The Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) is working to give people the chance to play football and make friends through doing so.
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As part of its Football for All Abilities portfolio, UEFA has set up partnerships with a group of organisations with the aim of using football as a tool for broadening the inclusion of players of all abilities, in addition to marginalised or excluded groups.
The programme has enabled each participating organisation to develop long-term activities and set positive targets and objectives. Meanwhile, the organisations themselves have been instrumental in helping people fulfil sporting dreams.
The Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA) is one of the six bodies within UEFA's portfolio, which started in 2012, and is undertaking excellent work in its specific field. CPISRA is an international governing sports body for athletes with cerebral palsy or a related neurological condition. The body's relationship with UEFA stretches back a number of years, and it received UEFA's CHF 1 million Monaco Charity Cheque in 2007.
CPISRA runs its own successful version of football, a modified seven-a-side game. The body has wisely deployed the UEFA charity award, with priority given to establishing a development programme for CP seven-a-side football within Europe. Participants learn team and individual football skills, and can compete and improve their health – in line with UEFA's requirements from its Football for All Abilities portfolio partners.
The CPISRA football calendar is full of opportunities for footballers to excel and make progress. The summit is the Paralympic Games, and European players compete in a seven-a-side European Championship. The latest edition took place in Maia, Portugal at the end of July and served as a qualifying competition for the 2015 World Championship, as well as the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio di Janeiro. It featured some of this continent's best national teams, including Ukraine, Russia and the Netherlands.
Tom Langen is chairman of the CPISRA football seven-a-side committee. "CPISRA creates sporting possibilities in a number of sports for people with cerebral palsy or who, for example, may have suffered a traumatic brain injury or a stroke, or been in a coma for a length of time, and who have coordination problems," he says.
"We have about 64 members worldwide, 33 of these are in Europe, and 37 of our worldwide members play football. Eleven members took part in the European Championship, and we have other countries who play CP football, but who do not yet take part in international competitions."
A number of countries also have national league setups, with national associations offering support, and CPISRA's football organisers are striving tirelessly to continue the progress which has been made. "It's definitely a big challenge to develop the sport," says Langen, who has significant experience, having coached the Dutch CP national team for 22 years.
"We are active on various levels, including educating coaches for CP football. We offer specific support to countries in staging courses or organising tournaments. We have produced one promotional DVD and are finalising another. UEFA's support is extremely valuable because it gives us recognition in what we do."
The pride in playing for a national team is immeasurable. At just 21, Lars Conijn is captain of the Netherlands. "I've played in world and European competitions, and won over 50 caps for my country. Every time I wear the orange shirt, it's a great feeling," says the midfielder.
Conijn began playing at the age of five and has come through the ranks at the WSV 1930 club in his home town of Wormer near Amsterdam. "Although I might be younger than some of my national team-mates, we have a great team spirit, so there's no real problem as captain."
Football has proved to be an invaluable source of development and platform for making friends for many CPISRA players. "I feel that I've developed as a person from when I got into the national team at 16," says Conijn. "I've met people from other countries and cultures. I've experienced a lot of things."
Langen adds: "Football is a stimulating factor. You can see how the players grow in confidence, and how it helps them elsewhere in society. The sense of pride if you're selected for your national team is immense, it has a considerable personal impact." UEFA's backing is helping create a bright future for CPISRA and its football. "I'm very optimistic," Langen reflects. "I'm convinced that things will continue to grow."
And what advice would Conijn give to people who might wish to emulate him? "Never give up," he says. "When I was younger, I wasn't as good a player. But I worked and kept trying. Now playing for the Netherlands has made me another person." Langen chips in: "Go for your dream. Go to your club and ask to play – and if you're good enough, you could end up playing for your country."
CPISRA's role is exemplary, as it fashions its vision of a world where people who have cerebral palsy or a related condition are given a wonderful opportunity to participate in the sport and recreational activity of their choice.