This past week, I’ve been away in Salou, Catalonia, Spain volunteering at the IFCPF Pre Paralympic Tournament Salou 2016. As a journalist and sports lover, I thought the better decision was to go up and volunteer instead of report from home. 7-a-side football was cut from the Paralympic program for 2020, and this could be the final time they appear at the Games. It is also the last major competition ahead of the Rio Games in September. As a journalist, I’d also been very impressed with the IFCPF’s response to the sport getting cut, regrouping and coming up with a strategy for how to handle the situation in contrast to sailing. Also, this was an opportunity to see great, great football.
The Ukraine won the competition after beating Brazil 0 – 2 in the final. The Netherlands finished third after beating Great Britain. The Irish finished fifth, the Americans sixth and the Argentines seventh. The Russians had originally been scheduled to participate but withdrew for reasons I am still unclear about.
I’d never seen behind the scenes of a tournament like this before, so it was really interesting. I figured out who were the people sitting behind officials tables, what they were doing, and what their goals were. As a volunteer on the press side, I got to see how that worked. Federació Esportiva Catalana de Paralítics Cerebrals were the hosting organization, and they appeared to do a great job of coordinating a lot of different needs. They also have a lot of great people involved with the organization. I’d gotten glimpses of how difficult doing the media side is from the London Games after seeing the Australian media team in their bunker in the Paralympic Village, and hearing how they were often up until 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM at night. Yeah, supporting that press side is not easy.
From a journalist perspective, I feel like my initial instincts about 7-a-side football’s future following the removal of the sport were correct. The people I talked to made clear they had a strategy to grow the game to get the numbers up. Unlike sailing which had a “bring the sailors to us” philosophy, the IFCPF has been more “bring the football to the football players” with a focus on developing the sport in places like Africa. Despite the potential loss of funding to support football locally, one of the major arguments here is 7-aside football for people with cerebral palsy is so cheap. The game follows more or less the same rules as able-bodied football, so you can more-or-less use the same pitches, the same equipment, the same coaches, the same referees, etc. IFCPF offers a two-hour course to become a referee if you’re already qualified as a football referee. While the field is smaller, people change the size of football fields and goals some what regularly because junior football often uses smaller nets and pitches. It is not a major impediment. Cost effective delivery of sports to people who have cerebral palsy is a major selling point, and they are going to places to assist in setting up local programs.
IFCPF is also working on developing women’s cerebral palsy football. This is still in the exploratory stages in committee, with all options on the table. I have no idea when they will get that decided, but they’re aware of the need to develop this side for the future of their sport. They are also looking at doing a tweak on classification, to make it less medical and more functional based. This is another thing I see as a huge positive, as that is the model that has been largely embraced by the Paralympic movement with the exception of blind sports. It will assist in making the game more fair.
Also interesting that I did not know is that there is a working group for all the various disability football codes. I believe it includes CP football, ID football, blind football, amputee football and powerchair football. This is important because all these different disability football variants with their own governing bodies make it difficult for them to work with FIFA. The impression I get is they all acknowledge that FIFA won’t deal with five different groups but may deal with one. I don’t know what this means long term for disability sport football, but it does make watching governance issues around disability sport much more interesting.
I poked a few people subtlety, by which I mean probably with a 2×4 as subtlety is not my thing, about the issues of doping in CP football. Basically, I got the impression that people think there is not much of an advantage in doping in football in general. The overall rates on the able-bodied side are pretty low, and you’d expect the rates on the CP side to be low too, because where is the advantage? Which isn’t to say they don’t do doping control. They do in competition doping control. They had it at this tournament, with both teams in the final being tested.
Overall, I had a fantastic time. I came away with the view that IFCPF responded to IPC feedback, has a clear goal of getting back on the program for 2024 and is very much a football player centric organization. If you ever get the opportunity to volunteer at an international disability sporting event, I highly suggest because you learn so much, it is a lot of fun and the people are awesome.