UEFA's eFootball tournament is bringing the beautiful game closer for one disabled player unable to play the traditional sport.
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The appearance of Finland's Jussi Aalto in the eEURO 2020 play-off qualifiers on Monday underlines how eFootball is levelling the field for disabled players in a way the traditional form of the game could not.
Jussi lives with Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that affects the extension and movement of his joints. The 33-year-old uses a wheelchair and has been playing competitive eSports since 2015.
"For obvious reasons, I can't take part in traditional sports and that's why I take so much pride in the success I have experienced over the last five years," Jussi, 33, explained. "I have found an excellent substitute to playing real-life football, by engaging with eFootball through my PlayStation."
With sport across most of Europe having been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of Europe's top eFootball enthusiasts are finding themselves in the spotlight as they pursue qualification for next month's UEFA eEURO 2020 final tournament.
"It just feels great! UEFA should have more competitions like this in future," Jussi added. "I think the play-offs will be even harder than the group stage matches. But if we play our best game, we have a chance to reach the finals."
Ten countries are already guaranteed their place at the finals, with Finland among ten more competing for the last six spots over the next two weeks.
A national spotlight
Meanwhile in Lithuania, the national team are attracting attention with more than 10,000 viewers tuning into their games online.
"We are glad that during this difficult period, people are finding an alternative to physical sports," said Lithuanian player Donatas Grabarčiukas. "After the group stage interest was high, but after getting through to the eEURO 2020 play-offs the attention on eFootball increased even more. A total of almost 12,500 fans watched one of our matchdays in the group stage. We also received attention from television and the media."
One of the teams facing off against Lithuania will be Spain, who are relishing the challenge.
"It's a dream. I love football and eFootball. Since I was a child, I always dreamed of representing my country and living my passion," said Spain's José Carlos Sánchez.
"I think it's a good moment for eSports. Now people need entertainment and with most people at home, this can be the right moment to show the potential of eSports, how it works and how exciting and emotional it can be for the audience."
How does eEURO 2020 qualifying work?
The play-off tournament is staged over the last two Mondays of April (20 and 27). Teams have been split into two groups of five, who play each other twice in a 'home and away' format on Konami's PES 2020, the official EURO video game. Each encounter consists of two 1-vs-1 matches and the aggregate score decides the winner. The top three in each group qualify for the finals.
Who is in the play-offs?
Play-off Group 1
Austria, Croatia, Finland, Montenegro, Portugal
Play-off Group 2
Denmark, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Spain, Turkey
How can I watch it?
Selected matches will be broadcast on UEFA.com from 17:15 CET on Monday 20 April and Monday 27 April.
Which group winners have qualified already?
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
How will the finals work?
The top 16 national eFootball teams from across the continent will compete in the online final tournament on 23/24 May. The finalists had been scheduled to gather in London in July, but the tournament will now take place virtually.