Participating in team sports is something many people take for granted. But for powerchair footballers, that has until recently not been a given.
“I was told when I was younger that I would probably never be able to play sport, particularly team sports,” said Queensland Powerchair Football Association (QPFA) Secretary Tristram Peters.
With few options available, it seemed the Manchester City fan would be confined to enjoying football from the sidelines.
But a 2011 French powerchair association delegation sent to introduce powerchair football to Australia changed that.
Powerchair football is an adapted football form that involves teams of four players who use powerchairs for mobility passing and kicking a 13-inch football to score goals.
It is played across two 20-minute halves on a regulation-size basketball court.
Peters immediately fell in love with the sport and has been playing it ever since.
The game is extremely different from the social ballgames Peters first encountered when he attended a muscular dystrophy camp when he was four years old.
“We would pump up a kind of giant balloon and move it about,” he said.
“The focus was on the sport being social.”
With powerchair players’ strikes seeing the ball travel at speeds of 40 or 50 kilometres per hour, the sport is as competitive as football played on grass pitches or futsal courts.
“That’s what drew me to it,” Peters said.
“For people with severe physical disability like myself who require wheelchairs, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities.
“It was difficult to find something to suit our competitive edge. For us, [powerchair football has] been phenomenal.”
While its outdoor equivalent is Australia’s most-played sport, with some 1.1 million participants, powerchair football is Australia’s fastest-growing sport for people who use wheelchairs.
There are now more than 100 players nationally, with Queensland alone boasting clubs in Brisbane and both the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.
“It’s an absolutely amazing sport. It’s grown in leaps and bounds,” Peters said.
“There are now teams in places like India, and we have been talking to Singapore about setting up a league … I definitely think football is the world game.
“It’s opening up new pathways for people to play it in its various forms.”
And while participation rates are growing, so too are spectator rates.
“Previously, it was family and friends coming to support,” Peters said. “Now we’re starting to get spectators who don’t have any affiliation to any of the current players in the sport, which is terrific.
“Any spectator who comes along can see that it’s football, just played in wheelchairs. That’s a massive drawcard,” Peters said.
As Peters noted: “We’re not playing a disability sport. We’re just playing sport. There’s definitely a lot of skill involved.
“Like every other footballer, we’re practising every weekend to improve our skill level.”
Queenslanders will get an opportunity to see the sport and the required skills firsthand.
Queensland will for the first time host the Australian Powerchair Football Association (APFA) national championships at Brisbane State High School, South Brisbane, in September.
As two-time national champions, the Queensland powerchair team will be hoping to, buoyed home-crowd support, make it three in a row.
Peters is aware that, as an athlete who was told that competitive team sports were likely off limits to him, “to represent Queensland is a dream come true”.
But more than anything, he said, it’s amazing to experience the camaraderie of playing alongside his teammates, all of whom have overcome significant challenges of disability and funding to be able to participate.
As in other football codes, Queensland’s traditional powerchair rival is New South Wales.
“They were the first to have an official powerchair league,” Peters explained.
“We’ve always been the underdog, coming into the tournament later. It’s always been an amazing game.
“Last year, we played New South Wales in the final and we were 3–1 down, then scored two goals to equalise, then two in extra time.”
In fact, Peters said: “The nationals is probably the best introduction to powerchair football. It’s showcasing the best athletes from across Australia and New Zealand.
“Once people see it, they fall in love with it and want to play it. For many, they don’t know it exists yet.”
Which means at least part of his role within and beyond QPFA is introducing people to the sport.
That effort is being helped by some inter-football inclusion and support—the embodiment of the recently held Commonwealth Games’ legacy aim of inclusivity.
Clubs such as the Brisbane Strikers, Brisbane City and Moreton Bay United provide such sponsorship as jerseys, and QPFA President Tom Dickson was invited to do the coin toss at the recent FFA Cup match between the Lions FC and Olympic FC (at which Lions ran out victors 3–2).
“What he really appreciated was that they did an announcement of who he was and why he was there,” Peters said.
“Now he’s getting lots of enquiries about the sport and helping out.”
If all goes according to plan, powerchair football will be included in the 2024 Paralympics — the outcome of the application should be known in December — but running a successful national championships is first on the agenda. And there’s plenty to prepare before then.
It’s possible to support the QPFA, both financially and by volunteering.
“We’re newly formed and a lot of us incur costs in our daily lives as it is,” Peters explained.
“For instance, we get some support from the government, but we have to pay gaps. To be able to pay to go to competitions or to be able to buy sports chairs is difficult.”
The American-built Strikeforce sports powerchairs alone cost around $20,000, and players also need to pay for transport, accommodation, and carers to travel with them.
The QPFA is running a fundraising campaign, with all the proceeds going directly to the players to help them meet the costs of participating in the tournament.
There are also volunteer roles available.
“We’re currently training up a number of referees,” Peters said.
“We also need scorekeepers and people to assist behind the scenes as at any sort of national event. There are roles for all skill sets.”
The national championships will run from Tuesday 25 September to Saturday 29 September inclusive. Matches will be played between 10am and 5pm daily and will also be livestreamed.
To find out more about, and contribute to, powerchair football and the upcoming national championships, visit www.qpfa.org.au.
Words: Fiona Crawford
Images: Queensland Powerchair Football Association, Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images