It was Muhammad Faris Rayyan Noor Wahid’s first football tournament and the nine-year-old was both excited and a little nervous. Seated at the edge of his seat, Rayyan was engrossed in the game that was in play.
His eyes were fixed on pint-sized Arissa Azizulrahman, eight, the undisputed star footballer of the tournament, who was relentless in her pursuit of goals. She scored two, earning her team the lead moving on to the next round of the tournament.
Rayyan’s team was up next and he looked to his parents, Noor Wahid Nuruddin and Wan Siti Marian Abu Bakar for reassurance.
“I’m afraid of Arissa. Everyone is afraid of Arissa,” says Rayyan, nine, hesitantly. Then, with a grin, he adds: “But my friend came up with a strategy – we just have to block Arissa.”
Rayyan and Arissa were among 15 children with Cerebral Palsy (CP) who took part in the frame football tournament at the 9th Pan Disability Football 2019 Championships held at Forum 10, a sports centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, last weekend.
Frame football is an adapted form of the popular sport, formulated specifically for players who use frames, walkers or crutches to move around daily. Frame footballers use frames with wheels to help them move around the court. Because they use frames, the game can’t be played on a typical football pitch.
The sport started in Britain in 2014 and was introduced in Malaysia in 2016 by disability football coach, Shalesh “Sunny” Manickavasagam who founded the Pan-Disability Football Club in 2006 to give disabled children and adults a chance to play football.
Sunny got in touch with Rafidah Rafizah Abdullah, the president of Gabungan Anak-Anak Palsi Serebrum (Gaps) who rallied support from other parents of children with CP to form a frame football league.
The children train once a week under Sunny and although it took a couple of years to build a sizeable group, the results have been outstanding: the children relish the opportunity to play and be coached in a sport that they were previously excluded from.
Nailah Mohd Fadzli and her husband Tuan Azhar Tuan Zulkifli don’t mind taking a bus from their home in Gurun, Kedah, almost every weekend so that their son, Zuhayr can play with his friends and train under coach Sunny.
“Why do we do it? Zuhayr’s passion is football. Everything he loves has to do with football, so much so that if we want to teach him his multiplication tables, we use football,” says Nailah, 32, who works as a freelance translator in Gurun.
Although Zuhayr goes to a national school, he is not allowed to participate in sports because of his disability.
“Where we live, inclusion doesn’t exist. He doesn’t get to play any sport with the other children. Here, he’s so happy to be able to play football with the other children. That’s why we make the effort to come down to PJ at least two or three times a month,” explains Nailah.
More than a game
Zuhayr started playing frame football about three years ago and he took to the game like a duck to water. Not only has his stamina and physical performance improved, so has his mental capacity, says Nailah.
He’s also able to control his emotions much better now. Three years ago, Zuhayr would throw a tantrum on court if he didn’t get the ball. Last year, he improved a little and would get upset on court only if he didn’t score. Now, he is able to control his emotions while the game is in play and if he is disappointed with his performance, he cries after the game, outside the court.
“Training with the others has also made him competitive – he wants to get better and improve and I think that’s good for him. He’s also sharper mentally. I really believe that sports has an impact on our emotional and mental well-being. His game has improved so much too because his legs and arms have become stronger,” says Nailah.
“My favourite team is Kedah,” says the friendly eight-year-old with an infectious smile. “I love playing football. The more I play, the stronger my legs will be.”
The aim of frame football, says Rafidah, is to give children with CP an opportunity to excel in sport despite their limited mobility.
“This is also an option for their future. If they are not accepted in school, they can play sport and for children with CP, the types of sport they can be a part of are limited. Frame football gives them the opportunity to be a part of a sport and not just any sport ... football. Everyone loves football,” she says.
Rafidah’s daughter, Izdihar Janna Adzly, 13, is also on the team.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder caused by a brain injury or malformation that occurs while the child’s brain is under development. CP affects one’s muscle tone and posture and although the effect on function ranges greatly, many children with CP find it a challenge to walk unassisted. Some children with CP have tremors, issues with balance and some have intellectial disabilities too.
The game, says Rafidah, also serves as a form of physiotherapy: the more the children train, the stronger they become both mentally and physically.
“It’s a fun exercise. We have four or five children who can now walk independently without their assistive devices because their legs have gotten stronger. And this builds their confidence,” she says.
Arissa is a good example of how the sport can benefit children with CP. When she started training with coach Sunny three years ago, she wasn’t very confident and certainly, not as fast. But now, she’s the quickest on the court and her mother has to remind her to give the other children a chance at scoring.
“She has become a lot more confident in her abilities and a lot less emotional. Sometimes, children with CP tend to be emotional when faced with challenges but Arissa has learnt to be in control of her emotions. Her legs are also a lot stronger and she’s able to control the ball and run better,” says her mother Norazhlina Mohamed.
Alfred Tan, 15, joined the frame football league just about a month ago. He’s a little older than most of the other CP children but Alfred doesn’t care. He looks forward to his weekly training sessions and has made fast friends with some of the other children.
His mother, Yvonne Chua, says that in just four weeks, she’s seen massive changes in her son.
“In the first session, he could barely last 10 minutes on the court. Now, he’s able to play a few games at a go,” she shares.
Although his parents and two younger sisters play games with him at home, Yvonne says that he isn’t ever as enthusiastic as he is with his fellow footballers.
“After the first session with these other children, I could see that he was really enjoying himself. His face lit up. Frame football has given him an opportunity to play a sport with children like him. I think he needed that,” says Yvonne.
For children with CP, frame football isn’t only an enjoyable game but also an opportunity to build friendships and be a part of a group of people who are like them. In mainstream schools, children with disabilities often don’t get opportunities to participate in sport or other activities with neurotypical children.
Worth the effort
For families of children with CP and other disabilities, the challenges are multi-fold: from finding therapy that works to financing the costs of treatments and mobility aids.
The frame football training sessions, which are conducted free of charge, offer some relief to parents.
“Frame football is a great option for my son and it doesn’t cost us anything. Any parent who has a child CP will know how expensive it is. Private physiotherapy can cost up to RM4,000 a month and his (walking) frames cost at least RM1,000 and they have to be changed because of wear and tear,” shares Ramanitharan Annamalay whose son Deebak Raj, 11, was also taking part in the tournament for the first time.
Ramanitharan hopes that frame football will help build his son’s strength. Deebak has been for physiotherapy sessions prior to this but he hasn’t shown much improvement in mobility.
“He can’t walk or even stand without a frame. We took him for various therapies but he didn’t seem to be improving so we stopped because it wasn’t cheap. We are now taking him to Universiti Malaya Medical Centre,” he says.
Building the strength of children with CP was precisely what Sunny had in mind when he started coaching frame football.
His ultimate goal is to get his young footballers to move without having to use frames.
“I want them to be independent so that they can have a better future. There are so many children with CP but not many avenues for them to participate in sports."
"These children need to be active too and with frame football, they get to play a sport, build strength in their lower limbs, improve their endurance, balance and co-ordination too. You should see them play ... they sweat so much and also have a lot of fun,” says Sunny.
A strong advocate for disability sports, Sunny set up the Pan-Disability Football Club in 2006. The club coaches players with various disabilities including the national 5-A-side blind football team (that won the gold medal for the Asean Para Games 2015), partially blind football and amputee football.
CIMB Foundation is the key Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partner for this community project.
“I have a brother who is mentally challenged and has CP. He is 42 now and I couldn’t do anything for him but he has inspired me to give back to the disabled community,” said Sunny.
The frame football training sessions are held every Saturday and are open to any child with CP above the age of five.
“As long as the child is not bedridden and can hold their neck up, they can come for our assessment,” says Sunny.