#EqualGame ambassador Barış Telli is encouraging disabled youngsters to follow their dreams as 15 prepare to take part in the UEFA Super Cup match opening ceremony organised by the UEFA Foundation for Children
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Barış Telli lost his right leg above the knee in an accident when he was just four years old. A keen footballer even at that age, he ran out into the road to get his ball and was hit by a car. Twenty-five years later, and a now a European Amputee Football Championship winner with Turkey, he is living proof of what children with disabilities can achieve.
“When physically disabled children see me, they realise they aren’t very different to me,” he says. “If they work hard enough, they will see that obstacles are not as tough as they might have seemed and that nothing can get between them and their dreams. It is very important to me to set an example for children. If I can do it, anyone can do it. They should never give up.”
It is an inspirational message, and one that will have extra resonance for one group of children in particular tonight. Before the match, 30 youngsters aged between 12 and 15 will perform the Bob Marley classic Three Little Birds on the pitch as guests of the UEFA Foundation for Children. Fifteen of them are from the Turkish Sports Federation for the Physically Disabled and 15 from the TRT Polyphonic Children’s Choir. The Foundation’s belief that no child should miss out on playing football has been reinforced at every UEFA Super Cup match since 2015, with kids taking centre stage in the opening ceremony before each game. In Istanbul the children will get the chance to meet the Liverpool and Chelsea players the day before the game and even enjoy a kickabout with them.
After the match during the medal ceremony, Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA President and chairman of the UEFA Foundation for Children, will be joined on the podium by 11-year-old Ali Turganbekov. The young Kazakh was born without legs, but plays football for his local side Nur Orda in Nur-Sultan and dreams of becoming a Paralympic champion. Moments like these can make all the difference.
For Barış Telli, a dream was realised on 9 October 2017 when he helped Turkey beat England 2-1 in the final of the European Amputee Football Championship in front of 40,000 people at the Beşiktaş Arena. “One word: Fantastic! You just forget all the negatives and difficulties you’ve had. You feel you’ve achieved something. You see the happiness of the people who had faith in you and your team-mates and you say, ‘We did it!’ The nicest thing of all is that we, Turkey, helped raise awareness for amputee football around the world thanks to that huge crowd and the interest in the game.”
That inaugural tournament was a breakthrough moment for the sport and Barış has been pushing boundaries for amputee football ever since. Earlier this summer, he and another amputee footballer, 11-year-old Scot Keeley Cerretti, were invited by UEFA’s Equal Game campaign to Madrid to play at the Champions Festival ahead of the UEFA Champions League final.
UEFA Champions League greats Roberto Carlos, Cafú and Luís Figo also took part in the game to showcase amputee football, playing with crutches to gain an insight into the demands of the sport. “They are legendary players who I used to watch and admire,” Barış says. “It made me excited just to hear their names and share their happiness and achievements when I was a kid. To play with them on the same pitch was even more exciting.”
Barış was far from overawed by the occasion. Indeed, one piece of outrageous skill left Roberto Carlos open-mouthed as Barış feinted one way then went the other to beat the Brazilian with a Ronaldinho-esque elastico move that soon spread across social media. “I still can’t forget the look on his face,” laughs Barış.
“I enjoyed it a lot. It was a dream to be with those football legends and play with them. It was so much fun. Doesn’t football unite the world and make life more enjoyable and colourful? Aren’t the emotions created by playing football equal for everyone? Sharing the same feelings, the same excitement … Events like that show the beauty of football and help bring people together.”
Putting children first
The UEFA Foundation for Children is a charitable organisation launched in 2015 to defend the rights of underprivileged children by using football to improve their lives and help them develop their potential. This is the fifth year that it has been involved with the UEFA Super Cup, staging thought-provoking opening ceremonies to shine a spotlight on issues facing children across the world.
In Tbilisi in 2015, 1,000 children from war-torn European countries held hands on the pitch to form a human chain and deliver a strong message of peace. In Trondheim in 2016, the Foundation took part in the launch of Handicap International’s Stop Bombing Civilians campaign to create awareness that most victims of bombings are children.
In Skopje in 2017, a choir integrating deaf and mute children performed Coldplay’s A Sky Full of Stars using sign language to stress the importance of integrating children with disabilities. Then last year in Tallinn a choir of partially sighted children and normal-sighted boys and girls performed Florence and the Machine’s You’ve got the Love, delivering messages of integration and hope.
Since 2015, more than 800,000 children have benefited from the work of the foundation, which has been involved in over 180 projects in 94 countries worldwide.
This article appears in the official UEFA Super Cup programme