82b6dfbddb38f81417ef019b0381079178750107 Azeem Amir inspires as FA Disability Cup finals return after Covid break | Healthy Living 101

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The 22-year-old England international Azeem Amir Show caption The 22-year-old Azeem Amir says the experience of lockdown made him realise how football has changed his life.
Football

England international aims to ensure Merseyside retain Blind Cup trophy in festival of disabled football at St George’s Park

Fri 16 Jul 2021 18.19 BST

Azeem Amir is the sort of person who finds solutions while others are still talking about problems. On Sunday the 22-year-old England international will be at St George’s Park, hunting for gaps in the RNC Hereford defence as he aims to ensure Merseyside retain the Blind Cup final trophy they lasted lifted in 2019.

Two years ago Amir, who was born blind in his right eye and with only light detection in the left, scored the winning goal but last July the Covid pandemic saw the FA’s Disability Cup finals cancelled.

This weekend, though, the Blind showpiece is back, forming a key element of a festival of disabled football at England’s Staffordshire base, also featuring the Cerebral Palsy, Amputee, Partially Sighted and Powerchair finals.

For the first time, the weekend is televised live by BT Sport, raising awareness of the playing and coaching opportunities opening up in disabled football. When the Football Association’s former director of football Howard Wilkinson first dreamed up the idea of building a national football centre at St George’s Park, these were precisely the sorts of potentially life-changing events he envisaged it staging.

Amir may be a key beneficiary of Wilkinson’s vision but he is anxious that others share it. While he is a contracted England player training every day, his agreement with the FA also allows him time to work off the pitch promoting disabled football in schools, clubs and organisations across the north-west. Every week he works with – and inspires – hundreds of blind and partially sighted children and adults desperate to be able to participate on the pitch.

On Thursday morning he received a message from the mother of a 12-year-old boy who is registered blind. She had heard Amir speak about his work on the radio and told him “it made things make sense” and that she now realises “anything is possible” for her son.

Small wonder the recent lockdowns represented a significant blow to a footballer dependent on human connectivity for not only his football career but that off-field mission.

While social distancing largely precluded the latter, Amir missed the thrill of travelling across continents to play for England and, on a purely practical level, had to fathom how to train without his customary support network.

Blind athletes road run connected to sighted pacemakers by tethers but those in Amir’s bubble simply could not keep up. “I was too fast for them,” says a man studying for a masters in Sports Management. “In the end we solved it by tethering me to someone on a bike.

“Lockdown was very tough mentally, it was easy to get very down. I really missed normal human interaction and being part of a community, but my family were great. The experience has made me realise how football has changed my life and made me even more determined to de-stigmatise disabled sport and make it accessible to everyone. I’ve got to live my dream, I’ve played football in Japan, Argentina and across Europe, and I want other people to be as lucky.”

At the pandemic’s height Amir worked hard on his close control. He eschewed the match footballs containing the noise making ball bearings that enable blind players to use their ears to track its trajectory and instead perfected his first touch in enclosed spaces. “I’ve been working with a futsal or normal football without ball bearings,” he said. “And I’ve learned to use my touch to dribble forward and from side to side. To find solutions, you’ve got to tap into all your senses.”

Rosie Hodgson has displayed similar dynamism to help her team, Aspire PFC, reach Saturday’s Powerchair final when they face West Brom. Hodgson combines a “day job” as a manager for the Body Shop with regular trips from her Norwich home to train with Watford-based Aspire.

They rank among the pioneers of Powerchair football and Rosie is preparing for her fifth successive FA Cup final. “Playing at St George’s Park is fantastic,” says the newly engaged 23-year-old. “It’s our version of Wembley.”

Born with Gorham-Stout disease, a rare condition stemming from a fault in the development of the lymphatic system and resulting in, among other things, brittle bones, Hodgson’s childhood was punctuated by a series of operations. After being confined to a wheelchair at the age of nine, sport seemed out of the question until a physiotherapist recommended Powerchair.

She barely looked back until Covid struck. “I was absolutely hooked; football has given me so many freedoms, I love the travelling that comes with it,” says Hodgson. “Lockdown was extra hard because I had to shield which made life very difficult – and lonely.

“By the time we returned to training our chairs had been unused for so long we had to do quite a few repairs – but it’s amazing to be back playing and at St George’s Park again. Having the final broadcast live to millions on television is going to be huge.”

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