sticking, results in an immediate red card and game ejection.”
The Power to Play
Hofmann is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam. He ran track and cross-country in high school, played collegiate soccer and also completed a marathon. In 1995, he lost his right leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident. Although he prefers “abbreviated” to “amputated,” Rick says, “Our game is a sport for those with ‘alternative configurations.’”
Like Westover, Hofmann got involved in amputee soccer two years after his “abbreviation.” He shares, “I was looking for something to do – something that could help me work up a sweat. I went to a demonstration of the game and got thoroughly hooked. After a few exercises in ball handling, we scrimmaged. After a few minutes, I actually forgot I was on crutches. They were there, of course, but they didn’t matter – I was engaged in sport and competing with others like me. I fell in love with the game and never looked back.” Hofmann was named to the 2000 World Cup Team.
Though it’s surely about the competition and camaraderie, as Hofmann explains, the sport offers so much more: “Emotionally, the game fills me up. There’s a power of belonging that comes with engaging in a sport with and against others just like you. Players from around town, around the country and around the world are just getting on with it, refusing to be ‘disabled,’ deciding to be athletes, deciding to go out and play.”
Rick co-founded the World Amputee Football Federation in 2005 and is the current president.
The First Kick
Adaptive soccer began by accident in the Seattle, Washington driveway of Don Bennett. As the story goes, he was watching his son practice basketball outside the family home. At one point, the ball escaped and began rolling down the driveway. Bennett, on crutches and without his prosthesis, simply raised himself up on his crutches and kicked the ball back to his son. From there, he figured if he could kick a basketball then surely he could kicka soccer ball. That simple act became the impetus for a worldwide adaptive soccer movement.
In 1984, the first international soccer tournament was held in Seattle, with U.S., Canadian and Central American teams participating. The first World Cup Tournament was held in 1988 with eight teams participating. The game has been coed since day one, with both men and women playing together in elite international competition.
Today there are 24 members of the World Amputee Football Federation, hailing from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central, North and South America, and the Middle East; five more countries are in the application process preparing for the next major competition – the World Cup in December in Culiacan, Mexico.
“We haven’t chosen a current team for the 2014 World Cup,” shares Westover. He says there is a pool of 15 to 20 players from around the country actively training and trying out to be one of the 15 chosen to represent Team USA.
“Most, if not all, national team players play able-bodied soccer in their home areas,” says Westover. Among the hopefuls are teenager Nicolai “Nico” Calabria (pictured on cover) and three war-wounded military veterans. None of the players are paid and as there is no official sponsor or funding for the team, the players actually pay their own way and expenses.
Open tryouts will be held in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in June and San Antonio, Texas in July. Another two tryouts (locations to be determined) will be held later in the year.
But there’s more to the game than world-class competition. “We’re currently in the process of building local and regional teams and leagues throughout the country,” shares Westover. “Last year, we became full members of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is the governing body for soccer here in the U.S.”
“We’re always looking for local sparkplugs who want to play and can help develop [recreational and competitive] teams in their home areas,” shares Hofmann. He adds that for local play in geographic areas that can’t support the full seven-man team, a 3v3 configuration with no keeper, 3v3 with keeper, 4v4 with keeper and 5v5 with keeper are all recognized.
Hofmann adds that in recreational games, people with both limbs can join in by removing one shoe and playing on crutches, and not putting the shoeless foot down during play; or as a keeper, by putting one arm inside the jersey.
“Amputee soccer is played with people just like yourself,” Hofmann explains. “So there’s no ‘ego danger.’ At its root, it’s kicking a ball on crutches. You can do that. And if you can do that, you can walk and kick a ball on crutches, then run and kick a ball on crutches, and 20 minutes later you’re playing real soccer.”
National team captain Ignacio Medrano, four-time amputee soccer World Cup veteran, simply says, “The sport gives me life.”
American Amputee Soccer Association
(Official site) ampsoccerusa.org
American Amputee Soccer
Fédération Internationale de Football Association
NubAbility Athletics Foundation
U.S. Soccer Federation