Landmines took their limbs. Soccer brought them glory.
Angola’s amputee soccer team—the reigning Amputee World Cup champions—has inspired a nation still recovering from a 27-year war.
Luanda, AngolaEach night in early September, just after the red sun over the capital city disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean, a constant clicking sound could be heard within the dos Coqueiros Stadium in downtown Luanda.
The clicking noise came from metal crutches that dug into the grass of the stadium’s soccer field, an indication training had commenced for Angola’s most accomplished athletes: the world champion men’s amputee soccer team.
“I thank God that I’m here,” team captain Hilário Kufula, 33, says during the training session. “And that I have the opportunity to contribute to our national team and to grow the profile of the sport, win championships, and bring the name of our country, Angola, to new heights.”
Of the 15 players on the team, 12 are amputees as a result of a landmine, accident or injury; two have congenital malformations; and one has a paralyzed leg caused by polio. They play with crutches, which propel them as they glide across the field. For the past four years, they have held the title as the best team on the planet. Now, they are competing at the 2022 Amputee Football World Cup in Istanbul, Turkey, which runs through October 9 and features 24 teams.
Over the weekend, Angola won its first three matches in Group F against Uruguay, Iraq and Italy. The team now advances to the second round, where they will compete against England on Wednesday.
Kufula, who lost his right leg in a train accident at age 12, recalls the glory that came with the 2018 championship: “Arriving home to the country with the reception from the Angolan people and taking the drive around the city with everyone around watching, all I could do was cry,” he says.
Other countries with players wounded in armed conflict, such as Iraq, Liberia, and Colombia, also are competing in Istanbul. The sport is played with seven players on each team (compared to 11 per side in regulation soccer). Six players are on a field about half the size of a regulation pitch, and one serves as goalkeeper. Field players may have two hands though only one foot, while goalkeepers may have two legs but only one arm, according to the official rules of the World Amputee Football Federation. (Read about the origins of soccer.)
In preparation for the tournament, Angola—which was also the runner-up in the 2014 Amputee World Cup and won the African Nations Cup for Amputee Football in 2019—conducted rigorous training sessions one to two times per day during the summer months. Players say the pressure to perform well in Istanbul is perhaps even greater with opposing teams gunning to dethrone them.
“We have very high expectations, and we know other teams are preparing with the goal to knock off Angola,” said Jesus Mateus, the team’s 27-year-old goalkeeper who lost his right arm in an accident at age 5. Mateus, who dyes his hair bright red, stopped a penalty kick in the 2018 final against Turkey to lead Angola to the world title.
“We know it won’t be easy as there are a lot of very strong teams in the tournament, though I hope to return from Turkey again with a gold medal on my chest,” he says.
The championship game
In 2018, Angola edged out Turkey 5-4 in a penalty kick shootout to win the Amputee Football World Cup, which was held in Mexico. For a country that is yet to win an Olympic medal and scored just one goal in its lone appearance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the 2018 title is the greatest triumph in Angolan sports history.
Winning that championship brought members of the team celebrity status in the west African nation. Upon their return to Angola from Mexico, they were greeted at the Luanda airport by hundreds of screaming fans wearing the red and black colors of the national flag. With gold medals draped around their necks, the players were paraded through town atop a large truck flanked by a police escort that halted traffic on busy city streets. The following day, they met with the Angolan President João Lourenço, and were gifted homes in Luanda as rewards for their victory.
For Angolans, the triumph on an international stage has a deeper significance than just a trophy or bragging rights. Angola and its 34 million residents are still recovering from a 27-year civil war that concluded in 2002 and displaced millions of residents, killed hundreds of thousands of citizens, left major cities in ruins and largely isolated the country from the rest of the world.
As the young nation, which only declared independence from Portugal in 1975, rebuilds and heals, the championship by the amputee team represents Angola’s potential on the world stage—and the ability of its people to overcome tragedy and achieve international success.
“We were able to show the talent we have in Africa to the entire world,” says Jesus Morais, a 31-year-old midfielder who lost his leg following an injury at age 8. “It makes my family so happy to say they have a son that honored the nation and defended the colors of our country. It motivates me and gives me strength and, as long as I live, I will always honor the colors of the Angolan flag.”
Amputee soccer in Angola
Amputee soccer was introduced in Angola in 1997 by Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., through its Sports for Life initiative, which offers rehabilitation programs for landmine survivors. The program opened a rehabilitation center in Angola’s eastern Moxico province, which was heavily mined during the civil war.
One of the founders of the program was Augusto Baptista, the current coach of the Angola team. Given the large amount of injuries caused by landmines in the region, involvement in sports was considered a way to give amputees an outlet from their grief and create a sense of belonging in society, Baptista says.
“From 1997 to 2014, around 80 percent of the members on the Angolan national team were mine victims,” Baptista says, adding that most of those players have aged out of the team now as landmine injuries have diminished in the country.
More than 88,000 people have been wounded by landmines in Angola, which remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world even two decades after the conclusion of the civil war, according to the Mines Advisory Group, MAG. The agency, whose objective is to find and destroy landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs in places affected by conflict, estimates that millions of landmines and other unexploded bombs are still scattered throughout Angola, the seventh largest country in Africa by area, which is more than double the size of France.
Sabino António Joaquim, a 38-year-old former captain of the Angolan team and the oldest member of the current squad, grew up in the Moxico province and, at age nine, insisted on accompanying his mother to run an errand. While following her, he stepped on a mine and lost the lower half of his right leg. Initially resistant to play soccer using crutches following his injury, António says he’s grateful for what amputee sports have brought to his life.
“I feel happy to be like this. If had two legs, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I’ve had,” António says. “Now I’m a soccer player and am living a life I didn’t imagine possible."
Sense of belonging
Celestino Elias doesn’t remember the events of the day when, at age five, he stepped on a landmine in his village in the central Huambo province that led to the amputation of his left leg. Needing crutches to walk, Elias says he was often excluded from soccer as a child.
“It was my mission to play soccer, though every time I entered a game, I was told I couldn’t play with crutches,” says Elias, 32. “This always made me cry to be excluded from physical activity.”
Elias, who plays defense, was later introduced to amputee soccer where he excelled and was recruited to play for the Angolan national team. At the World Cup in 2018, he was named the world’s best player, a distinction he hopes to earn again in 2022.
The World Amputee Football Federation includes 50 member nations and has provided opportunities for players across the globe, some which now play in professional leagues in Europe, Brazil, and Turkey and make a living as amputee athletes. Five Angolan players currently play abroad in professional leagues, and two players—Heno Guilherme and João Chiquete—won the European Champions League title in May for their Turkish team—Etimesgut Amputee Sport Club.
Thirty-year-old Guilherme, who lost his right leg in a car accident at age four, dyes his hair blond and is a vocal and emotional leader. In his 13-year professional career, he’s won the World Cup, the Champions League title, the African Cup, and league championships in Angola and Turkey. Following the 2022 tournament in Turkey, Guilherme will begin playing for a professional amputee team in São Paulo, Brazil.
He is optimistic Angola can maintain it’s championship title in Turkey and, on a personal level, has his sights set on winning the golden boot, the award given to the tournament’s lead scorer. Aside from the personal and professional accolades, Guilherme says the most important thing he’s won in his career is the respect of his family and country.
“My family and my friends are so proud of what we’ve accomplished,” says Guilherme. “Everyone is proud of the work we’ve done and of our achievements representing Angola.”