Wheelchair football breaking down barriers

Wheelchair football breaking down barriers
  • Children with and without disabilities compete in wheelchair football
  • Mandy and Marcel Pierer organised Germany’s first national tournament
  • "We want to establish the Wheel Soccer Cup here in south Germany"

There are some people you simply have to applaud for their remarkable dedication, and Mandy and Marcel Pierer are two such individuals.

The couple took over the MTV Wheelers children’s and youth wheelchair club four years ago and have been leading the group enthusiastically ever since. Last year they also organised Germany’s first nationwide wheelchair football tournament in Stuttgart, where children with and without disabilities competed against each other in wheelchairs.

Their passion for the sport has helped to motivate them, as Mandy explained in an interview with FIFA.com. "Our son is dependent on a wheelchair," she said. "When he was very small and got his first chair, we attended a wheelchair mobility training course. My husband and I sat in wheelchairs for the first time and learned how to use them. The course also offered wheelchair football. That was nine years ago," she recalled, adding with a smile: "After putting the kids to bed, we were so hooked on the game that we all played it with the coaches."

Two years ago, the Pierers competed in a wheelchair football tournament in Berlin with the MTV Wheelers and, after seeing how much the children enjoyed it, decided to organise something similar in Stuttgart. However, the journey from the original idea to the final realisation of the project was a long and difficult one. It took a full two years to organise the event.

"Remember, we’re the parents of three children, one with special needs, and we have jobs, so we didn’t have the time to work on it every day," Mandy said. "We did everything ourselves, from booking the venue to organising and marketing. Not every sports hall is suitable for that kind of event.

"If you invite people to a major inclusive sporting event, you also need a fully accessible venue – and that means doing more than simply ensuring that people can enter the building by wheelchair. You need the right toilet facilities and dressing rooms too. It took a while for us to find the right venue and book a date."

Overcoming inhibitions

Stuttgart’s Citizens of the Year for 2017 were quick to explain why they chose the beautiful game in particular. "Wheelchair football is based on a simplified form of football, and we all know how many people love the sport. Everyone knows the rules and has a good idea of how the game works.

"What’s great about wheelchair football is that it gives kids in wheelchairs the chance to play football. They’re familiar with the game because their siblings play it or because their dads are ardent fans who watch it on TV all the time, so they have an idea about it. Anyone who knows how football works can get started right away."

Inclusion is not just a word in wheelchair football – it’s a way of life. The sport can also help to break down mental barriers and prejudices, as football brings people together by giving them a positive shared experience. "At first, many of the adults thought: 'Wow, are there that many kids in wheelchairs?' Then their able-bodied children get into the wheelchairs, and that’s a difficult thing for parents to see sometimes. But as soon as the game starts, all of those worries and inhibitions disappear," Mandy Pierer explained.

"Some of the kids have said that it’s absolutely exhausting to use the chairs but it’s also great fun. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s not punishing either. It shows that you can go through life and have fun as a wheelchair user. I often see the phrase 'confined to a wheelchair'. That’s such a negative way of looking at it. They can have just as much fun as kids with no disabilities."

The sport has created an unparalleled sense of community and teamwork. Yet when all is said and done, everyone has the same goal: to get the ball in the back of the net.