Barış Telli lost his leg in an accident at the age of four - but has gone on to enjoy renown in his native Turkey and abroad as a talented amputee footballer. "I have never given up on my dreams," he says. "Even with just one leg...”
Article top media content
Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
Chasing a ball led to a life-changing injury for Barış Telli as a small child – he lost his right leg in an accident. But he never fell out of love with the ball.
In fact, the 29-year-old from Turkey nurtured his relationship with football. This love affair has given him positive life opportunities, international renown and the opportunity to show how determination and unbending self-belief can create success against difficult odds.
Barış has gone on to become an extremely accomplished professional amputee footballer who plays for Turkish club İzmir Metropolitan Municipality. He is a seasoned campaigner with Turkey’s national team, and has helped take his country to the international amputee football summits in recent years.
Barış was born in Kırıkkale in Turkey’s central Anatolia region. His life altered dramatically when he was just four years old.
”I had a traffic accident, which happened when I was chasing after a ball,” he recalls.
“I can’t remember the accident happening, but I remember my mother taking me in her arms and screaming. During the time in the hospital, they spent ten days trying to save my leg. When it became obvious that it wasn’t going to work, they had to amputate my leg.”
It was a sad time, but also a time of learning. “At an early age, you don’t realise that you’ve lost one of your legs,” Barış reflects.
“You start living on crutches. When you go outside or to school, the people you see most are ones that remind you of the fact that you’re different from them. You then have to try to catch up with them. My friends would sometimes include me in their games, but for the most part, I was left out. There were many instances when I was hurt.”
Determination saw him through these tough young moments. “It actually gave me ambition as well as making me upset,” he says. “I used it as a sense of motivation. I said ‘I can run, I can play games, I can play football’ – and I was proved right…”
Barış recalls loving football very early on in life. “Before the accident, my father had already come home with a football. I also remember playing in the school yard and the house.”
“But after the accident, I knew I was going to play football, because I was moving about constantly and I had to do something, because I couldn’t release all my energy.”
“I said ‘I can do it, I have one leg, but I can do it’. I started playing by hitting a ball against the wall, on my own.”
Eventually, amputee football put Barış on the path to success. Amputee football is a sector of the sport to which UEFA has given particular backing. Teams comprise seven players, six outfield players and a goalkeeper, and games consist of two 25-minute halves, with a ten-minute rest period in between. Outfield players have lower extremity amputations, and goalkeepers have an upper extremity amputation. Outfield players use forearm crutches, and play without their prosthesis.
“I knew that I wouldn’t be able to play ‘normal’ football,” Barış explains, “But I didn’t know about amputee football. My P.E. teacher introduced me to the amputee football team.” Making full use of his natural commitment and dedication, Barış set out to prove himself. “I never gave up on my dreams,” he insists. “I worked hard and focussed on my dream of becoming a footballer.”
The results have been more than outstanding. Barış fought his way into Turkey’s national amputee football team. In October 2017, he tasted European title glory – Turkey beating England in front of 40,000 fans in the final in Istanbul – and also played in last November’s World Cup final in Mexico, when Turkey lost out to Angola in a final that went to a penalty shootout after a goalless draw.
His list of honours also includes four World Cup third places in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2014. The Turkish team’s exploits have inspired the nation in a country where amputee football has rapidly gained in popularity.
“Being part of amputee football, as a team we are really able to motivate ourselves,” Barış emphasises. “We’ve had great success representing our country, showing people that things aren’t impossible. [At the last European Championship], we proved to the world that we, Turkey, are champions.”
Barış highlights the main technical and physical aspects of amputee football. “One thing that makes our sport different to ‘normal’ football is that we run using equipment – we run using forearm crutches, which means that balance and strength are very important. The most important thing is to get used to it. In training, I focus on conditioning, fitness and speed.”
Barış's special skills have also brought him personal renown on the field, bagging a host of awards and accolades at world and domestic level, and winning the Best Player award at the 2014 World Cup. He has even earned himself the nickname “The Amputee Messi” for his exploits.
“If amputee football wasn’t in my life, I would still be a sportsman,” he insists. “I just love sport, whether it’s football or something else. I would still want to prove myself.”
Amputee football is not the only string to Barış's sporting bow. He is an accomplished para-athlete, winning a high jump silver medal in the European Championships. Add to this excellence in wheelchair tennis – he is the proud holder of a Turkish national title in this discipline.
“My success stems from the love that my family have shown me, that more than anything else” he says. “I want to make them even prouder of me by winning medals.”
Barış has also made his way professionally, becoming a P.E. teacher after studying at university in Ankara. “It was my Mum who wanted me to become a P.E. teacher,” he says. “She was really keen on it – she wanted me to work with children and to motivate them for life, to help teach them.”
“However, because of my special needs, I wasn’t able to find a department at the university where I could study to be a P.E. teacher. But I didn’t want to disappoint my Mum. I undertook training…I never gave up, because I wanted to make my mum’s dream come true – and I became the first physically disabled P.E. teacher in Turkey. I really enjoy playing football with the children – it takes me back to my childhood.”
Barış is eternally grateful to his parents for the love and care they have poured on him, especially after the accident. “My mother and father are like angels,” he says. “They’ve done so much for me. I only have one leg – but they’ve worked so hard in order for me to be able to stand on it.”
Barış is proud to be a role model – someone who has learned to live with a life obstacle, take it in his stride and go on to great things. “Amputee football has helped me become famous in my country and across the world,” he says. “I try to set an example, helping [people] to identify sports they can play or talents they might have.”
Moreover, the words “cannot” or “impossible” have never existed in Barış's dictionary “I want them to get rid of the word ‘impossible,’” he says. “Because nothing is impossible.”
“Nobody believed in me, to be honest. I mean nobody. Everybody made fun of me when I told them about my hopes and dreams. I would just smile back at them – that was the best answer I could give.”
“If you want something and you’re willing to work hard to get it, then you can make your dreams come true, and get to where you want to be.”
Barış is convinced that the values of respect are an essential element of any sport. “Fair play matters a lot to me,” he explains. “I want to reflect fair play in football, that matters more than my talent. I try to play football the way it should be played – the main thing is to play well and give people something to get excited about.”
Why does Barış believe so much in the power, appeal and accessibility of football? “It is important for everyone to play football,” he explains, “because football doesn’t recognise obstacles.”
“Football is a beautiful game. I fell in love with football, and it became everything in my life. The most important thing is to make your dream a reality. I have never given up on my dreams – even with just one leg...”