Paralympic football – Great Britain outsiders for a medal
There will be two Paralympic football competitions at the London 2012 Paralympics. There is the Football 5-a-side for athletes with visual impairments (including blindness) and the Football 7-a-side for athletes with cerebral palsy. Both sports are played under FIFA rules but with several modifications to make the game suitable for the competing athletes.
The 5-a-side players are assigned to one of three classes based on their level of visual impairment and each team is allowed one guide, positioned off the field, to help direct them. The ball is equipped with a noise-making device so that players can follow it by sound. Each team must maintain a line-up featuring players with varying levels of disability but can use sighted goalkeepers, provided they have not been registered with FIFA for the past five years.
Football 5-a-side originated in South America in 1980 with the first European tournament being the Spanish national championships in 1986. The first World Championships were held in 1998 and became a Paralympic event in 2004. Predictably, South American sides have a fine record in the event. Brazil were champions 2004 and 2008 with Argentina claiming silver and bronze. Britain has an outside chance having finished fifth in Beijing but they will have to improve to upset Brazil, Argentina, Spain or China and get amongst the medals. Veteran striker David Clarke who has well over a hundred goals to his name will lead the Great Britain attack.
Football 7-a-side is restricted to athletes with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders, including stroke and traumatic brain injury. As with the 5-a-side competition, players are assigned to classes based on their level of disability.
International competition in Football 7-a-side began at the 1978 CP-ISRA International Games in Edinburgh and became a Paralympic sport in 1984. Ukraine are the current Paralympic champions with Russia and Holland, 2011 World champions, their closest rivals. Great Britain endured an 8-1 defeat against the champions in Beijing and finished bottom of their group so will need all the local support they can get if they are to put in a challenge next year. However, they do have 2011 World Cup golden boot winner, Michael Barker, who played at Everton youth academy with Wayne Rooney. He scored four goals when Great Britain defeated the USA 8-4 to take Bronze, which will have raised hopes for London 2012.
Olympic Park will host both football competitions with two groups of four teams playing in a round-robin format, the top two from each group progressing to the semi-finals. The winners will contest the gold medal matches on the 8th and 9th September.