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For the Love of Football: Egypt's First Cerebral Palsy Football Team

Abdullah Essam grew up not knowing about his condition. Now he's helping Cerebral Palsy sufferers find their place.

"When I was born, my mum didn’t know I had cerebral palsy. She'd always tell me, you don't have anything, you're fineI didn’t find out what I had until much later, when I was in fifth grade." Like the majority of cerebral palsy sufferers in Egypt of a certain age, 24 year-old Abdullah Essam, grew up not knowing what he suffered from - if anything at all. But having established Egypt's first football team for those with cerebral palsy, he's on a mission to change how the condition is seen.

Cerebral Palsy is a disorder caused prior to, during or soon after birth, which affects the muscles, more specifically muscle coordination and motor skills. Difficulties relate to vision, hearing, swallowing and speech among other things. In Egypt, Cerebral Palsy is only starting to be diagnosed properly, with many of those affected by it having fallen victim to false diagnosis. That being said, for many, cerebral palsy or its misdiagnosis hasn't stood in the way of living full lives. Setting an example and standing as a beacon for those affected by Cerebral Palsy, Essam refused to be kept down by a disability and went after his passion full throttle, with the 24-year-old founding the team earlier in 2018 - just a few years after fully understanding his condition.

"When I first got the idea to start the team, I spoke to my friend Ali Abu Nasr who founded Egypt’s first blind football team. He said yallah beena and helped get the whole thing started. I began telling people to bring whoever they knew or anyone who has Cerebral Palsy,” says Essam. “At one point, I’d go to the hospital’s physiotherapy wing to recruit anyone with Cerebral Palsy who might be interested in playing," he continues. "So far, we're around 15 members and we play every Friday for two hours. We practice and work on improving any weaknesses one of us may have," he explains. "We've all got different types of cerebral palsy. We’re not just a football team, we’re a community."

Essam, whose arm and leg have been affected by Cerebral Palsy, isn’t merely interested in excelling as a team and creating an official league in Egypt. In establishing the team, he's working towards raising awareness of the condition and altering society’s perception of those with Cerebral Palsy. While there are different types, the condition remains as a whole relatively misunderstood in Egypt. It's only over the past few years, with the establishment of recent organisations and initiatives, that the symptoms are being properly detected and the correct treatments are finding their way to patients.

"Growing up, it was always kind of like, okay this is how it is so I’m not going to let it stop me from doing what I want. We had gone to several doctors and I remember one of them specifically. If there is a treatement to make my motor skills better then that’s what I want, I told him. The doctor joked with me, and said no one can see your feet and your hands just keep them in your pockets and that was that. I never thought much of it and I didn't let it bother me.”Essam explains that a lot of cases afflicted with Cerebral Palsy, get it during birth. The football player adds, "Some cases result from the doctor pulling too hard on the baby during birth if he's stuck, which was supposedly my case. The kid ends up with a deficiency in oxygen which then affects his motor skills, movement, speech and balance as a result of Cerebral Palsy." 

Regardless of the source, many of those affected are fully capable of doing whatever they set their minds to and that's the message Essam aspires to spread with his football team.                                                     

"This team is just the beginning. I want to eventually start enrolling younger kids with Cerebral Palsy and have a team for juniors. It’s my duty. It's already started, we have parents with kids who’ve got Cerebral Palsy calling us to ask if they could join. Currently, we’re still looking for sponsors, but once we manage to get things set-up, a junior team is in the plans.”

Essam, much like the majority of Egyptian men, found himself surrounded by the frenzy of football and has been playing from a young age. For a multitude of Egyptians and kids in general, football is more than just a past time or a sport, it's a sense of belonging and purpose. For Essam and his team, while it is out of love for the game, at the core the members are looking to battle the prejudice and misconceptions associated with the condition, which they themselves have faced growing up. For 26-year-old Hassan Ashraf, who found out he had Cerebral Palsy in college, football was a sort of safe zone, where all players were equal regardless of any outer difference so long as they could play the game. That was, at least the case, until he got older. "I love football. I've been playing since I was a kid. I'd play with the kids I grew up with from my neighborhood. As I started getting better, football started feeling like the one thing I could do just like everybody else. With football, I felt freedom. And when playing with my friends, they'd tackle me like everyone else, without worrying about hurting me," says Ashraf. "Occasionally, though, there'd be teams that wouldn't want to play against us because of me. It's as I got older that things started changing. For example, players from the opposing team would go easy on me or let me pass without even trying to defend, out of fear that they'd injure me. At that point, I stopped feeling comfortable on the pitch. I started feeling like a burden on the team." 

As we get older and start navigating towards a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, it's easy to forget the stunting need to fit in and the pressure of adhering to a set of norms. Be it in preschool or high school more so, being different in the slightest was like having a bull's eye drawn on your back,  it was deemed as being weak. Most of us resorted to sports, art or gossip to find our place within the herd. For those with Cerebral Palsy, it's a constant battle much into adulthood, which is aggravated by a lack of knowledge and awareness of the condition.

"It was fine in school. Sure, I got teased and made fun of. And it wasn't even just from kids, some adults would do it too; that's what I found strange. As I grew older, though, the reactions turned into a sort of pity, where people assumed I couldn't do something because of my disability. When someone makes you feel – as a person afflicted with Cerebral Palsy – like you can’t do something, it’s painful from two perspectives," explains Ashraf. "One, that it’s just a hurtful comment or emotion to feel towards someone and two because there's an element of reality to it. I think with more awareness of the condition and more understanding of it, society's reaction to cerebral palsy could change. And I believe this team might achieve that.”Ashraf - who's previously competed in Paralympic sports in Egypt - finds that playing with his current team gives him a sense of equality he hadn't previously experienced. By challenging each other rather than shying away from a tackle or challenge, they're constantly improving and upping their game. Having grown up very aware, at times, of what they lacked rather than what they had, the team is a chance for them to treat each other as complete equals.  

“I used to take part in the Paralympics, as an individual. When I’m around people with disabilities, there’s so much freedom in how I play and how I perform. I don't even wear long sleeved shirts to cover my arms like I usually do. I’m psychologically and emotionally at peace,” shares Ashraf. “When Abdullah first told me we might get a chance to be in a championship and tournaments, be it in Egypt or abroad, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity. An opportunity, not just in terms of football, but to help change society's perception of those with cerebral palsy," he adds hopefully. "Firstly, society would get to know the condition and second kids growing up with Cerebral Palsy would know what they have and that in spite of it, they can do whatever they want. By growing up watching or hearing of a team of football players with Cerebral Palsy, they'll grow up with hope and the faith in achieving whatever it is they want to achieve. They'll be able to have what many of us didn't growing up."

Images courtesy of Football Team for Cerebral Palsy Sufferers on Facebook.