Australia’s inspirational Pararoos were all set for a huge 2020.
After a solid showing at last year’s *IFCPF World Cup in Spain, plus a spine-tingling 5-0 home win against Canada at Cromer Park last November – their first FIFA-sanctioned fixture on home soil in decades – Australia’s national football team for athletes with cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury, or symptoms resulting from stroke were hatching plans to take their game, and their unique format of football, to new levels this year.
A training camp aligned with the Socceroos’ FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualification matches in early June was in the works.
So too was a return to continental Europe next month, where another tournament on the IFCPF calendar was on the cards.
Then came COVID-19 – the global pandemic that swiftly flicked the pause or abort switch on almost every football league or competition across the globe, and in its wake pushed the Pararoos’ plans back twelve months.
“Personally, I had grand plans of going there (to Spain) and trying to win the tournament this year, and I think most of the boys felt the same,” Pararoos stalwart Benny Roche told the latest edition of the FFA Podcast.
“The latest we’ve heard from IFCPF, our governing body, is that they will look to shift the tournament to next year. So, we will alter our timings and make that our goal.
“As difficult as it may be, we (the Pararoos) are no strangers to overcoming obstacles and I think it actually works in our favour sometimes when those challenges are thrown at us.
“So, we will stay focused and keep pushing to hopefully bring home a trophy (in 2021),” he said.
While there has been a seemingly endless well of stories, posts and videos of professional and amateur sportspeople from across the globe working to be fit and ready for when their sport resumes post-COVID-19, Pararoos players including Roche, and his rapidly emerging teammate Taj Lynch, have quietly been going about their business.
Throughout the pandemic, the Pararoos and CP (cerebral palsy) footballers from underpinning Member Federation programs have been able to log on to a dedicated website to access tools and resources to maintain their fitness and focus.
It’s all part of the squad’s broader plan and mission to grow their format of the game – CP football is played with seven players per side on a smaller pitch with no offsides – and inspire the 20 per cent of Australians living with a disability to make football their sport of choice.
And the Pararoos their team of choice.
“We have got a website set up at the moment which has a lot of resources for physical training, conditioning, our technical skills football wise, (and) a lot of mental health stuff as well,” Lynch, who has risen through the Pararoos’ ranks over the past three years, explained.
“This was set up by our Strength & Conditioning & Tactical Coach, Tim Palmer, and then we distributed that website down through the state programs as well so that all the players, not just the Pararoos players, have access to the information.”
“We were in a good place, especially after the Canada game, and had a very positive outlook going into this tournament (in Spain). But I think this (COVID-19) isn’t going to deter us as a team, or as individuals. I know that all of us are still training hard and I know that we will be in a better position come the tournament next year than we would have been this year.”
Roche added: “I think for a long time with disability sports it has always been put to the side, and it could only be at a certain level. At times it was a bit of a pat-on-the-back project.”
“(But) I see it quite differently. I picture that the Pararoos can be alongside the Socceroos and the Matildas and eventually become a name that people know.
“In Australia there are about 36,000, 37,000 people living with cerebral palsy. So, there are people out there and we want to show that the world game is available to them.
“You have the most common physical disability, so there are kids out there who want to play the game, you have got the world game, it’s entertaining, and I think there is an opportunity to grab it and grow it.”
The Pararoos have been a part of Roche’s life for nearly twenty years, when he first saw the squad play in October 2000 at the Sydney Paralympics.
While Roche’s career with the Pararoos is far from over, Lynch is part of the younger brigade that will be charged with carrying the torch for the team in the future.
Indeed, Lynch made his entrance to the world just a month after the conclusion of the Sydney Paralympics.
Born with cerebral palsy, Lynch saw physiotherapists growing up at Sutherland Hospital, and commenced playing football at the age of four with the Engadine Eagles.
He hasn’t looked back.
“I think my first experience (of the Pararoos) was when I went down to the University of Wollongong and there was a small training session on the basketball courts,” Lynch said.
“Chris Pyne and Ben Atkins, who are both players, were the coaches at the time and there would have been maybe six or seven of us training there.
“From there I got invited to a state training camp and it kind of just snowballed. You go through the state system, you play at nationals, and then if you impress the coach, you get to go to a national team camp and see where that takes you.”
And where has the Pararoos taken Lynch, all before his 20th birthday?
Argentina, Spain, and the unique destination of Kish Island off the coast of IR Iran in the Persian Gulf.
“I had just finished year 12 and most of my classmates were going to Fiji, which was a bit of a different island (compared to Kish Island),” he joked.
“They were going for schoolies, meanwhile we were on Kish Island playing on a pitch that was more dirt than grass.
“It felt very other-worldly at times. The island itself was almost like it was half built and abandoned. There were a lot of buildings that were just half structures and then next door is a car store with a Lamborghini out the front.
“It is so awesome to have unique experiences like that and when you travel and see the world through football it is really, really different to just visiting somewhere.”
People interested in finding out more about the Pararoos can visit www.pararoos.com.au. CP Football program information can be requested to the team via the Pararoos’ social media channels. Tax deductible donations (over $2) to support the team in their inspiring local and global efforts can be made via the Australian Sports Foundation
*IFCPF: International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football