IT SITS THERE, almost like an unexpected guest. Mount Fuji impressively intrudes on a Sunday morning flight between Nagasaki and Tokyo. The peak of the iconic mountain is so high that it punctures the top of the blanket of cloud we skim above. You can see it, and it can see you, but neither of you are meant to make eye contact. It’s a similar feeling to the one you get when locking eyes with an urban fox. You both stop, stand still for a fleeting moment, working each other out, before going your separate ways.
It seems an oddity to suggest that the very sight of Mount Fuji won’t be the most amazing thing you’ll have seen on any given day you cross its path at high altitude.
There is a photograph, taken in Roehampton at some stage during 1917. In this photograph, there is a large number of ex-servicemen on crutches, each of them minus a limb, and all playing football. Taken just over a century ago, it could easily be misread as a modern re-enactment of a bygone scene. The glorification of a moment of genesis with a sepia-tinted camera setting.
It was in Kawasaki, at the Fujitsu Stadium, where I saw something which outstripped the earlier sight of Mount Fuji. Two players, evenly distanced from the ball, going 50/50 into an uncompromising challenge somewhere around the halfway line. Sounds trans-mundane, right?
Moving at a startling unexpected speed, the two players collide. The ball ricochets off at a tangent, and the usual physical sounds of players coming together are accompanied by a metallic clattering noise which fills the air and echoes around the sparsely populated multi-sport arena. You can’t help but hunch your shoulders a little and hold your baited-breath for a second or two. The two players are swiftly helped up by teammates and match officials alike, and they are handed back their crutches. A few moments later, the ball is dropped between them, and play continues.
At the kind invitation of Hummel, I found myself in attendance for the 2017 Japan Amputee Football Championship.
It’s the speed and the no-holds-barred approach to the game that takes the breath away. Despite this, amputee football in Japan is still at a relatively formative stage. There are more people who help to run the game than there are who take part. The number of participants of amputee football in Japan totals less than 100.
This in itself brings some obvious setbacks. In a landmass as vast as Japan, it means that the concept of setting up a fully functioning league is nothing more than a pipe-dream. The clubs that do exist are drawn together for periodical championships. This one, in Kawasaki, was shrouded in an eclectic combination of attitudes.
Everyone was eager to impress, from volunteers and proud and enthusiastic spectators to participants who thought nothing remarkable of themselves. The inspirational Aki Kondo, aged just 14, was there to play for Kansai Sete Estrelas, a team that Hummel offer support to as part of their mission statement to change the world through sport.
Aki, who lost the lower part of his left leg in a road traffic accident at the age of 12, was a talented player in the mainstream junior game prior to his injury. Within a month of his accident, he was back on the football pitch, playing with the use of a prosthetic limb.
While he made his comeback through an astonishing drive of self-belief and an undimmed desire to once again take part in the game, he still faced the ultimate frustration as he wasn’t allowed to play in competitive games. Involvement in training sessions and friendly games proved to be no substitute for the real thing. Aki’s coach then introduced him to amputee football – a branch of the sport which didn’t exist in Japan a decade ago.
Read | How Hummel are changing the world through football
It is here that the low participation number works as an advantage in Japan. There are no dividing lines within amputee football there. Grown men play side-by-side with women and children. It all made for the most inclusive football tournament I have ever witnessed.
Aki was allowed to play in official games again, and despite some understandable initial fears about playing against physically imposing adult opponents, he quickly found it liberating and fun to be playing competitive football once more. Suddenly, from a life that was in danger of shrinking before his very eyes, the world is in the palm of Aki’s hands. A natural with the ball in his possession, there is an ability within him that will surely take him to the Japanese national team. Amputee football is still very new to him, but he plundered goals and terrorised defenders like a seasoned competitor.
All is not perfect, however. The Brazilian-born Sergio Echigo, a man who played professionally for the mighty Corinthians and was something of an inspiration to the legend that was Rivellino, was quick to point out that disability sports aren’t popular in Japan. The hope is that the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo will have the power to change some deep-rooted perceptions. Yet, in what is an ageing population, Echigo believes that society still has a propensity to feel sorry for those who are differently abled.
In the UK, Channel 4 has successfully pushed the concept of ‘The Super Humans’ during their coverage of the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games. The power of reverse psychology has left able-bodied viewers with a powerful message that they themselves are just mere humans, compared to the super-humans they are watching.
Given the opportunity to experience playing football on crutches, on a warm-up pitch under the stands of the Fujitsu Stadium, it soon became apparent just how much upper-body strength is needed to compete. The balance and speed with which the players can move was made to feel all the more admirable.
Amputee football will unfortunately not be a part of the 2020 Paralympic Games, however. A golden opportunity for enlightenment and expansion will be missed.
Echigo is a man who feels he is entrusted with a mission to not only remodel amputee football but potentially Japanese society itself. Some interesting years lie ahead for Echigo and his vision. Japan currently sits lightyears behind the bigger hitting nations toward the west, but it is fair to suggest that it is the leading nation within its region. The national team made it to the last 16 of the 2014 Amputee World Cup in Mexico, but due to delays and financial prevarications, interested parties in hosting the 2018 event have until the end of this month to declare an interest.
It is thought that Mexico might well be amenable to hosting the tournament yet again, but should the worst happen and no takers emerge, it would be a massive blow to the sport. There would then be no scheduled global gathering until at least 2022, as the timetable for the coming years has already been agreed upon.
Comparatively, in Europe, the 2017 European Championship was a huge success. The final in Istanbul was attended by over 40,000 spectators, where the hosts beat England in dramatic, last-minute circumstances. This was a higher congregation than for any of Turkey’s five home World Cup qualifiers for Russia 2018.
Put into context, the total number of people who clicked through the turnstiles at the Fujitsu Stadium over the course of the two-day Japanese Amputee Football Championship totalled 1,500, many of which were the friends and family of the participants. In an absorbing tournament, it was Kyushu Bailaor who prevailed in a penalty shoot-out in the final.
Given the humble nature of the participants in Kawasaki, it is hard to see how amputee football can gain rapid traction in Japan. It is set to be something that will simmer slowly, rather than blaze any commercial trails. Amputee football doesn’t have to blaze a trail in a commercial manner in Japan, however. The sport is there, and it is clearly accessible. There is a national team which is becoming ever more competitive, and it has some determined people behind the scenes who want to use it to change societal and generational attitudes.
The 2020 Paralympic Games would have been the perfect stage to escalate the concept of educating a nation, but hopefully, Aki Kondo will be able to lead Japan in a future Paralympic Games or a World Cup, and maybe, just maybe, Sergio Echigo will get to see the fruits of his labours.